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: Continue reading