Hip hop isn’t a religion, but at times while speaking to North Carolina-born, Brooklyn-based hip hop artist “the1shanti,” it’s easy to forget that fact. Perhaps best known for his song “Love and Longing in Bombay,” in homage to Vikram Chandra’s book of short stories by the same name, “the1shanti” speaks about hip hop with the same passion that others use to describe love or faith. Afrika Bambaataa dubbed him “India Bambaataa” because of his commitment to the global community of hip hop, particularly in South Asia. Through a variety of projects, “the1shanti” is steadily attracting attention and acclaim.
“The most beautiful thing about hip hop is the idea of a cultural community,” he says. “It’s basically storytelling—the act of documenting the particular time period in which you exist, and then verbalizing it so that people can understand and empathize with where you’re coming from. Hip hop has always been my frame of reference—there has always been art and there has always been music, but hip hop is a sign of my times.”
Shanti states there was never a doubt in his mind about what he wanted to do with his life—it was always hip hop. He took the name of “the1shanti” when he was 14 as an expression of his life’s mission statement. “There’s this one phrase Emerson writes to Thoreau, ‘All you need to know is that writers write,’” he explains. “To me that is so profound. Everything will fall into place. That’s ‘the1shanti.’ If you do what you are passionate about, that’s what your karma is. You’ll find shanti. For me, it’s music. For others, I’m hoping the creative output I contribute to can help compliment them on their path.”
Hip hop found Shanti on the elementary school blacktop in North Carolina, feeling like a misfit. “I was the smallest kid in the class, so I got picked on a lot,” he says, and being the only Indian kid in school didn’t make things any easier. “When I was eight, some of the older kids took me in, and taught me how to freestyle. It became my best defense: ‘Okay, sure, you can kick my ass, and all these scars and lumps and bruises will be gone by next week. But I’m going to make up a name for you and put it in a rhyme and repeat it, and it’s going to stick with you until the end of the year.’”
While Shanti describes finding hip hop as finding home, he admits that his position within the community is a unique one. “[In elementary school], I was a minority within a minority,” he says. To some extent, this continues to be the case. “I have been looking all my life for someone who has had the same experiences I have. And I’ve found some, but they are not Indian. There have been Indian people behind the scenes throughout the history of hip hop, but not too many of them on the forefront.”
What makes Shanti’s music unique is in some ways difficult to describe. The beat is there and always infectious in his songs—his work, ranging from his solo album India Bambaataa, to his involvement with the group The Dum Dum Project (DDP), and his most recently released collaborative album with Func Spec, carries an intuitive understanding of the rhythm of words. The experience of listening to hip hop (though Shanti rightfully points out the body of work is huge and labels can be the most alienating thing about it) is different for everyone, but for me I hear the sound of it first and then the meaning, and words are used like drumbeats, thoughts measured out and parsed in rhyme that hits your body before your mind.
It seems the term “fusion” is used so often that I don’t even know what it means anymore. Maybe we need a new word to describe Shanti’s music—songs like “Jaani Jaan” with DDP, or the eponymous “India Bambaataa” off his solo album, sample Hindi songs and many more use distinctly Indian beats and instruments. In addition, many songs reference the intersection between Indian and American (“You don’t mind that I speak broken Bangla / I don’t mind that you only dance to bhangra,” Shanti raps on the dangerously catchy track “Bindi” off of The Spice), but what strikes me more than anything is the ease with which his music navigates the tricky boundaries between East and West. In fact, listening to his music, you wonder if such boundaries even exist—the music is natural, danceable, intelligent.
“It all sounds really impressive when you put it like that,” Shanti says when I ask him about his sound. “All I know is that I do what I’ve always done. And what I do is understand and cherish where hip hop comes from. I think it’s an awesome social tool to communicate ideas, dreams, desires. And it’s the superhero thing—with that power comes great responsibility.”
Shanti’s mission with his newest album, The Spice, is to create a body of work that will stand the test of time, “I’m making it for that kid in Calcutta who, five years from now, will find us on the incredible database of iTunes and think, ‘I can’t believe this album came out five years ago, because I’m feeling this way right now.’” Hip hop, like faith, or love, should transcend the boundaries of geography. Shanti aims to make music that people will fall in love with, just like his endless list of hip hop heroes—Afrika Bambaataa, the Fugees, De La Soul. “We’re making something out of nothing, and there are no rules,” he says of hip-hop. “We’re just making it up as we go along.”
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|