Afro-South Asian (American) musical alliances demonstrate an “other side” of Black life, history, and politics, argues Elliott Powell in his new book, Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music (University of Minnesota Press 2020).
Powell covers over a half-century of Black and South Asian American musical collaborations, starting from the 1960s. Included in this study are John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Rick James, OutKast, Missy Elliott, Truth Hurts, Timbaland, and also Badal Roy, Lata Mangeshkar, Rajé Shwari and others.
The book’s focus ranges from the aesthetic value of these collaborations as well as their political milieux and possibilities.
Powell, an Associate Professor of American Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, discussed his book, which is free to read online, with R Benedito Ferrão, Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at the College of William & Mary in the US.
Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music opens with a succinct yet compelling dedication: “To the Power of Black music.” As the introduction explains, you envisioned the book as an investigation of Black and South Asian (American) musical collaborations that are revealing of Blackness, Black politics, and Black cultural expression.
In covering a period in music history from the mid-20th to the early-21st century, the book is interdisciplinary in how it puts music production in conversation with political and religious movements, even literature and social changes. Beyond academia, how would you say the book might be instructive about interracial and intercontinental cultural exchanges and, indeed, the power of Black music in our contemporary moment?
You know, it’s interesting that you bring up the dedication and ask about my intended audience because they’re actually connected. My book’s dedication is an allusion to Samuel A Floyd Jr’s groundbreaking book The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its Music from Africa to the United States, and in it he states that his intent is to write a book “that can be read, appreciated, and interpreted not only by music scholars but also by scholars in other disciplines, as well as by any interested reader”. I have a similar desire and approach with Sounds from the Other Side.
As an interdisciplinary scholar, I want to reach folks across the humanities and social sciences, and especially people in the fields and disciplines that shaped my thinking – music, history, English, anthropology and sociology, African American studies, Asian American studies, cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, and performance studies. And as a lover of Black music, I want to reach those who similarly love Black music but might not have any academic training in music. This is largely why the book is open access; it’s about ensuring that people outside of the academy can read and engage it.
But regardless of whether you’re inside or outside of the academy, I want readers to walk away with an understanding of the political stakes of this kind of interracial and intercontinental music. The artists who I detail in my book created music that developed coalitions of sounds and that imagined alternative and more liberatory worlds. And given everything that’s happening in our contemporary moment, we need such critical and creative imagination, and an imagination that is made possible through and with the power of Black music.
The book’s interdisciplinarity certainly comes across both in its methodology and themes. Accordingly, what opens up for the reader is a range of considerations of how to hear Black music that is tinged with South Asian influences.
One such example is in the analysis you offer of jazz musician John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1965), an album you point out most would consider an unlikely place to seek out South Asian influences in the musician’s work. In addition to explaining how Coltrane had begun studying Indian spirituality and philosophy by 1957, you explore how his music might convey concepts like vikriti [modifications of a finite set of notes] and even be likened to an alaap [the unmetered, melodic portion of a raga] as when one listens to Psalm, the final piece on A Love Supreme.
But spirituality and musicality are not the only places where you investigate the threads of Black/Afro diasporic-South Asian cultural crossings in Coltrane’s oeuvre; you also look to history.
Acknowledgment, the first track on the record, ends with Coltrane repetitively chanting the words “A love supreme”, evoking the very title of the album. You draw our attention to how similar that phrase sounds to “Allah supreme”. relying on scholar Moustafa Bayoumi’s observation of this aural overlap as a kind of Sufi dhikr or devotional chant.
Bayoumi, as you underscore, goes on to use that coincidence to think about the conversion of Black Americans to Islam through the Ahmadiyya movement which began in South Asia in the nineteenth century. It traveled to the United States in the earlier decades of the following century, with Mufti Muhammad Sadiq as one of its most renowned figures, a man responsible for converting even some of Coltrane’s confidantes.
