Brown Skin Rebel
A conversation with Mandeep Sethi
By Abdullah Saeed |
SEPTEMBER 6, 2019
Listen to Seti X's track while you read the interview below:
Note: This interview includes explicit language.
Every first generation South Asian American kid with a penchant for art has at least one thing going for them--a lifetime supply of familial angst that will fuel their craft for decades to come. Keep shaking those heads, folks, and you’ll send your ABCD kids further down the path of self-exploration, digging deeper into themselves to reconcile a generational misunderstanding that’s simply irreconcilable. We want to find ourselves, fulfilled and satisfied with our social and emotional states. Our parents just want us to find ourselves a decent job with benefits. That’s all Mandeep Sethi’s parents wanted, and as the LA native rapper begins a new phase of life as a creative educator in the Bay Area, they’ve finally got it. But it came only after decades of headshaking, some pointed tsk-ing, and perhaps even a heavenward “Hayo rabba!” or two.
As soon as Mandeep got the taste of rap in his mouth, he began developing a vision not only for his own career as the first legit Desi rapper on the airwaves, but also for the creative Desi-American community for which he longed. His uncompromising pursuit of this reality took him from the freestyle cyphers of LA’s Korean-American rap scene to the auspices of the storied Zulu Nation in New York to his parents’ motherland, New Delhi, where he finally found his cohort, only to lose it over the creative conflict that only success can bring.
All Mandeep wanted was the right space for Sikh, South Asian, Indian, Desi artists in American culture, and in his struggle to achieve it, he tapped into a revolutionary spirit that continues to inspire minority art communities in an age when their voices matter more and are heard more than ever before. He’s still pretty sure his parents don’t get his music, though.
Tell me about how you first got involved in the LA rap scene.
Project Blowed was an open mic in LA run by rapper Aceyalone. It was a weekly open mic and everyone came and rapped there and if you were wack they would start chanting “Pass the mic”. So there was really intense skill development going on there. That was really intimidating to me so it made me really want to work on my rap before I told anybody I rapped.
Any other Desis hanging out there?
Hell no. I was 1000 percent the only one. The reason I was able to connect to that community was because of this Korean rapper named Dumbfoundead from LA. He was involved onstage with Aceyalone and them, so I looked at the Asian kids in hip hop who were empowered and thought "If he’s Korean, and that’s Asian, and I’m Indian, and that’s Asian, then he’s my elder influence." Dumbfoundead was also part of another open mic with Korean rappers called Jeet Kune Flow, which I got involved with, so I watched how he moved and was influenced by him.
[Laughs] I was very accepted by the Korean community in LA. For some reason, that’s where I felt the most comfortable.
When did you realize you had the confidence to take up this craft?
My confidence came because I was in high school when 9/11 happened, so in a weird way I needed the confidence to make up for all the shit I was dealing with. And I think that that's how I made it through without becoming depressed or becoming suicidal or all these things that happen so easily to kids now. I didn't have to worry about cyberbullying. I was just getting bullied in real time. It informed my whole high school experience. 9th to 12th were the confidence building years.
At this time you're going through a crazy transition, inside and out. You’re going through puberty, hormones raging, and you're rapping and making music--What does your family think of all this?
I don't know if there’s been any change since then [laughs]. They were highly disapproving of it, but at the same time that they’re 99% against it, there was that 1% I would see that was supportive. But most of the time, it was like, “What are you doing? This is a phase. You need to focus on your career, focus on school.” Now that I have a job that has benefits, my dad is really happy.
That's all they ever wanted.
He just wants to see his child be a working man. He has put [in] his blood, sweat, and tears, moved from India with nothing, bought and sold businesses and established himself very well. The American dream--he was the living epitome of it. But for me, what he worked for became the privilege that I got to enjoy, which in turn became a problem in our relationship because he was able to establish himself financially so I didn't have to struggle, and since I didn't have to struggle, I was able to become an artist.
I think the reason that you didn't see as many brown rappers in the 90s--because all the brown dudes who were at prime rapping age were trying to make their parents happy by becoming doctors.
Totally. And I’ve realized a lot since then, but I was lucky enough to have some awareness at that young age that nobody should be able to tell you what you want to do in life.
When did you become politically and socially aware, and how did that influence your art?
It was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1000%. I read that book and it was life-changing and eye-opening. It was like, OK, now I have a new perspective, one that’s not being taught to me anywhere else. And then I'm seeking more of that perspective and I'm realizing that that perspective is not being mainstreamed in any way. And then I’m further interested--OK, Malcolm X. OK, Nation of Gods and Earths. OK, Black Panther Party. I got into reggae and dancehall, because a lot of that is political. What is 'Burn Down Babylon'? Now I want to know. I'm an inquiring mind. I went out and tried to find out as much info as I could about things that we were not being taught.
Were you wearing red black and green pendants and all that?
[Laughs] Na, I didn't get into all that until I went to college in the Bay Area. I ended up fully embracing that side of myself in my first years of college at San Francisco State University.
You must have found a whole band of freaks there for yourself.
Oh yeah. The Bay Area is known for that. And SF State was the first college in all of the USA that started an Ethnic Studies department. It already has this revolutionary history. Mario Savio, who started the free speech movement at UC Berkeley, actually went to undergrad at SF State, so all these things I'm learning and I'm actually there at the place where they did all these protests, and I'm just fully immersing myself.
And how did all this effect your rap music?
