Meet the Desi Artists Fighting Back Against Trump with Punk Rock and 'Post-Colonial Pop'
Doctors & Engineers, The Kominas, Saraswathi Jones, and more talk to Noisey about resistance, heritage, and Islamophobia.
When Sri Panchalam woke up on the morning Donald Trump won the election, she was worried. The civil rights lawyer and lead singer of LA-based psychedelic Desi punk band Doctors & Engineers called up other members of the group and together, they contemplated calling off their scheduled show because they were scared.
Aiming to break away from the amorphous Indian-bhangra-Bollywood monolith that is often projected on Desi communities, the band formed two years ago and started covering folk songs from the sub-Indian continent, but adding the garage-punk sound of their South Asian diaspora mashup. In the week Trump won the election, Doctors & Engineers were due to launch their debut album; instead, they felt an overwhelming feeling to sit back and absorb the fact that four years of Trump's government would be opposed to their "immigrant kid music" and support for social justice causes. "I remember we had a debate—our release show was at the end of that week, and there was a big part of us that didn't want to go. We were like, what is happening? Why is it suddenly dangerous to be who I was, even more dangerous than it was to be before?" 32-year-old Panchalam explains.
Growing up in the US, Panchalam's traditional parents proudly embraced their Tamil roots after immigrating from Chennai, India, during the 1960s. In her public school, the singer was five years old when she was interrogated about the meaning of her culture by parents of her peers, who asked if she had ketchup on her forehead while commenting on her bindi. The band members each have different takes on being made to feel like outsiders growing up, and these experiences are linked to their latest album, From a Good Family.
"Everyone needs love in the world / From your heart, in your heart, this is the love," Panchalam sings in Hindi for the song "Karle Pyar Karle," a tribute to the original from Bollywood film Sachaa Jhutha. The mirroring of such vintage influences helps create Doctors & Engineers' sound, something Panchalam believes is integral to her identity. The show went ahead and the crowd was diverse with Latinos, South Asians and other immigrant communities standing next to each other in solidarity. As the band walked on stage, the warm atmosphere gave the audience an opportunity to feel united.
"We played like hell—we just couldn't help it," Panchalam explains. "The emotion came out in our performance. It was intense. As much as our audience needed a release, we really needed something to get out of our system and it was this extreme stress and feeling like what is happening to our world, what is happening in our homes, and what is the future now going to look like under this new president who really doesn't like people like us to put it mildly and is actively trying to put things in place that are hurting people of color in our communities."
In the ten years since Pakistani-American punks the Kominas formed, the reality of a racist, xenophobic and discriminatory America was nothing new, but now, with Trump's victory, those sentiments have become legitimized in a very dangerous way. The band released their fourth and most recent album, Stereotype, at the peak of the presidential election's xenophobic discourse. Their music captures the experience of being a brown punk band dealing with racial profiling, Islamophobia and white privilege through Punjabi beats, grungy guitars, and vociferous lyrics such as, "Dropping the bomb / So remain calm / Read the Quran / Pigs are haram."
It was just coincidence that the band had already had two shows scheduled for the week after Trump won, and they also didn't know that both venues would be sold out in Boston and New York. However, with emotions were running high (and given that only days after the election, the FBI released its annual report on hate crimes and showed a 67 percent spike of Islamophobic incidents in 2015), hundreds of like-minded Desis needed a safe space. Thanks to the Kominas, they found it at those two post-election shows.
"It feels like a weird thing right now to be making music in response to everything that's happening but for us in particular, we've already had a learning curve with this over the last 15 years, and we know what being active is," says drummer Karna Ray. "Now, hopefully we can aim to be more constructive, but now what that looks like is beyond us and at this point we're trying to figure it out."
"I think in terms of concert spaces, we've tried to make in an effort to create scenarios of healing for people and it's not a coincidence that we're trying to speak to people of color—black and brown people in the US, so probably these last two shows were very emotional for people," guitarist Shahjehan Khan adds. "For the four of us, as it was for the crowd, it's a really sad beautiful thing that we all essentially used these spaces to grieve together, but it's empowering."
Khan's father is the president of a mosque, and when the Kominas are on stage playing, Khan finds himself haunted by the thought that his dad could be in danger. "Before, such a thing could be faceless; now, it has a face, because it's literally happening to people I know, so again, either outcome is not great," he says.
In Boston, Bengali-American artist Saraswathi Jones describes her music as "post-colonial pop rock. In the context of what is happening in the US, the election results gave her a lens to see how unfolding political events normalized open-air fear mongering against people of color dealing with Trump's hateful rhetoric. In her song "Red Clay," the beat created with her ghunghru—a musical anklet—combined with her powerful voice celebrates her roots, but she believes now is the time to look beyond celebrating South Asian heritage. Instead, she's interested in using her platform as a way to reach out to others in need.