In “consider[ing] Black musicians’ South Asian sonic explorations as distinct from those of their white counterparts” as the website blurb puts it, what does your book want us to recall from the mid-twentieth century, that moment from which A Love Supreme emerges, both in these [musical] evocations of non-white diasporic co-histories and, perhaps, also why they have been forgotten?
What I wanted to do in that chapter is consider Coltrane’s engagements with South Asia when they were not at their most explicit. I was not really interested in analysing a song like India or an album like Om (1968), those musical works that scream, “Hey, this is a South Asian influence!” And my reasoning behind that was that there’s a potential unintended consequence of examining explicit examples, namely that it could end up treating them as exemplary incidences, as moments and thus momentary things, rather than enduring legacies and engagements.
And so for me to go to an album like A Love Supreme, an album that isn’t explicitly signaling South Asian musics or spiritualities, I sought to illustrate how such South Asian forays for Coltrane were part of a longer set of musical traditions and practices (e.g., Hindustani music) in his life and work and a series of historical traditions and practices (e.g., the Ahmadiyya movement) that shaped his life and work.
And in so doing, this chapter became emblematic of the work I sought to do throughout the book, which was to trace and excavate a genealogy of African American and South Asian musical crossings in Black popular music. By genealogy I’m partly referring to the more conventional understanding of the word as a kind of lineage of Afro-South Asian sound. But I’m also, as I mention in the book, drawing on French philosopher Michel Foucault who proposed genealogies as tactics to “desubjugate historical knowledges, to set them free”.
So, to go back to Coltrane, far too often his forays into South Asian culture get (mis)categorized as falling within or extending 1960s’ hippie counterculture and the musical exoticism of “raga rock” (think here of the sitar in works by Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc.). The problem with this, for me at least, is that tying Coltrane to raga rock places him within a history, and by extension a historical memory, that occludes, that forgets, other kinds of contexts, other kinds of non-white contexts and histories (like the Ahmadiyya movement) that potentially informed his sound.
And this is why it’s important for me to go back to 1957. It allows for an opening up of forgotten and alternative histories, of resonant Black and South Asian histories in the US, and how such histories of Blackness and South Asianness permeated his thinking, his being, and his sound.
It is compelling to see how you surface these historical and musical heritages and, to that end, the genealogical is an inherent part of the book, especially in how you explore links between musicians across decades of Black music. From Coltrane, you transition to Miles Davis – the two had even worked together – and, thus, from the 1950s to the sixties and seventies. “Corner Politics” is one of my favourite chapters in your book, as much for the analysis it offers of Davis’ musical and political investments and the research you did to unearth the stories behind the music.
The chapter takes its cue, and title, from Davis’ On the Corner (1972), an album so stylistically diverse, he “proclaimed that the record ‘had no label’”, you tell us. Davis’ experimental sound on the album was his attempt to make music for “the Black Power generation.” If this was his political impetus and expression of solidarity with disenfranchised Black youth, that he achieved it by putting Afro-diasporic and South Asian instruments and sounds in conversation with one another is revelatory.
This observation brings you to view On the Corner as “a politically framed articulation of Blackness that publicly embraced Black queerness and South Asian expressive culture as central formations through which to envision [a] transformative politics…” From what you uncover for readers, Davis’ experimentation was not limited to the music-making along. For one, you report that in December 1969 when Davis began “to play new music … that featured South Asian artists,” comedian Richard Pryor who was part of the bill at New York jazz club, The Gate, saw Davis “kissing Dizzy Gillespie [backstage], with tongue and shit…”! Seemingly, Davis had become open to many things simultaneously in this self- and artistically exploratory phase.
As if the “kissing … with tongue and shit” was not enough, you go on to recount other remarkable things about On the Corner. You learned directly from artists Cortez “Corky” McCoy and (his wife) Sandra McCoy that in illustrating the cover of the album with its eight Black characters of varied descriptions, they included a flamboyantly dressed man fashioned after “Davis’s out gay brother Vernon as well as Davis’s generally unknown close friendship with James Baldwin,” the Black writer who made no bones about his sexuality (and who also comes up in the previous chapter).
