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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bought an Indian CD five years ago, artists from Missy Elliott to Bubba Sparxxx to Justin Timberlake have turned to outdated Indian tracks to make crowds gyrate.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."

"There's a massive world of lyrical style that people need to be educated on," says Panjabi MC, who calls bhangra the hip-hop or reggae of Indian music. (Incidentally, PMC, a/k/a Rajinder Rai, isn't the voice you hear in "Beware of the Boys"; he's actually a producer, DJ, and rapper. The guy singing over the Knight Rider theme is Labh Janjua, a Punjabi vocalist.) "Indians haven't really had any contacts in the industry, or any idols, or anyone to direct which way to go. So perhaps I can open the door."

That's why DJ Rekha and others are excited that artists like Panjabi MC and Timbaland's new protégé, Raje Shwari, an Indian American from Philly—are breaking onto the charts. Timbaland, the self-proclaimed creator of this new hip-hop hybrid, says he spends five grand on Indian albums every time he steps into Tower Records. (Somebody should tell him about Raaga in Jackson Heights.) "People getting into the beats now don't know the history. They play-toy with it," says the Grammy-nominated producer, who researches the culture. "These people have a voice that needs to be heard. We're trying to make 'world hip-hop.' "

Tim says he doesn't think this sound is a passing fad: "It's different enough to last." Even Truth Hurts, who initially didn't know India was in Asia, is sticking with the Indian rap game. "I think us just sampling Indian music and trying to make it our own gets cheesy after a while," says Truth. "That's why I'm working with the new U.K. bhangra producers, the Krey Twinz. And I'm definitely going to have Indian people in my video and show the culture." She's even set to appear in an "America meets Bollywood" film. Sermon, who says he didn't know his song was offensive until now, promises next time he'll be more aware. "With Panjabi MC's song there is going to be a surge of people asking questions and learning more," he assures.

Tower has already reported a huge increase in the number of Indian albums sold. "Now I have rappers asking for beats," says Jay Dabhi (formerly Lil' Jay), a New York DJ for 12 years who, during non-Indian gigs, never used to play the vinyl his parents lugged here. "Now it gets the biggest reaction," says Jay, who just quit his 9-to-5 job to produce. Like many other DJs in the Indian party scene, he's been mixing Indian music into hip-hop for years.

Raje, singing on both "The Bounce" with Jay-Z and Slum Village's "Disco (Remix)," definitely feels the responsibility to represent. "When the R. Kelly video ['Snake'] came out, everybody called me," she says from the studio at 2 a.m. "One minute R. Kelly is holding a sitar and the next minute they're belly dancing with a veil across the mouth. My answer to that is I'm coming out to let them know what the Indian culture is."

And we haven't heard the last from Panjabi MC, who says he's getting a lot of requests from both top hip-hop artists and Indian artists. "One of my main goals is to fuse the two worlds," says the DJ. "I would love to link everybody up, for sure."

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