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"An Undeniable Presence": Racial justice work among South Asian American musicians


This dissertation concerns four well known South Asian American musicians based in New York

City and the San Francisco Bay Area: Vijay Iyer, Sunny Jain, Rekha Malhotra (DJ Rekha), and

Rupa Marya. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted from 2016-2017, supported by a

Margery Lowens Dissertation Fellowship from the Society for American Music and a grant from

the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley. My work, which included conducting

interviews, archival research, and attending numerous concerts, rallies, and protests, investigates

how the four central artists use their work in music as a means to further aims of achieving racial

equity. Ultimately, I argue that contemporary racialization of brown people, particularly in the

post-9/11 and Trump Era United States, has led to increased involvement in racial justice

advocacy work among South Asian American musicians.

In the first chapter of my dissertation, I use Howard Becker’s theory on art worlds and Benedict

Anderson’s idea of imagined communities as starting points to show how political solidarities, as

defined by Sally Scholz, create and constitute activist networks among these musicians. Each of

the central chapters concerns one of the artists, highlighting how their musical practice advances

racial justice causes. My chapter on Iyer shows how he uses his privileged status to re-orient his

primarily White audiences’ attention toward structural racism in public concerts, interviews, and

lectures. My chapter on Sunny Jain highlights how his seemingly utopic musical and political

ideals emanate from the religious Jain concept of anekantavada (“pluralism”). In the third

chapter, on Malhotra (DJ Rekha), I show how Basement Bhangra, a party she organized monthly

from 1997-2017, served as a space to fundraise and organize for progressive political causes.

Finally, I look at Rupa Marya’s simultaneous careers as a physician and musician as extensions

of her work as a healer and anti-capitalist. Throughout the chapters, I examine how these artists’

left-leaning music networks overlap, maintaining that these connections have as much to do with

their politics as their shared cultural heritage.

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