Even as you point to examples of Davis’ misogyny, you situate these alongside such explicit evidence of queerness in the musician’s personal life. Briefly, what is to be reckoned with here (if not reconciled) in thinking about the crossover between the personal and the publicly political and, further, the larger political moment in which Davis is making this music?
Queerness signaled on the album’s cover, its political ethos also echoes in the making of the music on the record itself. You tell us the story of how Davis frequented Indian restaurants in Harlem, looking to hire talent: he found Bangladeshi tabla player Badal Roy and sitarist Khalil Balakrishna. Roy recounted for you the process of collaboration between him and Davis in 1972. Roy was nervous, having never assayed this kind of musical partnership before; to get him going, Davis – Roy recalls – told him to play like a Black man.
You explain this as Davis instructing “Roy to commit what Vijay Prashad calls ‘model minority suicide’”. The model minority myth is a phenomenon wherein Asians are pitted against Black and Latinx people in perverse multicultural comparisons of the alleged ability to achieve the “American dream.” Thereupon, committing model minority suicide, you clarify, “means to express … solidarity with African Americans and work together to … dismantle white supremacy…”
First, how did you find Badal Roy? That must be quite the story! And secondly, while your book is about what Black-South Asian musical collaborations disclose about Black culture, would you say that this is an example of what these relationships might also reveal about South Asian Americans? I guess this is a question that takes on a different kind of weight, too, given the Vice Presidency of one Kamala Harris…
You know, it’s funny that you mention Harris because my book was released on Election Day 2020, and because I didn’t really figure out what this chapter was going to be about until a few days after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Indeed, the necessity of coalition building became even more evident to me at that moment due to the ways in which marginalised groups across lines of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and disability would experience cross-cutting and compounding violences under a Trump administration.
And so when I started to think about On the Corner, its recording and release during the 1972 Presidential election (and Richard Nixon’s subsequent re-election), and its entanglements of Blackness, South Asianness, and queerness, it hit me that On the Corner is about Black led and informed coalitional politics – what I call in the book “corner politics”, a Black political ideal that is intersectional, transnational, and comparative.
And to that end, I do see this album – partly through the collaborations of Roy and Davis – as revealing what the political stakes are of Black and South Asian collective work (whether occurring inside or outside the realm of music). And while some might celebrate Harris’ historical position as the first Black and South Asian woman US Vice-President, her and Biden’s comments on policing, incarceration, and immigration underscore the even more pressing concern for what political scientist Cathy Cohen describes as “principled coalition work”.
But, to move back to Roy, the path to interviewing him was quite odd. I actually owe everything to his niece, Piali, who is a writer and broadcaster in Canada. I’d scoured the internet for years trying to find Roy’s contact information, but to no avail. So I went on to Twitter, and searched “Badal Roy”, hoping to find something that would lead me to his contact information (e.g., a possible Badal Roy Twitter account, which, of course, there wasn’t one). At any rate, when I searched his name, I came across a tweet from Piali that mentioned something like “check out this interview with my uncle”. I couldn’t believe it! I had a lead!
And so decided to just simply email her. I explained the project and asked her if there was any way I could interview her uncle. She told me she would ask him, and about a week or so after that, I randomly received an email from Badal Roy’s wife Geeta (who’s a tambourist who played with a number of notable jazz musicians like Lonnie Liston Smith). She told me that her husband had agreed to an interview. I was elated! We eventually set up a date and time, and we talked for over an hour. It was just so great to talk to and learn from both Badal and Geeta; and I’m grateful to them both (as well as Piali) for giving me the opportunity.
