"An Undeniable Presence": Racial justice work among South Asian American musicians
- Author(s): Govind, Arathi
- Advisor(s): Roberts, T. Carlis
- et al.
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.