"How can we use our experiences of hurt, racism, and exclusion, and channel those into compassion? That's what I try to do with my music in a way, that's where it comes from," she says. "My music has been a way to connect with people who wish to relate to that experience in whatever way, and a call to the South Asian community—especially to those of us that have enormous resources—to do something and to stand up for people, and to say no to bullshit against any government in this country and others. I see my music as a way of connecting people and starting a much-needed conversation."
A vital part of Jones's work is her desire to bring communities together.
"Listen to people who have totally different life experiences to you ,and listen to how people are organizing and addressing difficulties in their communities. Listen to Black Lives Matter, listen to the indigenous First Nation's people who are gathering and blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline. Listen to women and LGBTQI people," she continues.
During the peak of Trump's presidential campaign, it wasn't enough for him to call for a full ban on Muslims entering the US. His threat to build a wall to keep Mexicans out left minorities feeling further ostracized from society, and the aftershocks of Trump's words continue to be felt across the country. Now, many marginalized communities are even more concerned about their futures. As the president-elect works to staff and shape his white supremacist administration, people of color, LGBTQI communities, immigrants, and Muslims along with other minorities feel the need to assemble and fight back.
Being a punk of color is one way to do just that. Omar Pitras Waqar has been part of the DC hardcore and DIY punk scene for 20 years, and as he told me, hopes that there will be an artistic uprising. The 35-year-old is a classically trained sitar player and performs ghazals—poetic music from the Middle East and South Asia—in his project Gardens For the Lush. His anarcho-Sufi ghazals are recited intentionally in English "to address my sorrow in the language of my oppression," Waqar explains.
The sound he creates echoes his own battle with racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy—something he has been dealing with his entire life. "Historically, the people ostracized by Trump's campaign have already suffered so much in America. We know the history of the US, it has been disgusting in its treatment of women, black people, LGBTQI+, indigenous people, immigrants, religious minorities and others, they have all suffered in the past. Because of this, people around me are worried about their futures," he says.
Waqar wants people to rise up, but not through actions such as wearing safety pins in a perceived show of solidarity. "This is another example of how people with power and privilege do the absolute bare minimum in order to absolve themselves of guilt," he says. "Forget your guilt. Do something. I think the biggest thing allies need to be doing is not taking up space and letting marginalized people speak for themselves. Instead of trying to be seen as a hero use that energy to educate people in your own families, address that home grown bigotry, so I don't have to deal with your ignorant uncle's white supremacist views all over my social media."
Though these issues have resulted in people paying more attention to radical brown music, political concerns have always remained at the core of many diasporic acts. Bhi Bhiman, the 34-year-old son of Sri Lankan immigrants, released the electro-funk track "From Russia With Love" prior to the election to highlight the hypocrisy of the entire thing. "This issue was important in the run up to the election, and I don't think enough investigating was done into Trump's ties with Russia," he says. Bhiman believes it's the uncertainty of Trump's America that continues to leave minorities anxious—and that things seem to be getting worse.
"I've always been socio-political, meaning I write about everyday people's lives but with a political slant," he adds. "I imagine I'll keep doing that and continue recognizing injustice or unfairness when I see it. But this election hurt. My whole life growing up in America, I've never experienced a condemnation like this. Half of the country is saying, 'We don't want Latinos, Muslims, or people of color in general. We don't need you. Your contributions can be replaced.' That is a truly hurtful statement to make."
Sonny Singh, trumpet player for bhangra brass band Red Baraat, agrees that music and art are crucial. "We Desis have to be louder, prouder and browner than ever right about now. Now is not the time to keep a low profile or play it safe," Singh says.
As a turban-wearing Sikh, Singh experienced plenty of bigotry connected to people's perceptions and stereotypes of Muslims and how they link Muslims to terrorism bothers him. "Now more than ever, it's time for all us non-Muslims to stand in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers against racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and imperialist wars. I'm going to keep on getting on those stages wearing my turban with my head held high, unapologetically, regardless of what part of the country I'm in. Yes, some of us have more at stake than others depending on our religious garb, our countries of origin, or our immigration status. But all of us can be resisting simply by existing proudly."
Zab Mustefa is holding it down on Twitter.
Doctors & Engineers photos by Gloria Plaza
The Kominas photo by Metro NYC
Omar Pitras Waqar photo courtesy of the artist
Saraswathi Jones photo by Sudi Chakravarthy.