Desis on Deck: What It's Like Being a Brown Kid in Dance Music
Krewella, Jai Wolf, Hotel Garuda, and DJ Atish are redefining what it means to be South Asian in America—one all-night party at a time.
Many claim that dance music is a great unifier. Under the flashing lights, we are said to have no color, gender, or sexual orientation. In practice, though, even so-called "progressive" social spaces can reflect the inequalities and blindspots of society at large. Recent conversations about race in the United States have centered around the relationship between black and white. Native Americans, the country's growing hispanic population, and those of Far Eastern origin have also entered the conversation to varying degrees, but pretty much everyone else in the United States with pigment in their skin still falls into the murky territory of "ambiguously brown."
According to a demographic survey undertaken by the Asian American Foundation in 2012, South Asians—individuals from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, known amongst themselves as desis—are the fastest growing demographic in America, numbering almost 5 million. Still, South Asians have been largely absent from the American cultural conversation—all too often relegated to token roles and two-dimensional stereotypes, if they make an appearance at all.
In fact, it's only recently that South Asian-Americans have begun to subvert the caricatures most often placed upon them: turban-wearing convenience store clerk; bloodthirsty terrorist (often still turban-clad); exotic goddess; nerd; spiritual guru. The dissolution of these stereotypes has been led in part by actors like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Priyanka Chopra earning leading roles on television in the past few years. This quiet onscreen revolution is matched by a slightly noisier one: the organic rise of desi producers and DJs in dance music in the United States.
Krewella in the EDM world, Jai Wolf and Hotel Garuda in the mainstream-underground, and Atish on the Burner circuit are all examples of this new breed of South Asian musicians, children of immigrants who are no longer content with being just ambiguously brown. In carving out their own unique path through the world of dance music, they've broken molds of what it means to be a desi in America while balancing pressures from multiple fronts, including racism and ignorance from society-at-large, familial turmoil at home, and self-doubt from within.
Krewella is one of the biggest acts in stateside EDM. The group's high energy pop anthems have catapulted members Yasmine and Jahan Yousaf to worldwide stardom, and the sisters' approachable demeanor, antics, and good looks have earned them social media celebrity. What most conversations surrounding the group in the media seem to overlook, however, is that the sisters Yousaf are half-Pakistani, and were raised in an Islamic family.
"We grew up in a pretty devoutly muslim household," explains Jahan, the elder of the two, as we sit in the airy dining room of their shared Hollywood Hills cottage. We're a long way from Lahore, where their father emigrated from in 1979 before marrying their caucasian, American mother and relocating to Chicago. "Our parents weren't so strict that they made us wear hijab," she explains, "but we went to Islamic school for five years and fasted during Ramadan. Our mother converted when she married our father. She was almost more strict about religion."
"We're never asked about being Pakistani."—Krewella's Jahan Yousaf
The Yousafs, both in their twenties, came of age in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, a period during which isolation at school was common amongst desi youth. "We didn't really talk about where we're from in junior high school, because we had this layer of shame over being muslim or Pakistani," says Yasmine. "All everybody ever knew about it was terrorism."
Ignorance of islamic culture led to further ostracization from their peers. "We used to fast during the month of Ramadan," says Jahan. "I was in junior high at the time, and people thought I was anorexic because I wasn't eating all day."
This feeling of isolation is echoed by Jai Wolf, birth name Sajeeb Saha. Born in Bangladesh but raised all over America by his physicist parents, Saha erupted from SoundCloud into the IRL last year with his evocative, catchy brand of future bass. His tunes regularly hit the multiple millions in streams, and his track "Indian Summer," featuring a chopped-up vocal sample of a classical Indian recording, was one of the biggest songs of this year's festival season. Rewind a decade, though, and his life was more like an Indian winter.
"I felt like an outsider as a kid," he explains. "I grew up in Southern Illinois and I was the only brown kid in my school. I was in 5th grade when 9/11 happened. That was really rough. The kids would bully you, and identity was a thing I struggled with."
Both the Yousafs and Saha ended up finding their footing toward the end of high school. Saha's family moved to cosmopolitan New York. "New Hyde Park in Long Island," to be exact. "It's 58% Asians. I showed up to orientation in high school and it blew my mind. I saw so many brown kids. That was a great time."
Yasmine and Jahan, for their part, say they started gravitating toward western culture and away from Pakistani-Islamic values. "We slowly started drifting away from being Muslim. For me, in my later teen years," Jahan confirms.
"I felt like an outsider as a kid."—Jai Wolf
By the time they had graduated, the sisters had started making music as Krewella with longtime friend Rainman. The trio even got matching tattoos proclaiming their commitment to the project. The group's hard-partying aesthetic and brash sound sat in stark contrast to the pious values of the masjid they'd prayed in barely a few years before. "When we first started touring, we were 19 and 21," says Jahan. "It was so new and a thrill." The group's debut album, Get Wet, with its themes of boozy partying and raver excess, went to #1 on the Billboard Dance charts in 2013. "Being sheltered my whole life, it was the first time I felt like a free bird," says Yasmine. "Like I could do whatever I wanted."
