by Aditya Desai
The District’s cultural nerve center in the U Street corridor was host to a South Asian hip-hop concert last month, showcasing performances by Indian American MCs, rappers, beat-boxers, and dancers.
The concert, dubbed Drift Elemental and hosted by local South Asian arts organization Subcontinental Drift, drew a heavy crowd on Friday, both Desi and non-Desi, all present to support art and bust a few dance moves.
As they took the stage, the MCs paid tribute to the old school hip-hop that they grew up listening to, each song set an emphatic homage to the culture of back-door hip-hop clubs. That night, New York’s DJ Insomnia and his crew of turntable maestros backed up the vocalists. In between acts, they took center stage and mixed a live dance set, allowing the crowd to not just witness, but in a sense “re-live” the same experience the artists were paying homage to. Filled out by a performance from breakdancers, the night overall stayed very much in the world of one-mic MCs, scratching vinyls, heavy bass beats, and subliminal lyrics.
Vocal acts from Raja Wilco, Ko the Timeless, and Navi & The Whole Damme Delegation set the tone for the night, with lurid rhymes that didn’t wax too poetic about the usual immigrant strife, but still carried the weight of cultural tensions.
And really, why make a big deal of it? It was a South-Asian event, the crowd was mostly populated by brown faces. The show was full-on embrace not of the Indian ancestry, but rather the heritage that these Desi MCs have created in the States.
Just as these MCs grew up with Run DMC, Notorious BIG, and Doug E. Fresh, other Desi kids across the country are striving to be rock legends, pop divas, or symphony stars. Though offhand it would seem that there was too much emphasis on the “Western” aspect, artists would engage with the audience between songs to give background and perspective on encountering these musical styles. For example, an R&B-influenced ballad was always framed in response to Bollywood romance numbers.
The hope is always, of course, that the Indian background is able to bring a fresh spin to the art – not only to keep the Eastern traditions alive, but also to bring a new vibrancy to the Western. Such collaborations aren’t uncommon – Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, Jay-Z and Punjabi MC, Snoop Dogg and Pritam – but perhaps to think of the new horizon: the two musical styles embedded into the single artists.
Perhaps symbolic of the notion was the live-painted mural done by graffiti artists in the concert venue. Though the subcontinent looms in the background, the hijab-donning woman is looks out at us, spray-can in hand, ready to make her mark on the rest of the world.
Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.