Part of what I learned from talking with Badal and Geeta (as well as talking with Corky and Sandra McCoy) was just how much of what you saw and heard on On the Corner was also happening in Miles Davis’ personal life. So, as you mentioned, Davis is asking the Roys for kurtas during the sessions for On the Corner, and Davis was visiting Indian restaurants to find South Asian talent for the album. Such connections between the personal and the musical continued with the entanglements of Blackness, South Asianness, and queerness on the album, and how they aligned with, for example, the events of his 1969 Village Gate performance or Davis’ purchasing of dashikis and kurtas from a queer clothing store in New York.
But it’s worth also pointing out that for Davis, On the Corner was a personal album to him because he deeply desired for it to be meaningful to Black youth during this moment. And I think it was meaningful in two important ways. First, it was meaningful in the way that it made explicit references to Black Power (e.g., red, black, and green; Afros; Black Panthers-inspired garb). And second, I think it was also meaningful in the way it expressed alternative ways of thinking about and doing Black politics, a politics that made central queerness and South Asianness.
It occurs to me that throughout the book you think quite a bit through aesthetics and self-presentation, actively placing visual culture in conversation with music history. So, in the reply above you refer to the clothing Miles Davis sought out, such as kurtas and dashikis, but also his use of red, black, and green – the colours of the Black Power movement – in the art for the album.
Those colours show up again in the cover art for The Flag (1986), an album by Rick James which you note “was a commercial and critical failure”. But as with previous chapters in the book, you are interested in delving into the obscure for what such sidelined music might still divulge sonically and politically.
Consequently, in your discussion of The Flag, you highlight James’ playing of the sitar on “Om Raga,” likening it to an alaap. I was struck by the history of how James came to learn the sitar, a chronicle that included a visit to India, a meeting with a relative of Ravi Shankar’s, and possible brushes with South Asian diasporic communities in Toronto and London, as you learn from the musician’s brother, LeRoi Johnson. All tangents, you also invest much in the power of “asides” in your research and the importance of giving them their due.
To this end, it is noteworthy that in the 1960s, when James lived in Canada to dodge the Vietnam War draft, he was part of The Mynah Birds, a band that included Neil Young. In your interview with him, Johnson characterised the band as being born out of its political and cultural milieu; coincidentally, it is curious that the band was named for an avian species that mimics human sounds and originates in South Asia (that mynahs are also to be found in several places where South Asians formed diaspora communities is perhaps also intriguing!).
You muse that “Johnson’s allusions to hippies and counterculture in Toronto and London serve as reminders of the place of Indophilia in psychedelic culture ... But since the Mynah Birds were an R&B band with a Black lead singer, these South Asian influences are routed through and in conversation with Black music.” Despite much evidence to the contrary, in recalling the sixties and seventies, why is it so much easier for many to think of The Beatles, for instance, and not James, or even Hendrix, for the influence of South Asian sound and culture on that period in Western music?
Also on The Flag is the song Painted Pictures, which you portray as “a sitar-driven funk ballad that examines the problems with erotic façades”. You state that in it “James treats the sitar as a bass, and only uses it to amplify the sonic hallmark of funk music … [Blending] South Asian music…with Black music [,] James makes them central to and puts them in conversation with each other.”
As erotic as this is political in your assessment, that the album is named for a piece of cloth so closely tied to state power is itself an allusion that is subverted when one hears the introductory Freak Flag, a reference to being one’s true sexual self. But James also politicizes said flag, “the red, black, and green suggest[ing] a pan-African tie … James remarks in The Flag’s liner notes that the colours also connote love and bloodshed, the circle of life and the inclusivity of Blackness, and Earth and ‘Mother Nature,’” you add.
Especially given that you link James’ musical eclecticism to the spirit of nonalignment as emblematised by the Bandung Conference of 1955 “where newly sovereign African and Asian nations formed an alliance against U.S. and Soviet imperialism,” how would you describe the non-country that James’ flag belongs to?