Drugs, commonplace in dance music, are regarded as unthinkable evils by many South Asian parents. Drinking is strictly prohibited in Islam, and even many westernized desi families, across multiple religions, will shun, hide, or frown at the idea "partying"—a practice at the center of everything dance music is about. Reconciling a life in dance music with one's parents' conservative ideals is a challenge with which many desi kids in the scene have to reckon.
"It's weird, because Krewella released a lot of content that was heavily centered around partying, but our parents didn't really talk about it with us," Jahan admits. The Yousafs got lucky. "There are two types of immigrant parents," says Saha. "There's the type that is completely oblivious to anything happening, and there's the type that are on your shit. I have the latter kind."
"My dad was like, 'I see there's a molly problem at these festivals,' " Saha elaborates. The son of two physicists, he knew he was not going to get away with pulling dual identities on his parents, so instead he just came clean. "I try to be as open with them as possible," he says. "I told my parents I smoke weed. Now that it's slowly becoming legalized, they don't really care anymore, especially after [Emmy-winning celebrity doctor] Sanjay Gupta gave the co-sign a few months ago."
This theme of parents loosening up with age is actually pretty common among desi producers. Take Krewella's dad, for instance: "Our dad comes to our shows, says Yasmine. "He loves them!. He's done EDC three years in a row. He stays up until 5AM with us. He loves Martin Garrix. Backstage at Coachella, he went up to him and was like, 'I'm Krewella's dad!'"
Choosing which immigrant values to retain while living a western, American life is a core challenge among third culture families. To make matters even trickier, many South Asian young people also grapple with "the model minority" stereotype, a form of discrimination based on traits generally considered to be positive––scholastic achievement, moral and familial traditionalism––that nonetheless pigeonhole people within prescribed identity structures. Suffice it to say, staying up all night, DJing, and partying to house music every night of the week does not fit the model.
"I definitely had to deal with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt since I was going against the grain of what society might expect out of an Indian."—DJ Atish
Nobody understands this better than San Francisco-based DJ Atish, an emerging champion of the dusty tech-house culture crystallized at Burning Man. "For a majority of my life, I was a personification of the model minority stereotype," he explains. "My parents immigrated from India in the early 80s. I am the son of an electrical engineer, I did well in school, studied computer science at a good university, and worked as a software engineer for 10 years after graduating. To further complete the Indian-American stereotype, I was forced to play the violin at a very young age and was on the high school math team as well."
It was only this year that Atish turned a complete about-face and quit his engineering gig to become a DJ full-time, an unheard of act of rebellion for a good desi boy. "This was the first time I broke free of the model minority stereotype," says Atish. "I definitely had to deal with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt since I was going against the grain of what society might expect out of an Indian, and these feelings do still arise."
For the most part, these moments of self-doubt and familial turmoil remain a private affair; for producers of South Asian descent, they're more or less universal facts of life topped with a few particularly desi quirks. It's in public that race relations play out. And while acts of overt racism are a lot rarer than they were in the direct aftermath of 9/11, micro-aggressions and latent racism are still an every day reality for many desi musicians.
Hotel Garuda, the duo of the Filipino Chris Gavino and Indian Aseem Mangoakar, met as classmates at an American school in Jakarta a number of years ago. As with Jai Wolf, the colossal success of their productions on SoundCloud slung them into the limelight and a full touring schedule last year. Early on, though, Mangoakar—who performs solo as Candle Weather and lives in Los Angeles—ran into an example of the pervasive form of dismissal minority artists often face when entering the straight-white-male stronghold that is EDM.
"I played a show in Chicago at The Mid with AC Slater," Mangoakar begins. "We were going back to the green room after we played to pick up my backpack, and upon getting there, the security guard asked to verify my identity. I dunno if he knew I was performing, but he was really suspicious about my presence. He asked me what was in my backpack to prove that it was mine. I was intoxicated at the time and I didn't really think about it, so I just obliged."
Once inside, Mangoakar momentarily dismissed the thought that the security guard had given him a hard time because he could not believe a brown kid could be headlining a gig—that is, until, the guard then opened his mouth to ask: "Are you a Patel? Because I know there's a lot of them."
"I didn't think about it until the day after," reflects Mangoakar, "but that was some pretty racially profiled thinking. I don't think there was malicious intent, but it just goes to show that racism is so institutionalized that you don't really think about how micro-aggressions like that make people feel uncomfortable."
In a curious case of society prioritizing one discrimination over another, the bulk of the media conversation surrounding Yasmine and Jahan of Krewella has centered around their gender and not their ethnicity. "We're never asked about being Pakistani," says Jahan, though the duo says they are constantly bombarded by questions about their gender, to the point of exhaustion on the subject.
Both issues came to a head last year, when the sisters parted ways with Rainman, the group's lead producer and an original member. Krewella's fans were supportive, but casual observers ran rampant with negativity on social media. It is speculative to suggest, but I'm confident in saying that the amplified vitriol expressed by so many casual straight-white-male fans had something to do with the fact that two minority, female women had upended established patterns of dominance by kicking out the caucasian guy.
