April 18, 2008

Desi DJs serve up hip-hop at Lab School

Unless you spent spring break knocking about the Subcontinent Wes Anderson–style or taking in the club scene on a few select streets in New York City, you’ve probably never heard hip-hop quite like the kind that’s landing in the Chicago area this weekend.

Cultural organizations from both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University have collaborated to organize a three-day series of discussion panels, workshops, and performances that they refer to as HipHopistan, a Sanskrit play on words that translates as “the land of hip-hop.” The most notable of the events located in Hyde Park is a concert, to be held on Friday night in the cafeteria of the Lab Schools, that will feature five hip-hop artists of South or Southeast Asian descent. While HipHopistan is also associated with the annual PanAsia Festival kicking off this weekend, this particular concert promises to be most interesting as a coming-together of some of the most enthusiastic, and stereotype-defying, musicians working in underground hip-hop.

A quick Internet search will turn up the MySpace pages of most of the artists, who range from first-generation Americans Chee Malabar and Abstract Vision, to British imports DJ Rekha and MC Kabir, to the Malaysia-based group Yogi B & Natchatra that will be appearing in their first concert in the United States. YouTube music videos for the artists have hundreds of comments, most of them glowing reviews, and small-time music blogs reveal a dedicated, if highly specialized, core of listeners.

Though their similar South Asian backgrounds are the talking point of the concert, the artists show considerable variety in their places along the spectrum of assimilation. Yogi B & Natchatra’s songs incorporate elements of Indian classical music, a homage to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu from which the members’ families hail; at the same time, their music contains a beat reminiscent of the 1980s East Coast hip-hop that the group cites as an influence, and the group members wear basketball jerseys and bling in a nod to the urban, predominantly African-American aesthetic of their musical forebears. DJ Rekha’s turntable interpretation of bhangra pairs Punjabi lyrics with a bright, modern sound. The other three artists work in English. Not all of their songs get overtly political, but like all good hip-hop, their music is ambitious and textured, and conveys a precisely controlled rage.

It’s easy to note these artists as just a curiosity; other than the fairly mainstream MIA, who is of Sri Lankan descent, few artists working in the popular music genres in America are of South-Asian descent. Indeed, maybe such an association can’t be helped, seeing as how the event itself is meant to promote discussion on the phenomenon of the globalization of hip-hop culture. However, a few of the artists themselves, when asked to think of their music as the product of a very new period in the history of the world, seem baffled that anyone should regard their musical trajectories as unusual. Chee Malabar, who immigrated to the United States when he was 12, started listening to rap because it was the music of the Brooklyn in which he grew up. “I didn’t really grow up around Indians in America,” he says. “Hip-hop was a learning tool.... It made me who I am.” The Malaysian Yogi B also maintains that hip-hop can rightly be produced by artists outside of the black community in which it first originated, noting, however, that his group wears the clothing of said community because “you’ve got to do it proper.”

Both artists expressed a wish to be known as musicians before Asian musicians in particular. After all, some of the performers to appear in the concert work exclusively in English, and all deal with themes in their lyrics that are not distinctly South Asian. They may not come from the same community as your typical hip-hop artist, but all speak flawless English. One is the son of a Nobel Prize–winning economist. The very fact that their work exists sidesteps the stereotype that for immigrants, especially ones of Asian descent, success is only acceptable when it comes in certain established careers.