Cultural (Dis)respects of Hip Hop

Village Voice has this story on Young South Asians’ Love-Hate Relationship with Hip-Hop’s New Indian Beats
Mix This by Tina Chadha talks about the tensions in the music industry of hip hop and myths of cultural purity.

Belly dancing is Middle Eastern, not Indian. But you wouldn’t know from
videos of Indian-influenced hip-hop. Ever since Timbaland accidentally
bought an Indian CD five years ago, artists from Missy Elliott to Bubba
Sparxxx to Justin Timberlake have turned to outdated Indian tracks to
make crowds gyrate. Although they may not know Bollywood from bhajans,
and their lyrics sometimes contain misguided stereotypes, they’re
making Indian music more popular here than ever.

This week, the U.K.’s Panjabi MC is dropping his American debut, which
could set the record straight. His hit “Beware of the Boys” has pumped
through Indian kids’ CD players for nearly a half-decade, and is now
(with a couple of verses by Jay-Z) racking up 3,200 spins a week in the
U.S. So young Indians are hoping they’ll finally get some cultural
respect, starting with the word Punjabi, pronounced “Pun-jabi” not
“Poon-jabi.” (Though it is spelled Panjabi sometimes.)

“Some hip-hop artists don’t give a shit about Indian people,” says
Vidya Murthy, a 23-year-old in marketing at an entertainment magazine,
reacting to the belly dancing and harems in videos for songs like Truth
Hurts’ “Addictive” and Erick Sermon’s “React” that clearly sample
Indian music. Sunaina Maira, author of Desis in the House, a study of
second-generation Indian Americans growing up in New York, says that
for young Indians these images bring back memories of growing up
unrecognized and of confronting racism.

And promo visuals aren’t the only way entertainers are carelessly
profiting from Indian culture. Sermon baffled those who understood the
Hindi hook in “React.” The translation goes, “If someone wants to
commit suicide, so what can you do?” To which he responds, “Whatever
she said, then I’m that.” “It doesn’t flow,” says Samir Bali, a
restaurant consultant from Queens. “If you’re not Indian it sounds fine
but I understand, and everyone I know thinks it sounds stupid.”

“When I see a video or hear a song that’s completely getting it wrong,
it raises the hair on the back of my neck,” says Nandini D’Souza, an
editor at W. “But if they invest in a little fact-checking and
ultimately can shed some light on the difference between turbans, then
rock on.”

Suraj Panjwani, a Manhattan-based financial consultant and aspiring MC,
complains that Indians are cut out of the process. “They have hot
chicks dressed up to look Indian, why not just get real Indian women?”
says Suraj, who flips through CD booklets to see if Indian singers or
producers are credited. Frequently they’re not. Vidya feels insulted.
“We are a part of these artists’ audiences-go to any Indian party, and
the music spinning is always hip-hop. It’s like they don’t appreciate
us as fans,” says the new Stuy Town resident. Now Vidya finds herself
schooling non-Indians whenever a new song comes out.

But constantly explaining your culture is no new task for the estimated
2 million Indian Americans-who, by the way, don’t all eat curry and
have arranged marriages. Give or take the occasional turban-clad cab
driver, tech nerd, or most famously, Apu on The Simpsons, you rarely
see Indians in the media. So the importance of airtime given anything
Indian, even something as arbitrary as a line in a song, drastically
increases. Jay-Z’s rhyming “leave Iraq alone” in “Beware of the Boys,”
as gutsy as it is, nonetheless further confusesa generation that learns
its social studies from MTV. “Recently a radio DJ commented on how
ironic it was that the Panjabi MC song’s become so famous during the
war,” Vidya says. “Clearly to her we’re all the same.” But with the
recent attention on everything Indian-Bollywood flicks on Turner
Classic Movies, Lord & Taylor window displays of sequined kurtis, Mira
Nair working with ABC on the first-ever U.S. Indian-family sitcom,
clubs playing the Panjabi MC song minus Jay-Z-attitudes might finally
be changing.

