I am Bombay born and Baroda raised. I immigrated to San Francisco, California, with my mother and sister when I was 12 years old. My father had been living there for a few years before we joined him.

Soon after my arrival, I enrolled at my zone's public school. The school sat in the heart of the city, and like most inner-city schools in America, it was battling an unrelenting triumvirate: violence, low-test scores and poverty. I was one of four South Asian students at the school and the only one amongst them placed in ESL (English Second Language) classes.

India and all its ways were still with me and I fumbled through those early days in an innocent way. I found the language of the streets and its social cues hard to grasp. My foreignness and shabby clothes marked me as a soft target for jokes. The jokes lead to fights and the fights to increasing anger and frustration. I longed to return to India. My father said that wasn’t an option. My mother reluctantly agreed.

The challenges of immigration were acutely present in my household. Financial prospects sent my father away, often. His absences added further strain on my mother as she juggled two underpaid jobs and struggled to facilitate a smooth transition for my sister and me. In retrospect, my entire family was dealing with varying degrees of trauma post arrival, but back then I felt that only I had been thrown to the wolves.

The hardship of adjusting was made smoother when I met a new friend on the train. This fortuitous encounter changed the trajectory of my life. He introduced me to rap music –  I was magnetised. Its growl and nihilistic streak rhymed with my own surging feelings of anger and alienation.

I memorised Ice Cube’s lyrics and although I wasn’t fully cognisant of the meaning in all his raps, I connected to the middle-finger-up spirit, the "by any means necessary" ethos and the one-man army mindset that he embodied. My understanding of his coded rhymes, with their sentiments about Black consciousness, unfolded slowly, over time, and when it washed over me fully, it was a cold-water awakening. I was living in a country that existed in a Black and White binary. I was Brown, I was an immigrant and I was living in a country with unhealed wounds of slavery, exploitation and slaughter.

Hip hop, but more specifically rap music, revealed itself as a tool and even a weapon. Within weeks of discovering Ice Cube I went searching for everything rap. It became my world. Over the next few years I wrote raps and began battling other rappers. Someone with rapping skills carried tremendous weight and was esteemed in the community. By my late teens and early adulthood, I attracted attention for my ability to "flip a phrase like Vanna White". My burgeoning skills lead me to develop higher self-esteem and allowed me to shape-shift from being someone who was told what he was to telling others what I was. I began to understand that this was how I could move in the world. Playing with language in this way through rap felt like a club in the hands of a caveman for the first time.

Over the last ten years, I have been fortunate enough to tour across the United States on the strength of the seven albums that I have released - three with Himalayan Project, two with Oblique Brown and two under my own moniker. My music has undergone several political, personal, and artistic shifts – all coinciding with my personal evolution through heartbreaks, relocation, and commitment-to-community work, most recently in juvenile prisons in Los Angeles. These days I approach my work in the tradition of the griot. I tell stories. Not only my own, but those of my larger community (Black, Brown, White) who have helped me weave my experience into the American fabric.

Since the age of 12, hip hop culture has been my constant companion, confidante and mentor. It has been the spine of my American life. It has guided me in ways that my immigrant family members could not.

Listen to a few of my songs here:

Postcards from Paradise
(Himalayan Project featuring Chee Malabar)

Harsh Truth

Unbearable Sweetness
(Burning Tire Artisan)

What Remains
(Chee Malabar and Oblique Brown)

Silent Scream
(Chee Malabar and Oblique Brown)

Sounds: www.cheemalabar.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @cheemalabar
YouTube: See playlist here