The world that Rick James creates with and on The Flag is a world for the marginalised. It’s a world for those living under the interlocking oppressions of racism, xenophobia, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. And specifically, it’s a world made safe for those who were historically and are presently deemed freaks. Indeed, the flag that Rick James embraces on The Flag is what he and his collaborator Val Young call on the album the “freak flag”. And, as I show in the chapter, the freak that The Flag visually (via red, black, and green), lyrically (erotic topics), and sonically (sitar and tabla) centers is one that alludes to and binds LGBTQ+ folks, sex positive women, the monstrous to perverse Black and brown (in the case of The Flag, South Asian) body, and those sitting at the intersections of all three.
And this is what I find to be so fascinating about The Flag: its centering of such marginalised groups at a time, 1986 to be specific, when the Reagan administration was targeting these groups and making them more vulnerable. James had long been critical of Reagan, and so for him to do an album like this just feels like it was an opportunity for him to further such a critical stance. But he did so in such a way that had no interest in rehabilitating the US as a space that could be safe for freaks – there is no “I still believe in American values despite the rampant oppression” – nor is he ceding ground to those who might imagine his critiques of the U.S. to mean he’s aligning with the Soviet Union (this is the Cold War after all).
Instead, as I explain in the book, James’ focus is on the freak and the political and utopic possibilities that might emerge when one creates a space and place that is organised around the freak. It’s that utopic place that James develops on The Flag, and he gives it a soundtrack that blends the Black aesthetics of funk with the South Asian sounds of the tabla and sitar. In a way, then, James’ turn to South Asia on The Flag is somewhat poetic, as it was the Cold War of the 1960s and 1970s – and specifically, the Vietnam War, and James’ draft dodging – that initially introduced him to India and the sitar.
Now, to answer your earlier question about why The Beatles’ engagements with South Asian music overshadow similar practices by African American musicians, we have to go to race and racism in music, especially rock. It’s an all too familiar tale (both then and now): Black artist does X, it is a success on Black radio/with Black fans, but fails to crossover and/or gain wide/whiter traction; white artists does x, and it’s an immediate hit across the board, and sparks far-reaching trends.
I’m using trend here deliberately because what I want to point out is that while The Beatles might have popularised the “raga rock” trend, a main argument of my book is that for Black artists, these engagements with South Asian music weren’t trends, but rather deeply historical, genealogical, and political endeavors.
Absolutely. At the very outset of the book, you deliberate on why your work does not look to someone like Madonna to seek out mainstream and/or white artists’ engagement with South Asian music and culture, because such dabblings are just a trend before performers like her move on to something else (only to also leave that behind).
I want to stay with aesthetics a little longer and, in particular, sartorial histories. In referring to the OutKast album ATLiens (1996), you explain how André 3000 takes on the character of Bin Hamin, “an Arabic and Muslim reworking of Benjamin, André’s real-life surname”. At the same time as this characterisation recalls Black Muslim histories and identity, André’s refiguring is made complete in the album’s art, the accompanying comic book liner notes, and in his life at this time, with the donning of a turban.
This element of garb, you demonstrate through references to Vivek Bald’s Bengali Harlem (2013), is part of a long tradition, including a time when “African Americans (artists and nonartists alike) [used] the turban as a tactic and tool for navigating the Jim Crow South.” This earlier 20th century practice would see Dizzy Gillespie as a participant, and even as André’s choice of the turban recalls that past, it may remind us that Gillespie himself traveled to South Asia. Other Black musicians of the jazz era did too, as Naresh Fernandes chronicles in Taj Mahal Foxtrot (2012).
