Brooklyn Shanti Platform Magazine Feature
What genre do you categorize yourself in and how did you end up there?
Adventure! Considering the work that I’ve released in the last decade, it spans from traditional hip-hop to different types of fusion. I’ve always simply made music and generally, it used to be up to other labels in so far as what projects would be released and promoted. Nowadays, I’ve been playing with the colors of dancehall, cumbia, moombahton, dubstep, and many North African riddims mixed with Bengali and English language. Some people are calling that kind of thought Global Bass – I just file it under good music.
It is said that your mission has been to introduce the culture of hip-hop to India. What is it about the country that drew your attention? And how did you go about that intervention with your sound?
It was actually Afrika Bambaataa, the “Amen Ra of hip-hop culture”, who handed that baton to me. Being a Bengali raised in America yet always connected to India, it didn’t take much to draw my heart closer to home: My entire family, for the most part, lives in India. I return every year and spend a good portion of my life there. For me, the sound began vibrating back in 2000 when I released a song as part of the Dum Dum Project (DDP) entitled “Jaani Jaan”. Working with Sean Dinsmore (founder of Dum Dum Project), we engineered a release which historically (at least to us and ethnomusicologists) would connect a lot of ideas at one time. ”Jaani Jaan” featured an old school vocalist named Asha Puthli, who also helped start the free jazz movement with Ornette Coleman on one of her stays in New York during the 60′s. Asha auntie had sung on the album version of the song, however Sean wanted me to rhyme on the single release and in the video so that we could properly introduce New York’s hip-hop aesthetic in India for the first time alongside someone who was already iconic for breaking barriers and taking part in new ideas and inventions. It wasn’t until 2001 that we (DDP) fully moved to what was formerly called Bombay, and began spreading outward throughout Southeast Asia and throughout Europe. Subsequently, we released an album entitled Spiritual Bling with Universal in India which produced two hits, “Punjabi Five-0″ and “Supafly Bindi”, and we also appeared on a number of Bollywood film soundtracks.
When travelling through Southeast Asia, Afrika Bambaataa became aware of my outlook on making art and of spreading a positive message through hip-hop, and he dubbed me the Indian Bambaataa. I went on to release an album entitled India Bambaataa, as a tribute, which continued to fuse elements of New York hip-hop and Indian sounds. Recently, I have been exploring the fusion of Bengali language with various genres of music, in addition to working quite a bit in Bollywood.
How would you summarize the journey so far? What are some of your biggest challenges where hip hop in South Asia is concerned?
My journey as an artist has been nothing short of fantastic! There has never been a more exciting time to be South Asian and be living as a full time artist. A true spirit of change and progress has encapsulated India and it is being felt heavily in the West. Some components of that energy include a burgeoning DIY indy movie scene in India, in addition to music producers, both inside and outside of Bollywood, taking notice of global movements and incorporating those ideas into their work. Case in point: I find myself returning to India to both perform and produce more often than ever.
In terms of hip-hop, I see the challenge as being in the realm of a need to educate kids and the public at large about the fact that hip-hop is an aesthetic, rather than a culture which needs to be bought into. It is more of an intellectual toolset for self-empowerment and expression rather than a delivery mechanism for pop culture. The creation of hip-hop culture, in the Bronx, was largely due to the need for community building and a desire to negate negative influences which had infiltrated said community. It is a creation of necessity which flowers directly from a number of different cultural contexts colliding at the fulcrum point, New York City, at a time when there was very little offered to those in certain socio-economic conditions in regards to artistic expression. A tremendous tagline, which has travelled for a generation now, is “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” That precisely sums up the sentiment I would hope becomes embedded into the collective Indian consciousness. There has never been a better time for our people to settle disputes, put aside differences, and cast a light toward the future in order to show the world the power of our unity as a civilization. I feel that although hip-hop was born in the Bronx, it can find a universally spiritual dimension in India. I grew up as a “purist” in many ways, but as my life and career have progressed, I am now the largest proponent of fusion and change. I believe anyone and everyone can take part in the beautiful tapestry that is hip-hop culture, and there are two major themes which we should never overlook, as they have proven to be what has kept hip-hop alive and thriving: Unity and love.
India and Indians have a very unique standpoint, which I think is very advantageous. In America, everything boils down to black and white, quite literally. Indians are neither. We can sidestep a need to engage with the tones of Western materialism and the culture which has created the need for said status symbols embodying artistic content, and speak of ourselves as Indians (read: humans), period. We come from, historically, the most vibrant and brilliant culture civilization has ever known. Empires, the most beautiful of music, the most beautiful of people. It’s always been an amazing time to be Indian – even South Asian for that matter – it’s time we let them know! The day a South Asian artist becomes world famous solely because they covet and are hawking a designer brand, and is only known for that – we, not as artists, rather we – as a global community – have lost the plot. Indians can help shift consciousness.
Is there a message that you wish to leave your listeners with through your music?
My energy is that of love. I accept my flawed human side, and I equally accept the spiritual energy which I have been blessed with. When I was younger, I took the name “the1shanti” because I wished for my art to engage with people in a way which would enhance their journey toward a place of peace and tranquility in life. Everything is temporary. Including this time we are spending together in life. Let’s love one another and make the most of it.
With each of your records, and a third record now underway, how has your sound and vision evolved as an artist?
In the beginning, I felt as though I had a lot to prove. I had taken leave from Dum Dum Project and we had earned a high level of acclaim worldwide for helping to craft a certain sound. I took a lot of creative chances, and frankly, wanted to formulate a new universe of sonic expression for myself – which I think I did successfully. When I did the album with Rawkus, I had decided that it would be my last traditional hip-hop album. For me, working with the Blue Note of hip-hop was reaching a pinnacle of achievement, and I felt that I said all that needed to be said with that particular voice. As life has progressed, so have I. I feel my own mortality, in that I have almost carelessly lost my life a few times over the past few years. It begs a question: What do I want people to remember of me? The dimension of my soul I am exploring today is that of my Bengali heritage. I grew up with Satyajit Ray, Tagore, and other great artists as blueprints for what I consider to be building blocks for my aesthetic. For that reason, I’ve entitled my next project, Bengali Libre – you can read into that term in a myriad of ways.
I have begun to think visually beyond a paint canvas, in that I have directed, shot and edited a number of music videos for other artists. I have also begun to shoot and direct my own. I don’t look at releasing music as being confined to an album anymore, rather as an “experience” for other humans who want to engage with one’s creative energy. I’ve been making short films for which my music creates a narrative, or soundtrack. My recent time spent with directors in Bollywood has encouraged me to go in this way.
Current plans and future projects?
I am gearing up for my label launch in the U.S. with my next album. I currently operate my boutique management firm and creative agency, Someplace Called Brooklyn, helping the artists I work with engage with their creative vision and monetize their output by pairing them with different sponsors and brands who will not compromise an artist’s integrity or message. Due to that, I’m splitting my time in studios and board rooms between Brooklyn and India for as long as I can see, in order to help facilitate communication between the great divide. Afrika Bambaataa and I will come to India soon to create a connection between New York and India, and open a direct dialogue between our artistic and intellectual communities. I’ve been working hard on collaborations which will appear on albums in India for some of my great friends including Karsh Kale, the Midival Punditz, Nucleya, Mandeep Sethi and many more. I will be launching my label in India later this year and will introduce a host of world renowned as well as new artists for whom I’m handling songwriting, composition and production, and video direction. I’ve been keeping running updates at www.brooklynshanti.com and at my Facebook page, http://facebook.com/brooklynshantimusic. The only thing I really don’t see happening anytime soon: Sleep.