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Rapping About Racism Desi-Style

Using hip-hop, South Asian Americans confront bias and create multiracial coalitions

October 21, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Chances are that even those well acquainted with top hip-hop artists have never heard of Rawj, Karmacy, Chee Malabar or D'Lo.

In a new book, Northwestern University professor Nitasha Sharma profiles second-generation South Asian American hip-hop artists who make up a tiny but growing segment of “desis” (a popular term for South Asians in the U.S.).  She shows how these artists identify and work to create coalitions with blacks and other people of color through their hip-hop music.

Published by Duke University Press, “Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness and Global Race Consciousness” confronts the racist attitudes both of desis toward blacks and of whites toward desis.

Little was written about Asian American and black relations when Sharma turned her attention to South Asians involved in hip-hop music in the early 1990s. "I was struck by the invisibility of Asians in scholarly American discourse on race," says Sharma. “More than that, I was concerned about an anti-black racism that seemed pervasive among mainstream South Asian Americans.

The South Asian American musicians she interviewed intentionally draw on the concept of blackness -- the most visible and salient example of American racial identity. “Many of the desi artists I talked with use hip-hop to internally and lovingly critique the insularity, materialism and anti-black racism of their ethnic communities,” Sharma says.

For second-generation South Asians -- whose own experiences of racism often were downplayed by their immigrant parents -- the message of racism in early hip-hop music resonated strongly. Many of the artists Sharma interviewed said they were drawn not only to the sound but also to the lyrics of Public Enemy and NWA.

“Hip-hop spoke to the racism that these young desis encountered in majority white and in mixed communities alike,” says Sharma. “It helped them better understand and define the racism they faced growing up brown in America.”

Sharma emphasizes that there is no single sound of desi hip-hop. Karmacy, for example, is a California-based group of four Indian American men who create an ethnic or fusion hip-hop primarily intended for desi and Asian American audiences. They incorporate the tabla, sitar and other South Asian sounds, styles and content while rapping in Gujarati, Hindi, Spanish and English about immigration, India and white-collar jobs.

On the other hand, Chee Malabar (of Himalayan Project) and Rawj (of Feenom Circle) produce a more “familiar” or traditional hip-hop sound. They rap about the war on terror, racism and capitalism and write songs that draw parallels between black and Asian histories.

“None of these artists are household names in the way that Miss Elliott, Common or Ludacris are,” says Sharma, assistant professor of African American studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “But by drawing upon hip-hop they have demonstrated the political potential of popular culture and the possibility it holds for a more inclusive, less exploitative America.”

Topics: Research