Tag Archives: creative

The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ideals Shared by India and America

For 25 years, Teed Rockwell wrote a monthly column for India Currents magazine on all aspects of Indian music, ancient and modern, classical and popular. His goal was to be an ambassador for Indian music, as Leonard Bernstein had been for European music, aspiring to make it comprehensible and enjoyable to everyone.
This book is a collection of Rockwell’s best columns, grouped by subject matter, with additional commentary written especially for this book.
The first chapter is devoted to the Allauddin Khan Gharana, which includes Ali Akbar Khan, his sons Alam and Aashish, as well as Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar.
There are articles on Classical Indian musical styles, such as Dhrupad, Thumri, and Qawwali, as well as introductions to Indian music theory that could be used in college or high school courses. There are chapters on Indian folk and contemporary music, from Bollywood, to Bhangra, to the world fusion music that arises when cultures collide. And there is a chapter on the complicated relationship between music and Islam.

 

The book’s recurring theme is that India, like America, is a country that nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization.
The essential difference between the two cultures is that Americans demand freedom from rules, and India is a country with lots of rules—that everybody breaks. Indians praise obedience to tradition, but when push comes to shove, it is always the inner voice of intuition that wins out—an intuition that, at its best, inspires each individual to preserve the essence of the tradition as he or she changes it.

“I had the pleasure to edit Teed’s music column every month. As someone who knew little about Indian Classical Music, I enjoyed learning something new every month – Kirtans East and West, Who owns Bhangra, along with profiles of Hindustani and Carnatic music leaders, and so much more. “The Cowboy and the Yogi” promises to be a delightful read.” – Vandana Kumar, Publisher of India Currents

Purchase Your Copy Today!

Teed Rockwell took hundreds of classes with Ali Akbar Khan, Shahid Parvez, and other great Indian classical musicians, He is philosophy lecturer emeritus at Sonoma State University, and his writings on the philosophy of cognitive science have been published by MIT press, and in numerous academic journals. He is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on an instrument he calls the touchstyle Veena. His music videos can be found at www.bollywoodgharana.com

 

Finding Poetry as Sanctuary

Poetry/Song-writing came to me when I was around 16 years old. Until then, I had no taste or interest in the poems that I had to mandatorily read and memorize as a part of my school curriculum. At that time, the school was the only place where I got any exposure to poetry or writing. I was not the kind of boy who would bother to go out of his way to buy a novel or a book of poems.

However, when I did read poems in my school textbooks, I enjoyed reading the works of William Blake, George Cooper, and numerous poems which now float around in my mind only as faint images of reverberating words superimposed on top of the faces of my friends, teachers, and the places where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years.

Fast forward to 2019, and I found out that I had been writing for nine years now. I came to the conclusion one introspective evening after a recent move to San Francisco from Los Angeles, that a disparate amount of poems I had written all revolved around the broad themes of unrequited love, admiration of the lover, and just silly love songs. Sure, there was nothing wrong about having a consistent theme across your work. But I did feel that I was quite limited in the way I was repeating my experiences over and over again. It is strange that we choose to feel what we already know.

Until that point, I had thought that new life experiences were capable of enabling new channels of creative outlets. On the contrary, it was the opposite. It was, in fact, the conglomeration of beliefs, attitudes, personality, biases, and a myriad of factors that decided what one was actually capable of experiencing.


How many times does one need to fall in love before he can write about love with the utmost veracity? In clinical psychology, it is said that people high on Agreeableness tend to divide their lives into epochs dictated by the romantic relationships they have had at the time. Boy, was I agreeable! That was all that I was writing about. A psychologist may have recommended an assertiveness training for me, but instead, I just chose to diversify my writing style a bit.

I was lucky to have found a poetry group in the city through the Meetup app that year. I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of talent that was concentrated in a radius of 15 feet around me. These were people that I couldn’t have met anywhere else in the whole world. Hanging out with them had opened up new doors of perception and possibilities for me. Of course, it wasn’t apparent that I would associate with them in the very first meeting. Still, I gradually started to open up to this group of oddly passionate people who appreciated some of my eeriest poetries that would otherwise bring two likes for a friend list of 1500 people on my Facebook.