Some Indians are tired of waiting, though, and are just happy to find
some representation in the mainstream. “It’s gratifying to hear ‘your
music’ at the gym,” says Sejal Shah, a writer in Park Slope. “It was as
if the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack I’d been listening to on my
Walkman had suddenly been picked up by the speakers and was being
broadcast.” For many young South Asians, the first time they heard
“Beware” on the radio is already an indelible, pivotal moment-ask them,
and you’ll hear a lot of “I thought a CD was playing” or “I was so
excited I called a bunch of people, and was like, ‘Holy shit, turn it
on.’ ”

DJ Rekha, whose six-year-old Basement Bhangra party at S.O.B.’s put New
Yorkers on to the music before any remixes, says, “I see Indian kids in
a club who get so excited when these hip-hop songs come on, because for
that one moment they feel visible. They don’t see the
misrepresentations.” Which explains her crowd-rallying command after a
Panjabi MC performance: “Buy the motherfucking CD, and say we have the
power now.”

“There’s a massive world of lyrical style that people need to be
educated on,” says Panjabi MC, who calls bhangra the hip-hop or reggae
of Indian music. (Incidentally, PMC, a/k/a Rajinder Rai, isn’t the
voice you hear in “Beware of the Boys”; he’s actually a producer, DJ,
and rapper. The guy singing over the Knight Rider theme is Labh Janjua,
a Punjabi vocalist.) “Indians haven’t really had any contacts in the
industry, or any idols, or anyone to direct which way to go. So perhaps
I can open the door.”

That’s why DJ Rekha and others are excited that artists like Panjabi MC
and Timbaland’s new protégé, Raje Shwari, an Indian American from
Philly-are breaking onto the charts. Timbaland, the self-proclaimed
creator of this new hip-hop hybrid, says he spends five grand on Indian
albums every time he steps into Tower Records. (Somebody should tell
him about Raaga in Jackson Heights.) “People getting into the beats now
don’t know the history. They play-toy with it,” says the
Grammy-nominated producer, who researches the culture. “These people
have a voice that needs to be heard. We’re trying to make ‘world
hip-hop.’ ”

Tim says he doesn’t think this sound is a passing fad: “It’s different
enough to last.” Even Truth Hurts, who initially didn’t know India was
in Asia, is sticking with the Indian rap game. “I think us just
sampling Indian music and trying to make it our own gets cheesy after a
while,” says Truth. “That’s why I’m working with the new U.K. bhangra
producers, the Krey Twinz. And I’m definitely going to have Indian
people in my video and show the culture.” She’s even set to appear in
an “America meets Bollywood” film. Sermon, who says he didn’t know his
song was offensive until now, promises next time he’ll be more aware.
“With Panjabi MC’s song there is going to be a surge of people asking
questions and learning more,” he assures.

Tower has already reported a huge increase in the number of Indian
albums sold. “Now I have rappers asking for beats,” says Jay Dabhi
(formerly Lil’ Jay), a New York DJ for 12 years who, during non-Indian
gigs, never used to play the vinyl his parents lugged here. “Now it
gets the biggest reaction,” says Jay, who just quit his 9-to-5 job to
produce. Like many other DJs in the Indian party scene, he’s been
mixing Indian music into hip-hop for years.

Raje, singing on both “The Bounce” with Jay-Z and Slum Village’s “Disco
(Remix),” definitely feels the responsibility to represent. “When the
R. Kelly video [‘Snake’] came out, everybody called me,” she says from
the studio at 2 a.m. “One minute R. Kelly is holding a sitar and the
next minute they’re belly dancing with a veil across the mouth. My
answer to that is I’m coming out to let them know what the Indian
culture is.”

And we haven’t heard the last from Panjabi MC, who says he’s getting a
lot of requests from both top hip-hop artists and Indian artists. “One
of my main goals is to fuse the two worlds,” says the DJ. “I would love
to link everybody up, for sure.”



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