Yet, you additionally locate André’s use of the turban elsewhere: in the future, to be explicit. This happens through ATLiens and Bin Hamin/André’s exploration of (alien) otherness, alternate masculinities and, really, different (future) possibilities. I almost wonder if this album, and André’s self- (and “other”) scrutiny were a prophecy of what was to come in 2001, where the turban became extremely vilified in the United States. While it would be difficult to say that OutKast were revisiting the past to offer a pre-emptive vision of the soon-to-be future, certainly – in offering it – do you think it was out of some sense of their understanding of the recursive nature of racism as it affects Black and Asian communities differently but also intersectionally? Like, this is going to come around again, so what do we do about it before it does?
You’re getting at something that I was trying to really work through in that chapter: the entanglements between South Asian aesthetics, Black and Asian oppression, and time and temporality on OutKast’s ATLiens album. The album and its corresponding music videos were constantly toggling between past, present, and future, and I felt that such toggling was closely linked to the Afro-Asian/Afro-South Asian politics of the album.
So, for example (and as you’ve already mentioned), you have the turban that takes layered anachronistic and futuristic meanings for André 3000. It’s anachronistic because André’s friends read it as a throwback to old Black women’s hair wrapping aesthetics; because André’s donning of the turban harkens back to African American male musicians’ mid-twentieth century practices of using turbans to pass as Indian in the US South; and because, as scholars like Nayan Shah and Jasbir Puar argue, the turban in the early twentieth century US racial imaginary came to symbolise Indianness and the assumed perversity, danger, and foreignness of Indians.
And at the same time, André’s turban wearing also had a futuristic quality because it was central to his Afro-futurist persona Bin-Hamin; and because, and again going back to Shah and Puar, the turban in the US racial imaginary held a kind of Orientalist mysticism that gave an otherworldly/otherly human quality and expression to those who wore it – it signaled that they could reach other worlds, other spiritual planes and peoples, and other times. So, for me, André’s turban remixes these kinds of marginalisations, marking an interface of these Black and South Asian histories and futures and the productive possibilities that might emerge through such marginalities.
Additionally, OutKast’s Elevators (Me & You) music video is another example of this play with time and race. In it, you have an Asian American male teenager in the then-present who is reading a comic book about a futuristic Black alien duo – OutKast – leading a group of oppressed people out of bondage. In my book, I read that music video as a refusal of the anti-Blackness that derives from the Asian (American) model minority myth.
Indeed, I read the music video as an embrace of the kinds of cross-racial relationships that might occur through an understanding of Black and Asian racial outsiderness, of racial alienations. Which is to say, I argue that the music video makes a case for the liberatory potential that exists in an Asian American male teenager – who, by virtue of his Asian American identity, is caught up in the long US history of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and aliens – finding resonance in and connection to the Afro-futurist alien world of OutKast.
It sets up a fantastical meeting between the forever alien of the Asian American and the ATLiens of OutKast, and thus allows the Asian American teenager to break free from the strictures of the present and imagine a different life in the future; and a future that is brokered in part by André’s alien character and his attendant Afro-South Asian – i.e., turban – aesthetics.
Yes, throughout the book, as the title indicates, you use these intersections between Black and South Asian music to point to the (or an) other side – other possibilities, as they were, that are liberatory and even joyful. In this, they are political and cultural possibilities that offer something that the mainstream just has not been able to.
Now, in the examples we have been discussing so far, elements of South Asian music and aesthetics appear in various gestural but deliberate forms in the songs and performances of Black artists: instrumentation, beats, and sometimes modes of dress. But then comes along Truth Hurt’s infamous Addictive in 2002 which does something radically different. It actually incorporates Indian lyrics and music wholesale. And it is not just any songstress whose voice and words DJ Quik decided to integrate into “Addictive”, but that of the revered and legendary, Goan-origin doyenne, Lata Mangeshkar.
While others have charged Addictive with being, at best, orientalist in light of its post-9/11 release, or culturally appropriative, at worst, because of its controversial use of the Mangeshkar sample, your analysis takes a different route. You suggest very provocatively (and productively) that the song could be heard as a subversion of “Black and Indian nationalist middle-class norms of morality that disavow the erotic”.