Now it is 2020 and right before the COVID lockdown, I was fortunate enough to become a rather regular member of this group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley which, hosts a poetry circle through video conferencing apps each Saturday.

Writing and reciting poetry has ever-changing meanings for each individual.

At times, poetry is a psychological toolkit that enables me to express my feelings in a way that others perceive as novel and a work of art. On some occasions, poetry becomes the irrefutable divine law of nature that each man inherits but of which loses the appreciation as his life progresses into taking upon an increasing amount of responsibilities.

At other times, poetry is how one could showcase their intellectual fitness and creativity to a member of the opposite gender that they’d like to woo. Poetry is also that friend who comes to sit down with you in solidarity when the world seems too chaotic or too orderly (in a dystopian way) as you look outside your apartment window and say, “Man! None of this makes sense!”

Poetry can be your very own self when you have successfully identified your being as an entity compartmentalized into several flavors manifested out of a hitchhiker’s diary describing his journey across the country.

Poetry can also be this:

The Paranoid

 

In a world with so many places to see,

I’ve never seen a tree that touches the sky.

Tangerines so high, invite me for a tea,

In a treehouse with nobody else but you and I.

 

And in a treehouse so green,

There are places where I’d like to be:

 

In your arms, in your eyes,

Watching you gaze, the paranoid.

 

In a country with so many people to meet,

I’ve never seen a man reading from a monocle.

Sidewalks so alone, hear them greet –

that lonesome band dressed in canonicals​.

 

And with a band so quiet,

There are places where I’d like to sleep:

 

In your arms, for a hundred years,

Hearing the sound of the paranoid.

 

At a clinic with so many beds to sweep,

I’ve never seen a bed with strangers on a feast

Nurses so shy, ignoring those who weep

They only smile to pacify the familiar beasts

 

And along the rooms so sterile,

There are tables you’d like to clean:

 

In your hands, a surgical knife

Watching you operate the paranoid.

*****

Regardless of how I conceptualized this abstract phenomenon of poetry, this group had made me feel that I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense out of the daily experiences and operations of the human ordeals and pleasures.

This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora. 


Vishal Vatnani is a man as ordinary as you can imagine. He is a 26-year-old data analyst working in San Francisco for a Fintech company. He enjoys writing poetry, playing guitar, reading self-help books, and slaving away his days working.

Learning to Belong: Desi Poetry Reading

To join the poetry reading on Monday August 24th 2020 at 6 pm PST and 9 pm EST, click on this LINK

The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its second Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian immigrant communities have changed over the years, as well as attitudes surrounding diversity, multiculturalism and belonging.

This is effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform. In their own words, Matwaala represents “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.

This poetry reading will feature notable writers from various pockets of the South Asian community, including Geetha Sukumaran, Ravi Shankar, Ralph Nazareth, Kirun Kapoor, and youth poet Kanchan Naik. India Currents staff Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik will moderate the event, facilitating questions from the audience via email.

Use this BigStage link to login: https://zoom.bigstage.online/index.php?event_id=DesiPoetry&client_id=C000004

To find out more about this event and its panelists, stay tuned for updates on our Facebook and Instagram!


Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, a Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak

Mushkil Duniya Painted in Coffee

In June Ahmad Abumraighi messaged me asking if he can come to my community studio, Studio Pause, with his friend and filmmaker Anas Tolba. Anas was making a documentary on Ahmad as a Palestinian artist, whose work is about social justice and community.

I asked Ahmad, “Why the Studio?”

He replied “… it’s about being around honest company where I can be myself, without experiencing the feeling of having to defend myself or my beliefs. At Studio Pause I feel safe and creative when I’m with Sush and other community artists who care to bring love and light to everyone in the community.”

Ahmad with Filmmakers Anas and Mohammad

Anas would bring his assistant, Mohammad Saffouri, and Hanan would join them later. I agreed happily. I was going to have my first group of people at the Studio since lockdown. What better group than this?

