Did They Ask You Where You’re From?

“My tribe is a quest to a land that was lost to us”

Riz Ahmed – The Long Goodbye

If you’re in my inner circle, you know that I struggle with my cultural identity quite a bit. I did touch on this a little in Screwing the Light Bulb, but I’m going to expand on this a little more. I stopped feeling comfortable in Indian clothes around the same time that I stopped feeling accepted at Indian parties with my parents and their friends. I felt out of place, and I remember carrying that feeling with me to college as I would walk around with my best friends, knowing I looked nothing like them and feeling the eyes of the Desi kids staring at me as if I felt like I was better than them. But I didn’t. I just felt unaccepted. Hip-hop became my safe place, becoming so much of who I am today. But I still felt a similar sense of not belonging, the way I stupidly feel with my white friends who love my culture and don’t even notice the color of my skin, or the Indian kids that in reality, don’t even pay me any mind. These insecurities may be stupid and in my head, but they’ve caused me a lot of internal turmoil nonetheless. 

I acknowledge that I cannot relate to the African-American experience that inspired hip-hop. Yes, South Asians have been discriminated against. We have experienced racism plenty. But we have our own experience and our own hardships. Why do we try to profit off of others’ struggles when we’ve had them as well? There are so many South Asian dudes with the same fade who all want to be Drake, that think that because they’re a sneaker-head, they understand the culture. I’m talking to you NAV, AKA one of the most garbage rappers ever. NAV is loved by brown guys everywhere because he’s a hype beast. He makes music with Drake, Travis Scott, and other big rappers. How he got those collabs, I have no idea. In reality, his rhymes are trash and he thinks he can say the N-word. He’s a culture vulture. In fact, he even said that he took a lot of flack for Indian rappers everywhere, which I’m sure has a degree of truth, but I wouldn’t say he’s the representation incredible artists have worked hard to achieve. Shit, I’ll do a whole blog post about that. He does absolutely nothing different, and nothing to put on for his heritage, which isn’t an obligation in any way. That doesn’t make him any less Indian. But don’t act like a pioneer, disrespecting all of the artists who paved the way for YOU.

It was then that I realized, there actually are a lot of South Asian rappers out there, who do represent their culture and share their experiences. Who don’t try to profit off of anyone else. Who speak about what they can relate to, and what they understand. This research came after I found one incredible piece of art that changed my way of thinking. I found artists who incorporated South Asian music without making it comedic or stereotypical, instead making it beautiful masterpieces that used different styles, genres, and languages. Even if it was subtle beats or just flat out rapping over Indian music, it became something that I could actually be proud of and claim because it felt so much like the blend of a person that I am.

Riz Ahmed is one of few South Asian actors. His thick British accent and fair skin has ensured that he hasn’t been subject to stereotypical ‘Taxi-Driver’ roles, but instead much more morose and serious characters, featuring in films such as Venom and Rogue One. However, he is also known as an MC and an activist. The latter did not surprise me very much, but I had no idea what kind of music he made. I expected a Panjabi MC style, which I’ve also written about in Screwing the Light Bulb. I thought it would be a similar sound, full of heavy beats with lyrical energy. In fact, I found out about his new album from a video he did with Hasan Minhaj and Guz Khan, two other notable South Asian actors/comedians. In the video, they discussed prominent British-Indian singers and MCs and the effect they had on their work, but also their responsibility as South Asian celebrities in the spotlight. But once I played through the album, I realized that this was unlike anything I could have imagined.

I quickly learned that Riz has actually had quite a bit of success with his music and yet I had never heard of his group, Swet Shop Boys. With two critically acclaimed albums, he was even featured in the Billboard featured soundtrack, Hamilton Mixtape, which I’m sure you’ve heard of. His song has a beautifully strange collaboration featuring himself, Snow The Product, Residente, Daveed Diggs, And the incredible K’Naan on a track called “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)”. Sounds fitting. But man, when I tell you that this song is fucking effective, I mean it. The mix of Spanish and English, the bits of Hindi, it hits you. K’Naan’s verse is one of hope and beauty, explaining that “you can be an immigrant without risking your lives or crossing these borders with thrifty supplies, all you gotta do is see the world with new eyes”. Snow Tha Product, who I was never too much of a fan of, changes my opinion with just one verse, claiming that “racists feed the belly of the beast with their pitchforks, rich chores done by the people who get ignored”, rhythmically incorporating Spanish to emphasize her point. The video is just as powerful, featuring immigrants and refugees, fleeing, working, struggling. In fact, one of the actors featured in the video is actually a famous Indian actor named Irrfan Khan, known for his border-crossing films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Namesake. Unfortunately enough, I wrote this post just hours before hearing about his devastating death. This piece of work exemplified the brilliant creations that he chose to be apart of, each one telling a beautiful story and making an incredible point to showcase his culture with pride, whether it was a Bollywood movie, a Hollywood movie, or anything in between. With that being said, if you see any famous actors from other countries that you recognize, please comment below. It does really hurt to watch, especially because this video was released in June 2017, and the dangers and conditions for immigrants have just gotten significantly worse. My parents came to this country years ago, and while their journey was different, their struggle was no less difficult. Seeing everyone in the video, from brown skin to black skin to white skin, shows that immigration is a global issue, one that affects everyone, and unfortunately, it won’t be getting easier any time soon. But this wasn’t Riz’s only contribution to the immigration issue. 

