A new project from Indian-American musician Sameer Gadhia seeks to amplify the voices of artists of colour, challenging the homogenous narrative of alternative and Indie rock music in the US. Point of Origin is a spotlight Gadhia hosts and curates on SIRIUSXM’s Alt Nation and Pandora, the online audio platform, that will feature a new culturally diverse artist every two weeks, with the aim of introducing their music to a wide variety of listeners.
“Though the sonic landscape is diverse, the limelight has cast a vastly monochromatic field,” Gadhia said in an interview earlier this year. “I am living proof that this is not so, and my aim is to illuminate artists who express the truest definition of what alternative is and should be by identifying what connects us all to our shared love of music.”
Gadhia is the lead singer of the American rock band Young the Giant that has released four records so far and has given numerous notable performances, including those at The Forum in Los Angeles and on television shows run by renowned hosts David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel.
Gadhia spoke to Scroll.in about his Indian-American identity, life in the United States as an immigrant, and how music can act as a unifier across barriers.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Tell us something about growing up as a person of colour in the United States.
Racial bias is something that you don’t fully realise until later. My parents moved to Michigan from India and my father was a part of the automotive industry. He went to Eastern Michigan University, started working for Ford in Detroit. We then shifted to California as he moved along the axis of the American economy.
By order of necessity, we always lived near college towns with a highly diverse set of people. It was only when I went to Stanford University that I realised this vast difference between upbringings that had created a huge divide in America. Once you turn that switch on, you realise how much of life had been curated till up to that point to prevent you from seeing a part of America that doesn’t want you there. You can’t turn that switch off again.
That became my general preoccupation as I continued to tour the country and the world with my band, Young the Giant. I started seeing everything from a new perspective. It’s been a thing that has taken a while, I guess.
Your work often challenges the norms prevalent in the field of alternative music. Can you tell us about some incidents that may have happened in your career, or even early on in your life, that introduced you to an inherent bias against people of colour?
I have a very interesting platform as a musician, and in a vacuum, music can be faceless. Without that context of who is creating it, music can do things that maybe a speech, a dialogue, an argument or a debate cannot do – it can teach people things and change their minds. But, in an era of more contextualisation, fortunately or unfortunately, people care more about who is creating the music than the music itself.
There is a genuine need and desire to want to hear the stories behind the music. I grew up in an era where being faceless meant you are “a normal rock musician”, and normal almost always meant a white American male. I realised that to share my stories and my parents’ story and their amazing immigrant journey, I needed to create a context for people to understand alternate storylines. Otherwise, everything is going to get bleached as a one-dimensional experience in America.
The feeling really hit home when Young the Giant finished the last headlining tour for our fourth record. We headlined The Forum in Los Angeles which is a very popular arena – even the Lakers have performed there. Every artist who has made it under the sun has performed and headlined at The Forum, starting from the 1960s. Our friend and mentor Dr Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at the University of Southern California had attended a party after our show, and he was surprised by the fact that an Indian-American lead singer, probably the first ever in an American band, headlined at The Forum and there wasn’t enough chatter about it.
I realised, in waves, that it was important for me to contextualise my story so that others and future generations don’t necessarily have to do that, and, at the same time, they can draw from the advantages of having a community so that they can enjoy their successes together and commiserate over strife that has taken to get to a certain place.
In America, there are so many varying shades of racism. A large part of the South Asian diaspora here has been affected by self-reflective racism which is almost like brainwashing. Such racism leaves people feeling embarrassed at their own stories, wanting to pretend that they don’t have certain cultural unifiers in their lives. It makes you want to hide certain things, and that in itself is a form of racism, it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. I’m hopeful that with Point of Origin, I will have the ability to change that and make people feel proud of where they come from.
How did your parents react when you told them that you were quitting your science programme at Stanford University to pursue a career in music?
My parents were not happy when I first told them about my plans. I was a student of human biology at Stanford which is an interdisciplinary major and at some point, I was flirting with the idea of becoming a doctor, as the good Indian son would do. But, I am not entirely sure that’s what I wanted to do.