I had first met Ahmad at Hanan Seid’s Mic-Less Night Series. Hanan, a local spoken word artist, activist and the Studio’s first artist-in-residence, had started her Mic-Less Night Series here in 2016 finding the space perfect for people who are intimidated by the mic to share their poetry and stories. Since then, Ahmad had had two shows here sharing his love for Arabic poetry and his mastery in calligraphy with the community, while he attended university as an international student.

Before they arrived that day I reminded them to wear masks. Susan Sterner, a PAUSEr who visited once a week, had brought in extra masks and hand sanitizer. She had figured out how we could safely work at the ends of the 6 ft long art tables. Ahmad and the crew arrived masked and with bags of goodies. I made coffee and set out the refreshments. Our last reception had been in Feb 2020, for Susan’s show, and this was the first four-month gap in seven years of the Studio. The AC was out, the windows were open, and a noisy bird sang from a tree.

The filming started with an interview. Ahmad asked what I had worked on during the pandemic. I showed him my calligraphic explorations in Hindi and Bengali. I told him how his art had inspired me to return to my languages and scripts reconnecting with them through my art. Then it was time for art-making. I introduced him to water-soluble graphite. “As I play music in my Studio,” I said, “a Hindi movie song might speak to me, and I make the lyrics into art.” 

He got an idea. “Why don’t you play your music and I’ll play mine!” he said. “You do your calligraphy and I’ll do mine!” 

The songs played and we wrote directly on the butcher paper taped to the table—Arabic and Devanagari. “What did you write?” I asked. 

“Take me to Palestine,” he read.

I texted a photo of it to my friend, Sughra Hussainy, a calligrapher from Afghanistan, living in Baltimore, MD. She created a calligraphic artwork and sent it to me. Take me to my dear Kabul, it read. I showed it to the men. 

I caught a few Arabic words from Ahmad’s songs. They were the Hindi/Urdu words duniya, mushkil. Ahmad painted with the coffee too. 

“What is that? Looks like mountains and valleys,” I observed, as the wet paper warped. 

“It’s the map of Palestine,” he laughed. Later, he started to dance.

The air was magical, yet, I was quietly panicking. What if someone caught COVID-19? Had I done everything right? I went and looked out of the window, tears rolling down my face. Was I being pessimistic as the friends chatted away, laughed and worked? I had missed people, even strangers. Every month, between an artist’s reception and Mic-Less Night I met 20-50 people here and it was always awesome. And here were these wonderful people and I was … what’s the word? 

They continued their shoot downstairs in the community center. I had worked alone during the lockdown designing and producing handmade copies of Hanan’s first full-length poetry book, Catalyst: A Collection of Poetry by Hanan Seid. Now again, I was sitting at my table, alone. But my heart was racing. I breathed deeply, folding the printed pages, reading snippets of Hanan’s powerful poems.

Hanan and her books.

Soon the group returned to the Studio along with Hanan. At the opening reception here five years ago we had 40 guests and now five made my heart race. But she was so excited to see the copies of her books and sign them. I noticed the red mask she wore over her hijab. I couldn’t see her smile let alone give her a hug. Who was I now? I could hardly recognize myself.

An excerpt from her poem Tsunami spoke to me: 

“Which character will they remember?
I’ve been them all
The good and the bad
Wonder if my soul is as claustrophobic as I am
If it’ll fit nice in the coffin
Then my eyes open
And the nightmare supposedly over
I gasp and wonder
Who will I be next
and will she be remembered?”

When they left, I helped the community center staff put the furniture back the way it was. They worried about what had been touched. I stared at where the woman sprayed the Lysol, and what she wiped. So much remained unsprayed and unwiped! I remained silent. I couldn’t recognize myself, a total stranger! But it would be fine, I told myself. We were all doing our best.


Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.

Mahesh Pailoor’s TV Debut on ‘The Blacklist’

Raised in a small town in Maine, born to immigrant parents, it has indeed been a long journey in filmmaking for the Indian American writer and director, Mahesh Pailoor.

Having studied filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and later honing the skills from various film schools, Mahesh did his first short film, Little India in 2001. It premiered at SXSW and screened at different film festivals around the world. He has also directed award-winning documentaries, commercials, and branded content.