"The majority of people don't even know what a micro-aggression is, and if they commit one, they're unlikely to be called out on it."—Hotel Garuda's Aseem Mangoakar
The nature of the ire expressed offered a glimpse into the way that modern discrimination functions: all too often quietly and unseen, but capable of exploding into public awareness at the drop of a tweet.
For Aseem Mangoakar of Hotel Garuda, instances like the above provide an important opportunity to turn up the volume on what is often left unspoken. "There's a historical state of oppression that minorities live in," he says. "It's changing, slowly but surely, but it's something that people deserve to acknowledge. The majority [of people] don't even know what a micro-aggression is, and if they commit one, they're unlikely to be called out on it."
Mangoakar followed up with a call-out of his own: "Me and Chris, we're both brown dudes. If we were both tall, straight, handsome, white dudes, there would definitely be a difference in how much we get paid and how much publicity we get, but no fucking way would I change the way I am. I would never accept a whitewashing to sell more records."
Whitewashing isn't the only process that murkies up the cultural pool. There is such a thing as brownwashing as well, the practice of co-opting—and often fetishizing—South Asian culture.
The video for Major Lazer, DJ Snake, and MØ's tune "Lean On" was probably the biggest song in dance music in 2015. It went to #1 in over 17 countries, and was stuck on repeat at festival main stages all summer long. The video for the track, shot in India and awash with Bollywood signifiers, is nearing one billion views on YouTube.
Earlier this year, Diplo explained the inspiration for the video: "India is special and its beauty absolutely humbled me. When we toured there as Major Lazer, it was mind blowing to see our fan-base and we wanted to incorporate the attitude and positive vibes into our video." In the cut, the tune's collaborators ham it up with arm rolls amidst a gaggle of female Bollywood-style dancers, and then continue the party on a pastel-painted bus. That's about it.
"A lot of my friends thought it was offensive," Jai Wolf says of the video. "It wasn't as controversially discussed as I thought it would be. I'd like to give the artists the benefit of the doubt. I do think there's a line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. There's a lot of grey area."
The "Lean On" music video isn't overtly racist, and Diplo has made a long career of earnestly importing novel, exotic cultural elements into his music. But when he produced Piracy Funds Terrorism for M.I.A over a decade ago, he was then presenting a fully-fledged, complex, modern picture of Maya Arulpragasam's very subcontinentally conscious identity through music. Compared with that, the video for "Lean On," however sincere its intentions, can feel simplistic to a fault, to the point of inadvertently lampooning the very culture it tries to celebrate.
The argument could be made that, to reach a billion people with a music video, one may have to cater to the lower common denominators and a more simple universal message. A similar argument cannot be made for Burner culture, a social space whose members often liberally cherry-pick motifs from Indian culture. At many of the scene's so-called "transformational" festivals, people wear bindis on their foreheads and stop off at yoga sessions before downing research chemicals and hitting the dancefloor.
Members of Burner culture have led the charge against the appropriation of the Native American headdresses over the past few years. West Coast transformative festival Lightning in a Bottle was amongst the first festivals to outright ban them. The cause has been so successful that the once-ubiquitous sight of those garish neon fashion fails in the mainstream have become a rarity, and "cultural appropriation" has become a buzzword in the dance scene.
Since then, bindis have emerged overground as the festival forehead-gear du jour, rehashing the question of cultural appreciation vs. appropriation. Atish is perhaps one of the best placed to comment on the matter, and his take on the process is refreshingly judgment-free. To him, how or why someone decides to place a bejeweled sticker on their forehead is totally secondary to the big picture of what can be learned from the larger cross-cultural conversation.
"Indian culture is closely linked to spirituality," he says. "In the last few decades, the West has taken great interest in Indian ways of thinking, while yoga and meditation are moving into the mainstream. Despite the cliché, house music really is a spiritual thing. Many dancers are discovering that the meditative experience of getting lost in house music on a dance floor is another avenue for us to get in touch with our spiritual selves and become better people."
"Dance and rhythm exist at the most fundamental level of Hinduism," Atish goes on. "From a certain perspective, the deep interest in dance music that we're seeing in the west right now is perhaps something the Hindus have known all along."
At international music industry conventions around the world, the Campari-breathed utterings traded poolside during networking sessions corroborate what the reports state very clearly––India is the next boomtown in the worldwide expansion of EDM. Every top-tier performer is already on the tour circuit there, and India has enjoyed festival culture for thousands of years, albeit without the particularities of strobe lights and David Guetta.
The success of events like the long-running Sunburn and Supersonic festivals indicates that India's billion-strong population is already raving to EDM, while the emergence of underground-facing festival Magnetic Fields (this year's lineup has Ratatat and DJ Koze headlining), sends a strong message to the worldwide underground.
Even though India is yet to find its own worldwide star, aspiring South Asian electronic artists do now have cultural reference points in the American scene from which to begin defining themselves. The path mapped out by those like Yasmine, Jahan, Aseem, Sajeeb, and Atish is one that suggests whoever you are or whoever you wanna be, there's not only room for you on the dancefloor, there's even some room for you on the decks.
Jemayel Khawaja is Editor-at-Large at THUMP and smells like curry and you can follow him on Twitter here.