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Young South Asians' Love-Hate Relationship with Hip-Hop's New Indian Beats

Belly dancing is Middle Eastern, not Indian. But you wouldn't know from videos of Indian-influenced hip-hop. Ever since Timbaland accidentally bought an Indian CD five years ago, artists from Missy Elliott to Bubba Sparxxx to Justin Timberlake have turned to outdated Indian tracks to make crowds gyrate. Although they may not know Bollywood from bhajans, and their lyrics sometimes contain misguided stereotypes, they're making Indian music more popular here than ever.

This week, the U.K.'s Panjabi MC is dropping his American debut, which could set the record straight. His hit "Beware of the Boys" has pumped through Indian kids' CD players for nearly a half-decade, and is now (with a couple of verses by Jay-Z) racking up 3,200 spins a week in the U.S. So young Indians are hoping they'll finally get some cultural respect, starting with the word Punjabi, pronounced "Pun-jabi" not "Poon-jabi." (Though it is spelled Panjabi sometimes.)

"Some hip-hop artists don't give a shit about Indian people," says Vidya Murthy, a 23-year-old in marketing at an entertainment magazine, reacting to the belly dancing and harems in videos for songs like Truth Hurts' "Addictive" and Erick Sermon's "React" that clearly sample Indian music. Sunaina Maira, author of Desis in the House, a study of second-generation Indian Americans growing up in New York, says that for young Indians these images bring back memories of growing up unrecognized and of confronting racism.

Basement Bhangra revelers
photo: Staci Schwartz
Basement Bhangra revelers

And promo visuals aren't the only way entertainers are carelessly profiting from Indian culture. Sermon baffled those who understood the Hindi hook in "React." The translation goes, "If someone wants to commit suicide, so what can you do?" To which he responds, "Whatever she said, then I'm that." "It doesn't flow," says Samir Bali, a restaurant consultant from Queens. "If you're not Indian it sounds fine but I understand, and everyone I know thinks it sounds stupid."

"When I see a video or hear a song that's completely getting it wrong, it raises the hair on the back of my neck," says Nandini D'Souza, an editor at W. "But if they invest in a little fact-checking and ultimately can shed some light on the difference between turbans, then rock on."

Suraj Panjwani, a Manhattan-based financial consultant and aspiring MC, complains that Indians are cut out of the process. "They have hot chicks dressed up to look Indian, why not just get real Indian women?" says Suraj, who flips through CD booklets to see if Indian singers or producers are credited. Frequently they're not. Vidya feels insulted. "We are a part of these artists' audiences—go to any Indian party, and the music spinning is always hip-hop. It's like they don't appreciate us as fans," says the new Stuy Town resident. Now Vidya finds herself schooling non-Indians whenever a new song comes out.

"There’s a massive world of style that people need to be educated on," says Panjabi MC.
(photo: Sequence Records)

But constantly explaining your culture is no new task for the estimated 2 million Indian Americans—who, by the way, don't all eat curry and have arranged marriages. Give or take the occasional turban-clad cab driver, tech nerd, or most famously, Apu on The Simpsons, you rarely see Indians in the media. So the importance of airtime given anything Indian, even something as arbitrary as a line in a song, drastically increases. Jay-Z's rhyming "leave Iraq alone" in "Beware of the Boys," as gutsy as it is, nonetheless further confusesa generation that learns its social studies from MTV. "Recently a radio DJ commented on how ironic it was that the Panjabi MC song's become so famous during the war," Vidya says. "Clearly to her we're all the same." But with the recent attention on everything Indian—Bollywood flicks on Turner Classic Movies, Lord & Taylor window displays of sequined kurtis, Mira Nair working with ABC on the first-ever U.S. Indian-family sitcom, clubs playing the Panjabi MC song minus Jay-Z—attitudes might finally be changing.

Some Indians are tired of waiting, though, and are just happy to find some representation in the mainstream. "It's gratifying to hear 'your music' at the gym," says Sejal Shah, a writer in Park Slope. "It was as if the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack I'd been listening to on my Walkman had suddenly been picked up by the speakers and was being broadcast." For many young South Asians, the first time they heard "Beware" on the radio is already an indelible, pivotal moment—ask them, and you'll hear a lot of "I thought a CD was playing" or "I was so excited I called a bunch of people, and was like, 'Holy shit, turn it on.' "

DJ Rekha, whose six-year-old Basement Bhangra party at S.O.B.'s put New Yorkers on to the music before any remixes, says, "I see Indian kids in a club who get so excited when these hip-hop songs come on, because for that one moment they feel visible. They don't see the misrepresentations." Which explains her crowd-rallying command after a Panjabi MC performance: "Buy the motherfucking CD, and say we have the power now."

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