He moved onto, Brahmin Bulls in 2013 that garnered him many accolades, which had a notable cast including Sendhil Ramamurthy, Roshan Seth, and Academy Award Winner Mary Steenburgen. The film won the Audience Award at the San Diego Film Festival, the Jury Prize for Best American Indie at the Sonoma International Film Festival, and was released theatrically in the US and the UK.

On May 1st, 2020, he made his episodic television directing debut with NBC’s The Blacklist.

“I always wanted to be known as a visual storyteller, creating as many unique stories as I can. It has been a long journey so far and the goal was always to break into TV, meeting and networking with acclaimed directors. This Emerging Director program opened up a new universe for me and I would love to venture more in this space. Hopefully, this opportunity will pave for others,” opined the director.

Mahesh was chosen from 500 applicants for the NBC’s Emerging Director program, the network’s annual initiative for ethnically diverse male and gender non-binary directors. 

Celebrating its 10 year anniversary, the program aims to increase representation among scripted series directors. It took Mahesh years of hard work, perseverance, and rejections before this golden opportunity knocked at his doorstep. 

“I have been eyeing on this program for a while and had even applied once long back but did not get through. Though many networks offer such programs, the one offered by NBC is one of the best amongst them mainly because they offer lots of support, opportunity to shadow the directors, and then guarantee an episodic directing credit. The entire process involved the submission of my work and different levels of interviews. Once selected, my work was then sent to its different shows for the various teams to review. I was lucky enough to be chosen by the episodic directors of The Blacklist to shadow them,” said Mahesh Pailoor.

The Blacklist — “Brothers” Episode 718 (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Lauding the team, Mahesh claims the experience on The Blacklist set in New York as invaluable, which helped him learn more about the nuances of television direction. “The shadowing experience was really amazing, especially to work with such experienced directors. Right from being on set, pre-production to post-production, it was great to have the first-hand experience. I got to work with them twice before embarking on my own directorial debut,” he said. “Once the crew knew me, they were really supportive as I ventured into directing. They were very cordial and rooted for me, which was the best part. The entire period with the team was phenomenal. To be a small part of this incredible series that has been running for seven seasons with remarkable characters, was an enriching experience,” added Mahesh.

Fascinated by his father’s video camera, Mahesh was attracted to the craft of storytelling at a very young age of 12. The captivating power of visuals made him realize its potency in communication and connecting with the minds of people. “The great stories around and the visual medium always inspired me.

Growing up, I realized the need for having more stories that I could relate to and which later steered my path into filmmaking,” recollected the director. Speaking further on how the representation of Indian Americans in Hollywood and American TV space has been evolving, he added, “Earlier, we could not relate to any characters on screen and the representation was very less. But things have changed over the last 3-5 years with more Indian Americans not just behind the camera but also in front of the camera. Even programs like NBC’s Emerging Director makes it more welcoming for all. Changes are evolving but still, there is a long way to go.”

Aiming at the television space for his immediate future plans, Mahesh is currently looking out to venture further into episodic direction. He is also co-writing a dramatic feature, an immigrant love story based on true events, which he also plans to direct with half setting in India and rest in the US.

Foreseeing a remarkable era for creativity and cinema, Mahesh concluded, “This is a golden time with so many digital platforms evolving, we get to watch such amazing content, accessible to all from anywhere around the world. The geographical barriers are disappearing and with the advancement of technology, anyone interested can now make a movie even with their iPhone and broadcast it. My advice to upcoming filmmakers is to grab this promising phase. Don’t wait for someone to say yes. If you have an amazing idea to share, then just do it. There is no need for a big crew or equipment, you can make something with friends. The goal should be to passionately follow your dreams and you will definitely find your way.”

Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.

Heroes of War

Heroes of War 

Bracing themselves 

heavy armor

coat after coat

danger is principal.

 

They enter war

an invisible enemy 

the fiercest predator

with an unidentifiable weakness.

 

Their compassionate hearts

drive a noble sacrifice 

for the protection of lives 

they never knew.