Riz’s newest project The Long Goodbye, had a very similar effect. The video for the project, which features a few of the spoken word pieces, opens up to a family gathering. The elders, Riz, a young child, and a few other family members are in the living room while the sisters are upstairs getting ready for a wedding. It’s peaceful and loving, but things inside of the house slowly start to get chaotic as stress takes over. Everyone is frantically trying to perfect everything with their makeshift setting, clearly frustrated by the approaching outcome. But things take an even worse turn as Riz looks outside to see black vans flooding his neighborhood, with one pulled into a driveway attacking his neighbors, another approaching their house. As he screams to gather everyone, it’s clear that they are in danger as the intruders search for those that fit their racist descriptions. The police barge through the door, the loud screams meeting with the music that felt like it would never reach. But by this point, you’re so engrossed with the terror in this film that you forget that it’s even for an album. The strong percussion meets Riz’s voice, urgently keeping up with the beat despite the difficulty to make out what he’s rhythmically saying. The one line that always manages to stand out is, “my truth is brown”. His line stating that “this is my house” contrasts with him being dragged out of his home, depicting that his pale enemies don’t hold the same belief. He asks questions things like “who gave you jewelry” and “who made you food to eat”, maintaining a similar theme to his song from Hamilton, showing some of the ways that his culture contributes to society, only for it to be met with hatred. After being shot to the ground, Riz looks on to see the violent aggressors meeting with the police as if they’ve done nothing wrong, an issue that has taken its own form in the US in the shape of police brutality. As he is lying face down the first part of what feels like a resurrection, to not only his rap but his energy and anger, includes the question that he asks out loud, “did they ask you where you’re from?” This question burns in my soul as I’ve reflected on it so many times. I’ve had discussions with my parents about it, as they’ve worried about my safety as a young brown woman. In the face of racism, they don’t care about genealogy or your ideology. My religion has been targeted with hate crimes, confused with Islam. Islam has been targeted with hate crimes, made to be synonymous with terrorism. I get accused of stereotypes that don’t even relate to my country. They don’t care about the truth, just what they want to see. My heart burns for all of those who have to endure such things, those who have to suffer because of ignorance and misconceptions. He continues poetically, rhyming that “the question seems simple but the answer’s really long”, showing that the answer isn’t black or white. You can reply that you were born a citizen, or that you have belonged to a country for years, but your appearance will betray you, leaving people unsatisfied with the simplest response. The video continues with him questioning his roots, his culture, his belonging. This situation has replayed in many different years in many different countries. Often times we are blind to it because we have the privilege to be. Often times we forget about the struggles of others. But this video will open your eyes, and I strongly suggest checking it out. I would like to warn that it is extremely difficult to watch, but it is worth it.

The rest of the album is amazing. These are songs that I would love to hear on the radio, with the lyrical content not being compromised to create a catchy hit. It features other South Asian names, such as Mindy Kaling and Hasan Minhaj speaking over interludes, encouraging him through his “break-up” (which I will dive into), and Jay Sean, one of the first Indian artists I’ve experienced on the radio, on the chorus of another track. The rest of the album holds a lot of South Asian influences, and almost sounds like a Desi equivalent to Jidenna’s The Chief, using story-telling and cultural sounds to describe his roots. One of the most interesting aspects of the album is the reference to a girl named Brittney, a fairly Western name. This stands out against the tribal beats and Pakistani references. It ends up being just one of the ways he refers to Britain throughout the album, personifying the country as a woman who’s really done him dirty. He shows the difference in cultures, while also highlighting the xenophobia in the UK, especially during Brexit. It showcases the ways the country turned its back on its South Asians, specifically the Muslims, during a worldwide issue, treating them with deceit. In one of my favorite songs from the album, “Toba Tek Singh”, Riz uses the name of a Pakistani city associated with a short story about a Sikh inmate from the town. The inmate was to be transferred to the opposing border during the Partition, an event in history dividing India and Pakistan, one that plagued my family and my culture, and yet was never discussed during History class. The story ends with the man lying in the unclaimed area between the two lands, as referenced in the song when Riz says Britain, or Brittney, “left me in no man’s land”. His song, “The Breakup (Shikwa)” also uses this metaphor of Britain as a woman, opening the song by saying “Britain broke up with me”, only to further explain his relationship with her by describing “this stray pale chick [that] came to trade”. The most beautiful thing about this song is how Riz’s poetic raps lay over a beautiful song, similar to a Muslim ghazal, or Arabic poem. His album continues to discuss themes like being randomly selected, lacking a cultural identity, frustrating tensions between India and Pakistan, having his country of Britain turn its back on him, and other things that I have definitely related to despite being of a different faith. It hurts, but it’s beautiful to see how he’s incorporated this story-telling culture of hip-hop, describing his trials and tribulations, while remaining true to himself.

