Until recently, I figured that my having been bombarded by diverse musical styles was a unique experience. After all, it’s not everyday that you find a teenager who is as interested in a song’s guitar riffs as in the intricacies of the sitar. In the past few years, I’ve found that there is a sudden emergence of other South Asians, like myself, who have been exposed to seemingly incompatible genres of music.
One example is the band Hella Original made up of two South Asian teens, Sai Boddupalli and Vishak Viswanathan, in San Jose, Calif. I’ve known one of the members, Sai, since fifth grade and have always known that he shares my interest in all types of music. Over the years, Sai has told me about various bands and collaborations that he has attempted with other people our age, but his current duo seems to have really hit the mark. Hella Original’s music is classified as indie rock (no pun intended)—a term that has become increasingly mainstream. “Indie rock” describes all rock bands that make their own music, record their own music, and promote themselves without the aid of popular media influences like radio and television.
Hella Original is markedly influenced by their Indian heritage and other classical mediums. Sai is a self-proclaimed fan of music from the English Renaissance and a big fan of Bach as well. The 16 year old has recently bought a mandolin, which is to be a new addition to the band’s repertoire; he was inspired by Indian musician U. Srinivas, who performs different ragas on the instrument. Although Sai and Vishak are also heavily influenced by popular musicians such as John Mayer and John Legend, they say that their training in classical Indian music is undeniably a factor in the music they make: “The other day,” Sai says, “Vishak and I were listening to one of our songs and we realized that it actually matches up with the Karnatik scale.”
I never really thought that Indian music had a place in the American popular market. I always drew a distinction between the music of “my culture,” music that I had grown up with, and that of the masses. When you grow up listening to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on the radio, sitars and tablas don’t seem to be ’N Sync with that type of style. I knew that South Asian musicians like Freddie Mercury of Queen and Tony Kanal of No Doubt never displayed their culture in their music, which didn’t really help open up the popular sphere to Indian musicians. In fact, Mercury changed his name from Farrokh Bulsara to alias Freddie Mercury. He never mentioned his Indian heritage or that his parents were Parsis from Gujarat, despite the fact that he had spent his adolescence in India and was supposedly a grand aficionado of Lata Mangeshkar.
But times have changed. In fact, Indian influences are present today in even the most unexpected types of music. Today, you can find a plethora of South Asian artists who incorporate different types of Indian music into their own hip hop inspired music. From the likes of popular artists from the U.K., such as Rishi Rich and Jay Sean, to U.S.-based artists like rappers Nivla and Bohemia, it is clear that there is more of a willingness to display one’s cultural heritage through music. Each of these artists has been featured on Indian MTV and have gained recognition in the mainstream music circuits around the U.S. and the U.K.
This expression of culture isn’t going unnoticed either. Rapper Nivla was a contender in the Doritos challenge for the Super Bowl, in which independent artists from around the country sent in their music to be voted on. The winning video got the ultimate prize: a chance to have their music shown on live television during the super bowl. Although Nivla didn’t make the cut, he and his entourage were in the top few artists voted for in the competition. The song “Koi Naa,” a mixture of rap with a bhangra-style chorus, has now gained popularity through the Doritos challenge and is part of the South Asian record label, Soultap Records.
Although I’m pretty sure my own strange concoction of rock and ragas may never become mainstream, I personally take comfort in hearing more and more popular music with South Asian influences. Rishi Rich, Nivla, and even my friends in Hella Original are proving that there are ways of adopting a new culture while keeping the basis of an old one intact. After all, isn’t that what globalization is all about?
Sanjna Parulekar will be a senior at Presentation High School in San Jose, Calif.