 

Heroes they stand

knowing and holding 

the fear of 

surrendering themselves to defeat.

*****

Rashmika Manu is a freshman in high school. She enjoys writing poems, playing volleyball, and traveling. She visits India often and has a desire to help the poor and needy in the future.

To Ma, From Your Daughter

ma

To the woman who loved

what had not yet become, making promises 

with unfolding fabric: 

We shared skin, but from you I grew into

my own — an inherited thing

inhabited, but never out

grown.

You hollowed a home 

within yourself, doorways 

forged from flesh, walls

 shifting soundlessly

with each passing breath. 

There is a forever in the spaces 

between you and I — it stares back

at the two of us, a daughter’s love

opening its luminous eyes 

for the first time.

—- 

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

Making The Best Of Stress: Silicon Valley’s High School Rap Scene

Evergreen Valley High School. Tucked away in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in East San Jose, the blue and brown walls of the school burgeon with hopes, dreams and perhaps most dangerous — expectations. 

The predominantly Asian-American school is ranked 79 out of 1334, for the best college prep public high school in California, and with an average ACT score of 31, the high academic standards of its students seems evident. In fact, EVHS is one of many increasingly competitive public high schools sending a significant percentage of students to the UC schools. (all statistics from niche.com

But along with the academic rigor of public schools like EVHS come a vast array of mental health issues. According to Dr. Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, the director and founder of Skills for Kids, Parents, and Schools, an organization that offers on site counseling services to children, educators, and parents in the Bay Area, two of the most prevalent mental health issues seen in high school campuses that she has supervised have been anxiety and depression. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley public schools in particular have been brought under severe media scrutiny for the increase in the number of suicides as a result of pressure to keep up with academic expectations.  Of little acknowledgement in the factors influencing anxiety and depression is the impact that video-game and social media addiction can have in the lives of high schoolers today. 

Dr. Marie-Natalie goes on to explain: “Five or ten years ago, we were seeing issues dealing with academic pressure, anxiety, an overdiagnosis of ADHD;  it seems like all of these issues still exist, but the vast majority of calls I receive from schools and from distressed parents turns out to be related to video game addiction.” 

Made to sustain continuous use, video games tap into the reward system of the brain — increasing dopamine, leading to a feeling of validated accomplishment, often resulting in an addicted and obsessed user base. “In the more privileged communities, issues of anxiety, like anxiety about performing academically goes hand in hand with  a disconnection from social interaction. If young people spend all their free time on video games, as opposed to playing with one another, or interacting, or doing sports, then there’s a loss. There’s definitely a loss in terms of personal growth.” says Dr. Marie-Nathalie. 

Video games facilitate a shift in social connections from being in person to online. The dissonance between the two seems to be characteristic of an era of Internet powered interactions, befitting (but not limited to) a Silicon Valley high school. Exchanging the quality of an in-person friendship for innumerable friends on online forums, like gaming communities, or social media platforms compromises the level of conversation between the two parties, and “interferes with the depth of the relationship — how meaningful it is.” The superficiality of the new standard is at the very least distracting — if not disturbing. Students are more likely to feel obligated to respond to a text, or check Instagram, thereby multitasking between their online presence and their academic work, resulting in prolonged hours of school work, and even a decrease in academic performance as a result of constant distraction.

A 2005 Psychological Science study, concludes: “a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential (is) their failure to exercise self-discipline,” quite common for today’s high schoolers. Dr. Marie-Nathalie concurs, explaining that the frontal lobe, responsible for self-discipline, is not fully developed until the twenties, leaving teenagers to grapple with the consequences of academic underperformance as a result of extreme distractions and lack of self-discipline without the benefits of a fully rational mind.

But how much do the video game addictions and social media interactions that comprise a majority of a student’s brain power have to do with mental health issues?  After all, distraction doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. Inconvenient yes, but dangerous? This crucial issue is just beginning to be understood. 