I think telling them about my decision initially created a huge rift. For most of my life, I had done everything “correctly”. Like a good son, I did everything they wanted of me. I also enjoyed school a lot. The first time we had a real conversation about my career plans was the first time they saw me as an adult. I don’t regret that experience at all, we became closer because of that.
Do you have any idols in your field that inspired you to further the cause of artists of colour?
There are two in particular. First, there is Freddie Mercury, or Faroukh Bulsara, who was of Indian-origin but didn’t do a great job of sharing that with the world. I take inspiration from him, not only because he was an amazing artist but also because he was a cautionary tale for lack of representation and furthering the misinformation of hiding one’s history.
The other is a band from the United Kingdom called Cornershop, who did the exact opposite thing. The lead singer of the band is a guy of Punjabi origin, and they did a lot of work in furthering the Indian narrative in the UK and America.
How effective do you think music is as a political tool, especially in terms of empowering immigrants?
Music is a very powerful tool, not only for the oppressed but also for the oppressor, because it has the subversive quality and ability to share a perspective on life that perhaps a speech can’t get across. I think when people have shared empathy and an emotional reaction to music, they hear different stories. It slowly alters their mind to be more conscious of how they are reacting or living in the world and how they can change things. I think music has an unparalleled power to change minds and unify people.
Has music helped you feel at home in the US as a person of colour?
Music has allowed me to be myself and to tell my story – normally I’m a pretty shy person. Through the lens of music, I have been able to share so much about myself that I don’t think I would have been able to otherwise. It empowered me to share my voice with people who would never have taken the time to listen to my stories.
What has been your biggest takeaway from interacting with artists of varying backgrounds during Point of Origin? What are some common concerns that they share?
My biggest takeaway from these interactions has been that we are not alone. I have this forum of young artists to talk with and hopefully give some insight to, and even learn from them. I also realised that so much of what I had been listening to was not helping my cause. I was listening mainly to male white artists. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, there are tonnes of great male white artists, but now I have the ability to listen to new musicians with different stories and it inspires me to write more new music.
The concern that these artists have usually tends to be the same thing: most of them are walking a tightrope between representation and being just artists. Most of them are using what people would call the “race card”, and it is not necessarily something that artists of colour want to do because, in some ways, all they want is just to be artists. They want to be seen as complex musicians and tell different stories.
On the other hand, though, they realise the responsibility to represent the places they have come from to become role models for future generations and that tightrope is a very difficult line to walk. It’s something that I’ve seen time and again. Musicians of colour are also concerned about the future of the music industry at a time when “wokeness” has become a commodity that has been fetishised and incentivised by record executives who still tend to be the same white American males using this dialogue for profit.
Do you think Joe Biden’s election victory will have an impact on the overall condition of immigrants in the US?
I think there will most definitely be an impact on the status of immigration camps, refugee camps, and separation camps come January, but for immigrants who have been here for one or two generations, not so much. Trump may be on his way out but the division and the xenophobia that have been normalised in this country are not going away. There is a general fear that “white allies” may wipe their hands off the cause of equality at this point because they feel that their job is done after electing Joe Biden who is not a xenophobe, racist, or sexist.
I am hopeful that things will move forward. While interviewing new artists, I have realised that the younger generations are more vocal about political atrocities, and that they are already doing things without us even having to comment on it. That makes me feel excited. I hope their stories are furthered.
Do you think Kamala Harris’s election to the post of the Vice President of the country will be beneficial for the Indian-American community? What do you, as an Indian-American, feel about the milestone she has achieved?
I do feel that her election will further the cause of the South Asian-American narrative within India. She has leaned heavily into the story of her Indian background, and her Indian mother was obviously a big part of why she is where she is today. For me, an Indian American – someone who can empathise with not feeling Indian enough when I go to India and not feeling American enough while in America – I think I am so proud of her and I hope for more change.
Where does Young the Giant go from here? Do you have any upcoming releases lined up for the band, and any specific areas of interest that the band may be looking into?
We are taking some time to figure out this fifth record that we are working on. We have tonnes of music in the future but it’s hard to tell when touring is going to happen so we are trying to align those things, and at the same time distill all of our stories into one coherent theme which we have managed to do with each record that we have released so far.