As children of South Asian immigrants, the artists in the Lincoln Center Out of Doors show desi:NOW on Sunday, August 4, (and I) grew up living in and between two different worlds—one desi (or South Asian), one American. The food we ate at home differed from what we ate at school. The music that played in our homes was distinct from what we saw on MTV or heard on mainstream radio. The urban desi space has emerged from artists navigating dual identities and cultures and creating ways to bridge these worlds. As third culture kids, there are threads of similarities in each of our experiences, but at the same time, the regions in South Asia that our families come from and where we grew up in the United States make each of our experiences unique.
To understand each artist better, I asked each of the musical acts in desi:NOW about who their musical influences are and why. I hope you find it as illuminating as I did.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify:
Growing up in the U.S., Jazzy B inherited a perfect blend of western and eastern influences, and bridged the gap in music. Sukshinder Shinda has been a maestro in bringing a very unique perspective to the traditional Punjabi music sound. The way his dhol (drum) pieces sounded, you could feel it to your heart! As a kid, my parents and I were obsessed with Malkit Singh. Years later, I was able to appreciate the reason more clearly. His vocal tone resonated with authentic Punjabi music and is very melodious to the ear.
This seems obvious and surreal all at the same time, but my entire knowledge of what music is and could be has been influenced by listening to A.R. Rahman while growing up in America, and later while working with him. Boundaries were broken when I got the incredible chance to find out how he creates music, which inevitably led to changing the way I create music.
Lady Gaga's songs always hit me in a way I can't explain. She reminds me to be true to what I do but also to try and be courageous in my ways—something I'm still working on. A female powerhouse in this industry, she is constantly breaking barriers.
I absolutely adore harmonies and '90s R&B. When I first started composing, I was insecure about the fact that I wasn't a piano player so it felt like it was harder for me to compose. What I came to realize was that I know how to produce harmonies and can arrange like the back of my hand and I didn't even realize that I could use that as my strong point. Listening to Boys II Men and their classic '90s boy group a capella harmonies always gives me the inspiration that I need.
Some artists that have influenced me are definitely Chris Brown, Billy Joel, and Jazmine Sullivan. Chris Brown has inspired me to be an artist that can execute multiples talents exceptionally well, which makes me want to become an overall electrifying artist. Billy Joel inspires me to bring charm to an audience. His classics are undeniable and timeless. Listening to Jazmine Sullivan allowed to me to deliver vocals technically while still making it sound graceful and effortless. A combination of these three artists is definitely what I aspire to be.
From his witty wordplay to his animated vocal performances, Lil Wayne has probably had the biggest influence on my music and my writing. He has the ability to flow on any beat, any genre, with what feels like effortless charisma. If he is featured on your album, it's your biggest track, and if he remixes your song, he makes it better. Wayne has fun with the art and never takes himself seriously enough to care what others think. One of the best to ever do it.
I remember riding in my uncle’s Scorpio in Ahmedabad listening to the Dil Se and Taal soundtracks on repeat. My earliest musical influences came from the Bollywood songs my parents would listen to, and A.R. Rahman was one of their favorites. I was always in awe of the sounds he chose and how he brought so many distinct sonics into one beautiful piece. Through soundtracks like Slumdog Millionaire he brought uniquely Indian sounds to the ears of the global community. One of the great creatives of our time.
Musically A.R. Rahman is a genius. He has a song for every situation you experience in life. His music is transcendental. He makes me proud to be Tamil.
Drake made it okay to feel your feelings, and highlights the complicated relationship dynamics that are very real today, all while having a sound that really resonates with me.
DJ Clark Kent is the single most influential musical personality in my life. He is a pillar in hip-hop, and I was able to spend a lot of time with him. We did multiple projects over the past seven years, and continue to work with each other. He is the person who helped me re-find myself as a DJ and realize that in order to make an impact musically it is really important to find the young talent and leverage my knowledge and skill set to help them grow. Clark had an early hand in Jay-Z's and Notorious B.I.G's career. His work is timeless, and he continues to dominate in music, events, footwear, and street wear.
The empire Jay-Z has built with a foundation of music and culture first is always and will always be inspiring. He has been able to take his musical success and diversify into other spaces to create his own vertical, including digital streaming, clothing, footwear, spirits, live events, a sports agency, and more. I was honored to be the first South Asian DJ to curate and create a playlist called "CERTIFIED DESI" on TIDAL.
Rishi Rich is a super producer based out of the U.K. He was the first producer who really inspired my DJing style because there was such a rich hip-hop and R&B influence, and a seamless blend of Punjabi and Bollywood in all of his tracks. Similarly to the greatest producers, he was able to ensure the artists were well represented musically. After hearing "Dance with You," the world changed. He opened up the style of urban desi and made sure his sound hit commercially in the U.K. Subsequently, the entire world heard "our" sound. Rishi has remained humble, easy to talk to, and continues to evolve and grow his career by collaborating with the world's best artists and up-and-comers alike—amazing!
Heena Patel is a curator, producer, consultant, and strategist for South Asian performing arts and community. desi:NOW is the latest production by her company MELA Arts Connect, created in partnership with 44 Management. Previous work includes Bollywood Boulevard and Garba360, which premiered at Lincoln Center Out of Doors 2017 and Midsummer Night Swing 2018 respectively.