With the greater part of a high school student’s day being spent on social media platforms, or online gaming communities (widely considered to be an online social platform due to the elements of gaming chats), perceived validation from peers is often purely online, from the number of likes or comments on a post, often leading to an ascription of importance to maintaining surface deep relationships, and deriving self-worth from them. When the appropriate number of likes are not reached, self-esteem is impacted. According to a 2014 American Psychological Association study, “Social networking sites (SNSs), such as Facebook, provide abundant social comparison opportunities… indeed, the results showed that participants who used Facebook most often had poorer trait self-esteem, and this was mediated by greater exposure to upward social comparisons on social media.,” defining upward social comparisons as “a high activity social network, healthy habits, etc., .” Blows to self-esteem coupled with academic stress seems to be what drives students towards isolation, while at the same time instigating depression and performance anxiety.

Reversion to online activity, whether it be video gaming, or scrolling through Instagram suggests a sort of complacency, one that is reflective of a loss of agency, as a result of denial of severe academic stress. 

The sheer competition to not only to get into college, but also to increase earning potential has influenced many students in the Indian-American community to ignore a well-rounded education, choosing not to explore other passions and instead focusing narrowly on STEM based career paths. It seems like the overwhelming amount of extracurriculars — DECA, Speech and Debate, Robotics Club — are all being pursued for the benefit of college admissions, rather than out of personal interest. 

In a world where the college application process outranks everything, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for kids to just be kids. The superficiality ensures resume-building prevails over the true pleasure of doing an activity just for the sake of doing it.

It is in the midst of exactly this environment, that a group of unconventional (at least by Silicon Valley standards) high schoolers from EVHS chose to pursue rap. The possibility of a resistance to the stereotypical college oriented journey seems likely in a refreshing take on modern hip-hop. And with their very existence being  unprecedented it seems that they call into question a potential shift in the social norms and culture of Silicon Valley. 

But why rap?

In conversation with Chetas Holagunda, a member of the EVHS rap circles and better known by his rap name BLVSE , the authenticity behind his passion for rap is clear. The name BLVSE itself, a tribute to the caliber of this EVHS senior signifies the “flame, like a blaze, inside of me that keeps me going;  I’m always motivated to keep going and trying new things…I push myself through it even though its not for a college app or anything, I still keep going.

The journey to producing an upbeat and “hype” song has been paved with humility and determination, qualities that BLVSE proudly embodies — the hallmark of his musical experience. Coming from a family of Carnatic musicians, BLVSE’s influences seem diametrically opposed, citing the impact that artists like JUICE WRLD had on his style of music. A note about the importance of blending contemplative, and self-analysing lyrics with a party vibe seems to encompass the goal of many BLVSE songs — a marriage that might not be too far away from the Carnatic focus on sound and lyrics. 

His current experience expands beyond the initial focus on “the melody that came out, the vibe that it spreads,”. Instead he says: “Now I’m trying to incorporate both, so you listen to lyrics that have one meaning, but you also have a vibe that you can party to, where you can have fun.” He tries to keep most of his songs light hearted at “ground level, and pretty relatable,” but on occasion, like any other artist, emotion is too powerful to ignore. “A lot of rappers talk about depression, like JUICEWRLD definitely blew up that idea…I definitely talk about it in some of my songs… I don’t explicitly say it but there’s some stories that end up sad… I don’t directly call it depression, but people can infer what happens.”

Although the blend of Jamaican cultural influences and working-class urban themes has historically characterized rap music as celebrating the African-American experience, its popularity—some may even say notoriety— has led to a divergence from the traditional African-American subject. Over the course of hip-hop history, as rap artists have become more racially diverse, there has inevitably been a shift in lyrical content, and although the original swagger that encompasses the essence of the genre has been kept intact, rap has gone from the discussion of urban issues to more diverse personal stories. Battles with mental health, struggles with poverty, and other topics of cultural relevance and relatability.

But it’s the core of hip-hop, the ability for  raw self-expression combined with the triumph of bringing people together, that seems to be what persuaded these high school rappers to produce music. The goal of BLVSE’s music seems to be a creation of a safe space for the kids of toxic Silicon Valley high schools, where gaming addiction and academic pressures are the reality. 