One song that this album reminded me of was from Mindy Kaling’s adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral. In this newly diverse version, a young Pakistani man falls in love with a beautiful mixed girl. What resulted was a gorgeous take on Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”, called “Dheemi Dheemi”. The song incorporates jazz, Hindi, Urdu, and rap to create a soothing fusion with one of the first Hindi songs I’ve seen on a Hulu show that wasn’t necessarily an Indian production. In the remake, the main character is reprimanded for not following his corporate job and at one point for not falling for a traditional girl that his family would have ideally liked. Following his heartbreak, he tries a more culturally traditional approach to dating but finds that it doesn’t work for him. And yet, despite his inability to find love within his culture, he still uses it to bring comfort and to explain how he’s feeling. This shows that even if you can’t embrace your heritage in certain ways, it doesn’t take you away from where you’re from. I’ve always fantasized about having a lavish Indian wedding and growing a close Punjabi family, and yet my dating history says otherwise. But whenever I get hurt, the first thing I turn to is my favorite Bollywood songs to bring me solitude and take me home. The song, which was actually created by Naughty Boy and features Vishal Shekhar and Hussain Manawar, uses traditional Indian beats to include both the original melody, as well as a Hindi version on occasional choruses. The raps include lines of societal pressures that weigh down on the initial heartache, contributing to the confusion and frustration that the lead faces. 

Another Indian MC is Utkarsh Ambudkar, a Gaithersburg born actor known for his roles in The Mindy Project and Pitch Perfect. Both roles avoid Indian stereotypes for the most part and find ways to incorporate his musical talent. In fact, in The Mindy Project, he plays the role of Mindy’s younger brother who inspires to be a rapper. While she plays a Doctor, she continues to support his dreams no matter how far-fetched they may seem. His cute, quirky raps don’t overtly reference his culture too much, but he is extremely vocal about it on social media, often utilizing his rhythmic skills to highlight his characters of South Asian origin. However, in his song “We Go High”, he recognizes how he felt after the 2016 election, with his mother pleading for him “to be the best you, you can’t possibly be in this country that’s free”. He even fights the idea of picking up and going to a different place by saying, “this is where you come from, we didn’t build a life for you so you could pick up and run”, acknowledging everything that immigrants had to do to get to the so-called ‘land of the free’.

Humble, The Poet is definitely one of the more outspoken yet prolific artists. He keeps his hair long and wrapped under a turban, with a long luscious beard to represent his faith: Sikhism. I keep my hair long, but unwrapped for a similar reason, allowing it to be just one of the features that showcases what I believe in, along with a large lion tattoo and a silver Kada bracelet on my right wrist. He often features Lilly Singh in his videos, including having her come out as bisexual in his video for H.A.I.R. In the video, he has gorgeous women of all shapes and sizes singing along to the words, making you wonder if he’s referring to their hair or his own. She reps her Sikh faith as well, with both of them showing just how impressive their raps are. His videos, raps, and beats often reference his culture, whether through clothing, visuals, and more inconspicuous ways. He’s even utilized his following to go on programs such as The Breakfast Club to talk about his faith and inspiration for his music. They both do a lot to speak out for women, advocating for body positivity, consent, and other topics not often discussed in South Asian culture, especially by men. 

While in my opinion, rappers like Nav don’t shine Indians in the best light, it is still cool to see an Indian rapper on the charts. Although I wish it was just overall a better rapper, South Asian representation in the entertainment industry has increased exponentially in a more positive light. Although I oftentimes feel frustration with where I’ve come from, many of the values conflicting with my own, seeing the pride that those in the spotlight feel with their background gives me a bit of hope. It makes me want to embrace it more as well. I was always confused; I never wanted to be too Indian, but I never wanted to be not Indian enough. The result ended with a young, obviously brown woman who didn’t know who she was, where she belonged, or what to feel. To see rappers create content about feeling a similar feeling, a similar sense of not belonging felt like I finally had just that: a place to belong. There was something that separated me from a lot of the music that I loved. An inability to relate. I sympathized, but I could never comprehend the levels of the content. This, however, was different. Hearing that others are just as frustrated with that mocking question of where they’re from, or wanting to be acknowledged without being misrepresented, I understand that. They took solace in a culture that I did as well and found a way to contribute to it without disrespecting its roots. 

As always, you have a Spotify playlist featuring all of this week’s song mentions. You also have the latest releases from the last two weeks created by some of my super talented friends. As you can probably tell, I made a few changes to the site so make sure to check those out! If you’d like to submit your music, make sure to do so through the submissions page. Follow the blog and share with your friends! Hope you’re all staying safe and keeping your spirits lifted. ♥

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