Interviewer: What do you think of South Asian artists who have also broken into indie/mainstream music success, like Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes), M.I.A., and yourself? Is there a different responsibility or consciousness involved with being South Asian and a musician in an industry environment where there are so few?As a white person, born and raised in the US, who doesn't have to face racism in either the US or Europe, perhaps I am not as qualified to talk about the openness of the US versus other countries as I might like to be. Perhaps when a Chinese friend tells me that everyone she knows talks about how they'd rather live in the US than Europe, she's just blowing glitter up my ass because I am American. She might be telling Germans they'd rather live here than the US.
Wilder: I love M.I.A. and Natasha Khan’s music. I would add that Das Racist engage South Asian and “brown identity issues” in the most sophisticated and hilarious manner of any contemporary artists. Truthfully, I don’t feel a burden of responsibility as a South Asian musician in an industry where there are so few. I am half Indian, so if I want, I can identify with the multitude of ridiculously talented mixed breeds out there: James Brown is part Apache, Bob Marley’s dad was white, Prince is definitely something weird. And Freddie Mercury is the greatest singer of all time, and he’s a Parsi, born in India. But, I guess you could say that those first guys I mentioned identified themselves as Black, and Freddie Mercury did everything he could to play down the whole Asian thing and is remembered as a British pop star. But then there’s still trailblazers like Tony Kanal from No Doubt and Kim Thayil from Soundgarden. One could argue that those were sidemen though, and that’s what so great about Natasha Khan and M.I.A.- their brown faces are front and center.
I’m sort of halfway there. I’m not the frontman, but I’m not exactly a sideman because I do sing lead on a bunch of our songs, and I really try to put myself out there. If I wasn’t singing lead on at least a few songs I’d be really disappointed in myself. But I really think that’s enough, as far as my burden of responsibility. Indians who live in America are not a downtrodden minority. I could write a song about being brown but I would feel like I’m bitching about something that doesn’t really upset me. It’s fine as a subject for stand up comedy, and I think there are a lot of great movies about Indians growing up in America that haven’t been written yet, but it just doesn’t appeal to me as a subject for a song.
The problems facing Indians in America are what? Parents pressuring their kids to become professionals, parents valuing academics over social lives, parents pressuring their kids to marry. When you think about it in the grand scheme of things, these problems are really not that bad! I’m pretty sure Indians are America’s wealthiest ethnic group – I think if I was fully Indian, statistically I’d be a richer man! At least more educated. So the only thing holding us back from being in the spotlight is ourselves. Sure there’s probably some institutional racism out there, but I’ve been around the world, and there’s no place as open as America. Europe is an ass-backward, old school place. Everyone who wanted to do something new and interesting with their lives left Europe for America at one time or another. Don’t let all that supposed progressiveness fool you, they’re xenophobic as hell. And I love to visit India, but come on – it is a dusty, corrupt, and chaotic country, with an even more despicable gap between the rich and poor than America’s. Did I mention the dust?!
I embrace being different from your average white musician. That’s part of what I love about my band; we all have different personalities or backgrounds and we try to throw them all into the mix to create something new and interesting sounding. If I can be onstage and inspire some brown kid out there to pursue something artistic, something other than being a doctor or engineer, then I’m doing a good job. And if they want be a doctor or an engineer, good for them! Less competition for me."
I'd be interested in hearing the perspectives, if there are any out there reading, of people who come from somewhere other than Europe/the US and have lived in both Europe and the US - what do you think of Wilder's comments? Accurate or totally naive? And from any Americans reading - what's your experience of racism there? If he were half-black or half-Latino instead of half-South Asian, would he be saying something different? (I almost wrote "singing a different tune" but...ouch, that would have been a terrible pun.)
My husband and I were particularly impressed once by the story on NPR of a black American woman who moved to France. She found that as long as she spoke with an American accent, she was treated better than she was in the US, and better than she was if she spoke with a French accent. She also commented that in the US she could budge in lines and no one would challenge her if she tried to look mean, but that the French weren't having any of that. There are a couple of ways to interpret that. She preferred living in France to the US. I wish I could remember her name so I could find the NPR story.
I think we can all agree that the US has extremely serious race and immigrant problems, but my question is whether it's relatively more open toward immigrants than other countries - not whether it's open enough. Is my Chinese friend's comment glitter up my ass, or reality? And I'm too white-bread, middle-American, and inexperienced to figure it out myself.