What I appreciate about such a reading is that it calls upon Mangeshkar’s own familial background in the Gomantak Maratha Samaj. As Anjali Arondekar chronicles (in a 2014 article in the journal differences), this community of artistes and performers, with eighteenth century roots in Goa, have kept records that refuse to disavow “its past and present attachments to sexuality”. This itself troubles Bollywood’s use of Mangeshkar’s “virginally pure … adolescent-girl falsetto,” which you further describe as being emblematic of desirable Indian “nationalist middle-class ideals of femininity”.
In order to show how the Truth Hurts/Mangeshkar “duet,” if you will, “centres and articulates shared Afro–South Asian … nonnormative female sexual pleasure”, you read the song as a queerly erotic tryst between the two women. Explain yourself, sir.
Ha! So in writing this book, I knew that there was no way I could write it without talking about Addictive. Scholars have consistently written about it since it came out almost twenty years ago; it’s almost a rite of passage for those working on Black and (South) Asian relations in US popular music. To that end, I started to review all of the scholarly literature on Addictive to figure out what my contribution would be. And what I noticed was that sex was largely absent from this scholarship.
A lot of the literature, rightly, analyzed the song through a post-9/11 frame – as the song came out in 2002 – or through a cultural appropriation approach, as Addictive contains an uncredited sample of the Bollywood recording Thoda Resham Lagta Hai from the film Jyoti (1981). But, despite Addictive and the song and dance sequence of Thoda being highly erotic affairs, the scholarship on Addictive rarely talked about the eroticism in each song.
And so what I set out to do in that chapter was to really take seriously the sex, sexuality, and sensuality in both recordings, and put them in conversation. Which is to say, I wanted to know how Addictive and Thoda spoke to Black and South Asian women’s erotic lives, and thus, how both songs spoke to one another. And in so doing, I became really interested in exploring Addictive as a duet, as (to quote part of my book’s title) a collaboration, between Truth Hurts and Lata Mangeshkar.
I read their collaboration in two interrelated ways. First, I read it as Hurts and Mangeshkar challenging middle-class norms of respectability that have organised (albeit differently due to space, race, and history) Black and Indian women’s sexual lives at the institutional and interpersonal levels. To ground this a little bit, ethnomusicologists have talked about how Mangeshkar’s voice was often used to “cleanse,” and thus contain, certain erotically suggestive visual material in a Bollywood film –this was the case with the Thoda song and dance number. But what we have in Addictive, and Truth Hurts’ singing about S/M sex, is a refusal to cleanse and purify; instead, we get Mangeshkar’s rising vocals that work to support and consent to Hurts’ sexual exploration.
And this is the second point that I make in that chapter: those collaborative vocals of sexuality between Mangeshkar and Hurts are entangled in such a way that we can read them as a kind of act of same sex desire and play. For example, to go back to the rising vocals of Mangeshkar, they are heard when Hurts is singing about her enjoyment in various sexual activities, and as such, we might read Mangeshkar’s vocals as voicing excitement at and in such lyrics and sexual practices.
That is, Hurts and Mangeshkar’s shared vocals are shared forms of pleasure that come into existence through the theme of sex – it’s a same sex entanglement of voices and the Black and Indian bodies that produced such voices. So, in a nutshell, what I tried to do in that chapter was illustrate how rooting and routing Addictive in and through sex and sexuality presents an alternative reading of the song. And it’s an alternative reading wherein Black and South Asian folks aren’t rendered distant (which was the case in most of the cultural appropriation and 9/11 approaches to the song) but rather made intimate (in every meaning of the word).
The erotic and its political possibilities again come up when you explore the place of South Asian American performer Rajé Shwari (born Rajeshwari Parmar) in hip hop in the first decade of the 21st century. However, with Shwari, what you identify, and especially so in her collaboration with Timbaland, is her role in the industry as someone with agency, someone who could “produce new racialised, gendered, and sexual narratives of and for Afro–South Asian music”.
