Elevate Difference

Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness

If the Asian American contribution to hip-hop has been largely invisible, South Asian American rap artists, here including those whose families came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Fiji, have received a surprising amount of critical attention focused on re-conceptualizing race and the increasingly universal appeal of contemporary Black popular culture. On the heels of Ajay Nair and Murali Balaji’s 2009 study Desi Rap: Hip Hop and South Asian America comes Hip Hop Desis , an ethnographic analysis of a group of South Asian American rappers and the shared experience of those living in “racially marked bodies.”

The artists Nitasha Tamar Sharma studies “craft new ways of being desi, or alternative desiness, by drawing upon the concept of Blackness.” She follows David Palumbo-Liu and others in pointing out the dangers of the “model minority myth,” in this case the stereotypical “Asian traits” of respect for authority, cultural assimilation, and advocating education as a means to achieving the “American dream.” The stereotypical young South Asian American presumably is apolitical, white-identified, and non-agitating. Obviously, this conception denies the heterogeneity of desi experience, and these artists have rebelled against the expectations placed upon them and from which they were supposed to negotiate an identity.

Often lacking an ethnic network, many of these young people found a surrogate in African American communities and their artistic expression. Applying a rap technique known as sampling, the artists draw on the cultural currency of hip-hop to construct new, self-chosen identities. “Desiness,” here, signifies political activism, racial consciousness, and a diasporic sense of identity that appropriates the aesthetics and rebelliousness of African American hip-hop. In contrast to cultural expectation, desi emcees openly articulate their experiences with racism, exclusion, and their unique experience of otherness. While those in Sharma’s study typically are surprised to find themselves racially marked in school, the process of claiming a racial identity is deliberate: “as people of color undergoing discrimination, they identify with Blacks and form lifelong relationships with Black people.”

The introduction Sharma provides to these artists and groups offers a sophisticated glimpse at the complex processes involved in the formation of ethnic identities within a hip-hop framework. Unfortunately, for the initiate, examples of the music and performance are relatively difficult to locate online. Two of the featured groups, Himalayan Project and Karmacy, have several appealing and illustrative songs available on YouTube and MySpace. Perhaps the most intriguing artist, D’Lo, has posted three videos on his/her Facebook page, all of which illustrate the artist’s inclusion of the politics and semiotics of gender as a part of performance, and the theme of homophobia connected to racism in his/her music.

Sharma’s broader project, which she refers to as comparative racial studies, offers new insight into the nature of inter-ethnic sampling and influences. She warns that the “increasing gaps and conflicts among communities of color in the United States,” as well as the persistence of racism and inequality, make it urgent that we listen to voices such as those of the hip-hop desis.

Written by: Rick Taylor, January 25th 2011