Indian-American Jazz Musicians Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa on Identity, Community, and Belonging

I’ve been following the careers of Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa for a while. What inspires me about them, even more than their music, is their continuing determination to place their art within a larger context, to relate it to current events and pressing questions, and to use their success to shine light on vital issues. Iyer, in collaboration with poet and hip-hop artist Mike Ladd, has created large-scale works investigating fear and surveillance in airports post-9/11, critiquing and satirizing the 24-hour mainstream news cycle, and expressing the dreams of young veterans of color. Mahanthappa has released albums addressing stereotypes of Indians, exploring the ways that modern technology affects communication, and relating the history of Britain’s “South Asian Middle Passage” that enslaved South Asians for labor in the plantation economies of the Caribbean.

What also strikes me about Iyer and Mahanthappa is their commitment to grappling with their unusual and complicated place within jazz’s racial landscape: from encountering racism from critics, to confronting their own privilege as non-Black artists within a Black medium, to navigating the pitfalls of self-exoticization and inauthenticity. The road they continue to travel on is difficult and requires a lot of reflection and often humility. It’s actually a good microcosm of the situation that we as Indian Americans find ourselves in today, in a country where, as Vijay Iyer puts it, “to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.”

Here are a couple articles where Iyer and Mahanthappa discuss these issues at length, and talk about their friendship and their seamless chemistry as musical collaborators:
1) Dual Identities: A Conversation with Jazz Soulmates Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa (Pitchfork)
2) Sangha: Collaborative Improvisations on Community (Critical Improv)

Some excerpts:

VI: “There was a certain othering, where difference and ethnicity was highlighted as a way of putting us aside. Even when there was a lot of praise, it was in a way that made us seem that we did it because of our ethnicity—not because he was into Bartók and pitches and I was into Monk. For a while that became a hindrance, but then we were able to make it an upgrade, in our own way.” (1)

RM: “…there was always the assumption that I’d be an expert on Indian music from the white side of things. That got very old, and actually I feel like I would have gotten into Indian music earlier if I hadn’t had so much other bullshit attached to it. It made me feel it wasn’t safe to listen to the music. I didn’t feel like I could put an album on without feeling like I was an expert on what was happening. But I had to read the liner notes just like everybody else. That was definitely a drag.” (1)

VI: “My music is always called “cerebral.” And that is a variation of what you are talking about; it is a way of saying I’m Asian, and therefore everything I do is brainy. It makes it seem like Coltrane’s music wasn’t cerebral.” (1)

VI: “When Rudresh and I teamed up, that was political. Not in the sense that we were going to run for office, but it was a community-building move. Through the fact of us working together and the details of how we worked together, what we did was political. So if you look at my collaborations, it is very much in line with all these others in the sense that it is a building of community, particularly among artists of color.” (1)

VI: “I came to realize that there was something quintessentially western, and even American, about this myth of self-actualization — the idea that you would find your true calling, and it would be what you love to do, and what you’re great at doing, and that would be where you belong in the world. That sort of picture really presupposes a lot of social freedom and mobility that people in the culture of our ancestors didn’t generally have. Their lives were bound by familial obligations and duties, and social stratification that went hand-in-hand with what your career choice was.” (2)

VI: “It’s still true that pretty much all my parents’ friends are Indian. They’re from all different ethnic groups in India.  It’s built steadily over the time that they’ve been there, which is over thirty years. They were among the first handful of Indian families there in the early-mid 70s. They were all pioneers, I guess you could say — improvising their way through upstate New York…” (2)

RM: “Being Indian American and playing jazz, say more than 10 years ago—not often, but often enough to get under my skin, I was asked, “Do you listen to Indian music? Do you use any ragas?” And I felt like I was so confused as to how to explore Indian music on my own terms and at my own pace, and just in a way that made sense to me, being Indian American and already having a strong foundation in jazz. I didn’t quite know how to go about it.  And also, at that point, if I was going to deal with it, how to feel like I wasn’t doing it just for the sake of doing it, or just doing it blatantly in this kind of emblematic, superficial way.I think what made a big difference was going to India in ’94 to play at the JazzYatra festival, with this band from Berklee that was primarily Indians, actually. I got to see some great concerts there, and again just buy CDs and tapes on my own terms—I saw this, I want to get this, I can relate to this, I want to deal with this—as opposed to somebody telling me the good albums to listen to, the good artists to listen to.” (2)

RM: “…when I came to New York, briefly hanging out with that Indian American community, once again I just didn’t feel Indian enough.  And there’s this very specific sort of pit in my stomach that I get when I start feeling not Indian enough. And I started having that all over again, and it made me just not even want to deal. Plus I was in this situation where I felt like I was having to make decisions about, like, going to see some music I really wanted to see, and hanging out with this community that I wasn’t even sure I was down with. I wasn’t even sure they were down with me.” (2)

VI: “…there’s much more of a critical mass. You can go to movie theaters and see Bollywood films. You can rent them by the truckload at your local store. All your friends could be Indian. Not just your parents’ friends, but your friends. You can run around in a South Asian hip-hop crew! That sense of alienation that we grew up with, being outsiders looking in at all times — they don’t have that. We’re sort of relics of this transitional era in America. I think it’s important that we continue to represent that, because in a way that perspective will be forgotten pretty soon. People will not remember that there was a time when it wasn’t obvious how to be South Asian American. When every single choice was an adventure, you know, a great leap into the unknown. An improvisation, if you will.” (2)

Vijay Iyer:
Rudresh Mahanthappa:

Also published on Medium.

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