It is the harsh truth that these students must endure more than their fair share of stress. In addressing the extreme range of emotion regarding academic pressures, BLVSE does acknowledge some school interference, but says that “they have certain events but they aren’t really effective in helping students. They (students) just go to get the credits and leave, so it’s really not as influential as it can be.”

What might be more impactful, and certainly what seems to be more entertaining, is convening outside of an academic context with friends to blow off steam. BLVSE remarks: “I always have that vision of performing in my own concert where everyone is just jumping up and down to a song.” Where everyone is present.

Consistent with the counterculture element of rap, these teenagers are cutting through the intense norm of laser beam focus on structuring all activities around a college application. Coming together to enjoy good music seems to be a rarity in the lives of today’s teenagers —lives that are focused on not only getting good grades, but also volunteering at homeless shelters, and winning speech and debate trophies, peppered with the constant Instagram check in. Moving kids away from their obsession with the activities of the other, the value placed on comparison to peers through social media, might be a challenge, given that platforms like Instagram and Soundcloud might be essential in distributing music, which help  create a fanbase. But even in the presence of such widespread social networking, the intention of bringing people together in real life, is laudable — even reflective of the origins of hip-hop in Bronx house parties. 

In a world where perfection is deliberately demanded, there is little time for recreation. By doing what they do with love, these rappers ensure that high school isn’t just about ignoring stress in an extreme focus to get into college — it can be about celebrating little successes, and taking some time to live in the moment.

But rappers like BLVSE understand that this freedom to create isn’t universal. The undisputable motivational role of parental support seems to be instrumental in the production process. As BLVSE describes it: “The good thing is that my parents actually support this… so that definitely helped me,-  like if my parents like a song, they would push me to share it with other people.” With a chuckle, he says: “It’s definitely not the type of music they listen to, but they do enjoy it, so that motivates me to put it up.” And even as BLVSE acknowledges that his experience in the EVHS rap community has been with full support from his parents, it is understood that this is a luxury some of his peers don’t have. 

Supporting high school rappers might be one way to fight a toxic culture of Silicon Valley disenfranchisement with harsh and competitive academic environments.

The shift towards STEM education seems to be reflective of a body of parents who came of age in a community where there was only one path to escape the cycle of lower middle class life — where the easiest path to guaranteed success was STEM education. And although STEM education, the craze that has taken over Silicon Valley isn’t innately terrible, it forces students to put on blinders, curbing passions like music, design, art, dance before they fully develop into hobbies or even careers. The beauty of the American dream is the diversity on the journey towards success. Forcing students to comply with an outdated standard, emphasizing perfection no matter the cost, has resulted in a generation plagued by the pressure to perform. Retreating into a world of superficial connections through social media or gaming seems to be an apparent attempt to find that affection and validation that have traditionally been a parent’s responsibility to cultivate, through any other means possible.

Rap music is the perfect union of elements of actual social interaction and self-expression, both ideas that are “taboo” in the Silicon Valley high school journey of college preparation. It is reflective of a growing population of students that are no longer complacent — students who declare, like BLVSE: “Any field is of equal value!”

Students who don’t hide behind an online identity, but rather embrace the power of their voice. In the words of BLVSE: “Im putting my feelings out there, if you don’t enjoy it, then that’s up to you. If I express myself saying that I’m happy with myself, then I’m gonna be happy with myself.”

In fact, there is a proven therapeutic effect of the self-expression of rap. The danger of bottling up emotions is something that Gloria Baxter of the Lighthouse of Hope Counseling Center knows intimately. She even uses elements of hip-hop culture in adolescent group therapy sessions, asking students to write a rap about what upset them. Results have been phenomenal.

It is our responsibility as a society to encourage creative expression among the next generation. Together, we have opened up a Pandora’s Box of perfect SAT scores and  5.0 GPAs. In a world where the bar can never be reached, rap is not only a coping mechanism; it restores agency amongst these high schoolers, giving them a sense of responsibility and control over their actions. Up to this point, we have raised children who only knew how to be students. They will be forced to approach the workforce the same way they approach school — desperately rooting around for validation. There is a cultural shift that needs to occur in the Silicon Valley parent community (especially among Asian and South Asian parent groups) to allow students to pursue their true passion while carving their individual  path to success. Encouraging high school rappers in their journey of creative self-expression might be one of the ways to do so.