This allows you to consider how, when Shwari’s voice appears alongside Jay-Z’s on The Bounce (2002), her reworking of the lyrics from Choli ke Peeche Kya Hai (from the film Khal Nayak (1993) potentially queers the lead singer and moves the song from being an expression of hypermasculinity, solely, to “an experience in Afro-South Asian collectivity”.
While this highlights the political and cultural possibilities as envisioned historically and in the recent past of Black-South Asian American musical collaborations, as your book notes throughout, how do you contend with several examples of the sidelining of South Asian (and especially women) performers in the United States, including Shwari and M.I.A (Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam)? No doubt, M.I.A., who also worked with Timbaland, has left quite an imprint, and you suggest that Shwari may be working with him too to put out new music. As we close, I guess what I’m asking is for you to reflect on what this legacy you have traced may help us envision down the road, not only for Black and South Asian American musicians, their future collaborations, but also what these might portend culturally and politically.
This is a great question! To get to it, however, I want to go back to Timbaland and Rajé Shwari. I wanted my book to have a chapter on Timbaland and Shwari because I think scholars have generally elided that moment and their collaborative work. Indeed, it appears to me that scholars either: 1) read the 2001-2004 era in US rap as one where rap producers, and especially Timbaland, exclusively sampled South Asian music; and/or 2) Read Shwari as just a random person with no agency who Timbaland brought into the studio to replicate Bollywood samples, and thus rendered her as no different than – as interchangeable with – a sample, an object.
Yet, as I attempted to illustrate in the chapter, the collaborations between Timbaland and Shwari were deliberate and dynamic collective endeavors. These were collaborative moments where they attempted and desired to, as the title of the chapter articulates, do something different. For them, sampling for sampling’s sake wasn’t enough. They needed to imagine the Black and South Asian musical relations in U.S. rap differently, anew, and otherwise – in ways that spoke to issues of race, gender, and sexuality.
And while Timbaland and Shwari’s professional relationship soured about two years after their meeting, both artists maintained a commitment to expanding what is possible through and with Afro-South Asian musical collaborations in US rap. For Shwari, this has meant the creation of her label Bollyhood Records, and signing and mentoring emerging Black and South Asian American talent. And for Timbaland, this manifests in his collaborations with artists like Suphala, Shakti (the South Asian American singer not the jazz fusion band), Amar, M.I.A., and most recently Raja Kumari (and not to mention, a recent reunion with Shwari).
Which is to say, Timbaland and Shwari did not treat their work together in the early 2000s as aberrations or as ephemeral acts, but rather as openings that furthered the kinds of legacies of Afro-South Asian collaborations that I discuss throughout my book.
And so, in 2021, I’m hopeful. And, to be frank, it’s a hope that came in early 2020 when Missy Elliott and H.E.R. released a reinterpretation of the Rolling Stones’ sitar-driven song Paint it Black. As I wrote this summer, this reinterpretation, which was produced by Timbaland, powerfully reframes the Stone’s original to one that was connected to contemporary Black politics and seeks imagined alternative liberated Black worlds.
Importantly, Elliott, H.E.R., and Timbaland’s reimagining of Paint it Black proved to me that not only is there still a place for Afro-South Asian music-making in US Black popular music, but that the current moment demands it. Indeed, the multiple political battles we are witnessing on and across multiple fronts make it necessary to seriously consider the possibilities of (continued) collective work. And although it might not be apparent now which artist(s) might take a central role in advancing the legacies of Afro-South Asian musical collectivities, what I’ve shown in my book is that such collaborative sonic workings, such coalitional auralities, hardly manifest in readily apparent ways. Instead, the Afro-South Asian collaborations in Black popular music often develop within and as sounds from the other side.
R Benedito Ferrão, Assistant Professor of English and Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies at William and Mary and Fellow of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies.
Read Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music here.