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: Continue reading

5 Classic Jazz Songs of Protest and Resistance

It has been a troubling and depressing week for many of us in the US as we reckon with the results of last Tuesday’s election. It’s made it hard for me to focus on music. And when I do think about music, I find myself taking a step back and contemplating: what exactly is music for? What does it mean to people who are engaged in a struggle simply for existence, dignity, material comfort and self-determination? I think one of the reasons jazz is so powerful because it is an art form that is by definition an act of resistance. It was created by largely self-taught descendants of enslaved Africans on Western instruments (that originated in European classical and marching band ensembles), and these people poured into their foreign tools their entire souls and intellects, often at great personal risk. They forged a unique aesthetic that was at once fiercely modern and virtuosic and thus demanded respect, but also often witty, tragic, sophomoric, romantic, angry, sensual, and vulnerable – in other words fully human. In a society that constantly denies one’s humanity, that in itself is a miraculous and heroic act of anti-colonial liberation through sound. And I think one of the reasons that we as Americans of all races treasure jazz so much is because that the music, at its core, is really a vital source of healing for an embattled and oppressed community. It’s deeply spiritual kind of medicine, created by and for one group of people (with lots of crucial contributions by people of other races) – but its healing spirit is accessible for everyone.

As Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) said, “Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made…This music cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes that produced it.” In that spirit, and given that the attitudes that produced jazz are more relevant than ever right now, I have compiled 5 classic jazz songs of protest and resistance, and a list of many more below that for further listening (though the list is by no means comprehensive.)

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