Sumedha Vemulakonda is a youth contributor at India Currents. This article is the result of a year long quest to expand her music tastes, while learning more about rap and hip hop culture. 

A Life Crafted with Grit and Grace

 

One of my earliest memories of my mother, outside of the home, is on a badminton court. My father’s job as a doctor with the Indian Railways allowed us the use of the Officer’s Club. It was the norm for us to troop down to the club every evening, where we spent several hours actively engaged in the various sport facilities it offered. At the time, we did not realize how unusual it was for a woman of my mother’s generation in India, to be considered a sportswoman of some merit. Of course, I realize that there have been many celebrated Indian sportswomen through the ages. But it was certainly not a traditionally accepted role in a small town.  Draped in her sari, hitched up and tucked at the waist, bare feet, racquet in hand, long braid flashing behind her – she proceeded to vanquish a young man in a singles match while my sister and I watched from the sidelines. I will never forget applauding with everyone else, and the pride I felt when she collected her trophy.  We pored over scrapbooks she had filled with newspaper clippings of her victories going back through her high school and college years. And slowly, the idea that there was more to the woman we called ‘Amma’ – more than just someone who cooked our meals, and cared for our every need – took hold.

My mother Gita was born on March 26,1948. Maybe it was her birth amidst the exuberance of post-independence India that imbued her with the gumption to buck the established notions about the ‘proper qualities’ in a conservative, middle class girl. It blessed her with a stubborn streak. She was determined to pursue her innate talents as a skilled sportswoman, much to her dear father’s disapproval. We were often regaled with a story narrated by her aunts of the time when she was eight years old. In an effort to get her to practice music, they locked her in a room with her violin – which was of course, considered a proper skill for a girl to master – and she proceeded to break the bow to make her feelings clear.  Needless to say, this incident ended any chance of a bright musical career! Her older sister was born to fill that role. My mother was simply exercising her right to choose something else.

Although she has since hung up her racquet, the sportswoman in her has helped chart her course through the most trying time in her life – her separation from our father. Divorce among her peers is a rarity, and yet, she has managed to retain her essence through all of the heartache. She has, with grace, held on to another aspect of her identity – her creativity. Just as the tanpura or tamburi was synonymous with her older sister, the sewing machine is my mother’s personal crest – her very own coat of arms!

Her passion to create marvels of “upcycled” products never ceases to astound us. On each of her visits her one request is that I help her design the next in a line of beautifully crafted creations. Our favorite outings are to craft stores, and our discussions are usually about how she can embellish her latest project. From the minute she wakes, right up to dinner time, she is consumed by her need to create. And her greatest reward is when we share her creations with friends and family as gifts.

She has used her unique talent in creating memory quilts for each of her grandchildren. Painstakingly piecing together fabric from baby clothes I had saved, she spent hours making my daughter a patchwork of love sewn together with her strength and courage. It is a brightly colored legacy, and will be cherished for all of time.

My mother did not choose to be a career woman. She chose instead to devote her life to bringing up her daughters instilling in them her firm notions of right and wrong. And she led by example, that being female did not make us feeble, or less in any way. Her single minded devotion and support was the backbone of my sister Divya Raghavan’s singing career when she first started. She was, and remains ambitious for us hoping that we scale every path we traverse to achieve the things that she could not.  But the biggest lesson she has taught us, is in accepting her shortcomings while continuing to live with grace.  The label she affixes to every piece she creates speaks volumes:  “Crafted with Love”.

Much has been said about the bond between mothers and daughters. Having experienced nearly half a century savoring the many nuances of this relationship, I can only say that my respect for my mother has deepened with every day that passes. That much is true. On the cusp of her 70th birthday, it is only fitting that I acknowledge her fighting spirit, her creative passion and her ability to stride ever onwards – changing, evolving and nurturing.

This is a tribute in words during Women’s History month for a woman I cherish.

Happy 70th Amma!