I was finding my footing and doing spoken word and hip hop. I did a lot of open poetry mics, because I was picking up Saul Williams and everything happening at that time. So that was my transition time, but mentally I also said 'If I’m moving to SF, I’m pursuing music full time.' That was my whole perspective. So any opportunity I could get to perform, I was performing.
When did you get involved with Zulu Nation?
The whole thing with Zulu came in after I graduated from college. I was really involved in the Bay Area hip hop scene and then they asked me to join the SF chapter of the Zulu Nation. And eventually I got to travel to NYC and meet all the people that started it.
Up to this point, you've been up to all kinds of things--You're a rapper, a revolutionary, a five percenter, a Zulu. How did all this lead you back to your Indian roots?
It was after I graduated. No job, no gigs, no money. [laughs]. I thought that, at this point in my career, I would be a worldwide superstar. I had all these ideas in my head of who I want to be at that age. I had all these false dreams and hopes that didn't come out the way I thought they would, so I started getting really depressed. Not giving up, but in a sense, giving up on myself. We’ve all been there as artists.
Oh yeah man. I go back there like once a week.
[Laughs] Basically, I wasn't really leaving the house and got stuck in my head and fell into a really deep depression, probably the worst I’ve been in. And my parents were in India, and they were like, "Why don't you just come here?" And for some reason, I agreed. So when I got there in 2009, I found out that there's hip hop there. And not just the Bollywood version of hip hop. I found a couple of people who were breakdancing, and a couple of people who were DJing hip hop. Very small community in New Delhi. And then I wasn’t really depressed anymore. I was busy trying to get acclimated to India. The first night I landed, someone reached out to me and asked me to come perform. So the night I landed, I rocked a show. Eventually, I co-founded a group that we called The SlumGods. We did videos, we did shows, we started an afterschool program. That was the point where I realized I should stop looking for Indians in hip hop in America because they're all in India. My perspective shifted.
I think subconsciously I was always looking for that affirmation of a community. Hip hop is based on community. It's one of the foundations. And you see the comradery amongst Black artists and Latino artists. And I was even seeing it amongst Korean artists. So I subconsciously wanted that community for myself with my people and I stopped looking for it eventually in America because it did not exist.
So you show up there and you realize this need you have as it’s being fulfilled, and you have a new crew. How long did you spend there?
I stayed for two months at that time. Went back in 2010. Went back again in 2011. And then in 2012, I moved there. I lived there for one year. It was 2012, and I thought the world was going to end on December 21st [laughs] I was like, "I’m gonna move to India, I’ll be fine."
Yeah, the whole world will be fucked and in India it will just be a heavy monsoon.
And then at the end of the year, I was like "Fuck this, I'm moving back, I'm American as fuck!"
So you got diarrhea one too many times.
[laughs]. What happened was actually that all the community I built started to push me out. Because they started looking at me and calling me American. It was really weird.
What was it about your American-ness that they didn't like?
It was particularly the co-founder who had actually lived in America for some time and was deported after 9/11 because he was undocumented. He was like "You're an American capitalist, you're trying to take advantage of the kids," and it was this whole misconstrued idea of why I was there, when actually we were all making money, we were all getting gigs, and it wasn't like I was taking more of the pot. The whole point was to move to India and be with your people. In India, it's really easy to convince people that one person is the enemy.
Like when they say some guy ate beef on the street and everybody lynches that guy.
It’s bad. So I became the victim of that whole mentality. And then I got to the point where I was getting depressed again. Then I left India and came back and I was fucked up when I came back. Because everything I built was taken from me. For two years, we cut off communication, and the shit fell apart. I was doing the backend organizing, logistics, websites, gigs, managing.
And if that hadn't happened, you would have stayed in India and kept doing it?
Eventually, I would have had to come back, but I would have kept going and by this point we would have been legends out there because now the state of hip hop in India is much more popular.
But then you came back to America, and at this point you've gone through so many stages of your artistic evolution. Now you’re in your 30s. Where are you at now? What did you learn?
A lot of life lessons I learned during those years were about expectations, about not having expectations, and it might sound weird or negative, but to me it’s not. Because expectations led to a lot of disappointment and depression. And it wasn't really expectations of myself, it was expectations of my vision. And the vision doesn't pan out and so the expectations don't pan out. And I think that that way of thinking overlooks that actual moment, the present, the experience. What is actually to be gained from life. Just to let in the moment versus the moment leading to something.
Tu baray akalmund hogayo, huh?
When you’re young you picture yourself to be part of this thing, and your whole life you’re looking for that community and finding it in the Koreans, the Zulus, the Indians, and always coming up a little short. Brown people are still not everywhere yet, but we’re out there. Is this what you expected or wanted for brown people and our representation?
Fuck no. There are pockets of authenticity, but it’s not authentic. There are outliers, but I don't think there is a community. Right now, I think the brown man is still kissing the white man’s ass. I don't think we’re at an authentic space of artistic expression. I think we are at a mimic state. We only have a few brown folks with authenticity to what they do.
And they’re all the clean version. It always comes first. It’s like how late night hosts of color are more tame compared to the more animated and goofy white ones--because the first person of color has to be the tamer one.
It’s crazy because I come from the mentality of the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. Looking at that community, MLK Jr. did exist at the same time as Malcolm X. So they had the clean version and the explicit version coexisting.
But only the clean version got a holiday.
[Laughs] That's real.
Abdullah Saeed is a Pakistani-American writer/performer based in Los Angeles.