Being exposed to hip-hop is just a normal part of growing up as an Indian kid in America. That wasn’t the case for me. All I remember from my childhood is seeing Sonu Nigam in concert, turning on the Hindi channel on Saturday mornings, and listening to Bollywood CDs in the car. I even had an action figure of Adnan Sami that I got as a birthday gift (lol he was something of a childhood hero for me). I rarely ever listened to the radio; and when I did, it was something like 1170 FM, not 101.3 AM. Fast forward to today, and I’ve dedicated my entire life to hip-hop. I’m 100% locked in as a rapper-producer. I listen to rap and R&B 24 hours a day, I’ve got Nipsey Hussle as my wallpaper, and I’ve already mapped out the next 10 years of my life as an MC. I never foresaw such a drastic change, and it’s even more surprising that this all happened in a span of just a few years. So, let’s talk about it.
Prior to high school, my perception of rap and hip-hop was actually pretty negative. I thought these so-called “artists” were overly paid celebrities who only screamed aggressively on a mic and didn’t deserve all that fame. What I now understand as the intricacies of street life that these artists experienced growing up in government housing projects, I looked at back then as gruesome violence. It wasn’t until high school that I was exposed to hip-hop in a positive light. My friends would play Rae Sremmurd and J. Cole and Nicki Minaj. We would play songs like “Throw Some Mo” and “Wet Dreamz” in the car, and I started developing a taste for hip-hop. Soon after, I started discovering artists and albums for myself. I’m glad I happened to pick the right ones: my first few albums were To Pimp a Butterfly and 4 Your Eyez Only. It was moments like these that were absolutely pivotal in shaping my mindset around hip-hop in the proper way. I could’ve easily become enamored by many artists who don’t actually embody the true essence of hip-hop, and I’m forever thankful that didn’t happen. Because understanding the depth of hip-hop right from the get-go pushed me in the right direction to fall in love with it as much as I did: I understood the power of storytelling in rap, the complexity and intelligence behind each lyric, and the underlying layers behind each song and album that I had never before experienced with music. Music slowly became a soulful experience for me as hip-hop started to educate me more. And that’s my first takeaway: hip-hop is and always has been my greatest form of education. It was always more than entertainment. It’s deeper than rap. Way deeper.
It was one conversation in 2018 that completely reshaped the way I looked at this journey. I was at a close family friend’s house for a spiritual program over the weekend, and I was speaking to one of my dear family friends who is a Black woman. She was relaying many of her life experiences, and I got to learn many things she had gone through. She lived through the Civil Rights era, the Reagan-era War on Drugs, and many other instrumental moments in history that affected Black people. That day I got a glimpse of what it means to her to be Black, and to be a woman. We were discussing African history and her heritage, and I got to learn just how much ancient India and ancient Africa have in common. So many of our Vedic practices and spiritual understandings are reflected in African culture. I realized that both our cultures had deep cultural ties that have unfortunately been lost over thousands of years. It dawned upon me why I seem to gravitate so much toward hip-hop and Black culture: my ancestors intended for us Desis to cross that bridge when they built it in Vedic times. This was my second takeaway: I felt a responsibility to resurrect that connection by bridging the gap between Indian culture and Black culture through hip-hop. From then on, I actively started incorporating elements of my native Desi culture into hip-hop: whether it’s taking inspiration from Bollywood music to create my own songs, or sampling Bollywood songs in an instrumental. My song 925 was a tribute to my hometown of San Ramon, California. It was fitting to include a sample of “Kaun Tujhe” by Palak Mucchal in the hook of the song as a tribute to my homeland. I realized this is not only a unique way to set myself apart as an artist who brings something different to the table, but also a segue to introduce hip-hop to the older generation of the Desi community who usually reject rap music. I want people who normally misunderstand hip-hop to embrace it as a beautiful and powerful art form.
Looking back on my journey today, I know exactly where I’m headed. It hasn’t even been 3 years since I started rapping, but I can confidently say I know exactly which direction I’m going in. I’ve set out to conquer uncharted territory in the corners where hip-hop and Indian culture meet. I see beauty in the places where Indian culture falls short because those are the spots where Black culture picks up. Hip-hop to me is the realm where I can explore both dimensions in me. So I’ll keep painting grand pictures in rap music with my only true colors: orange, white, and green.
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