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South Asians Can Rock Out Too

Updated: Sep 5, 2023


As a middle schooler circa 2007, one of my favorite after-school activities was flipping through music on my classmates’ iPods and MP3 players. Before the rise of Spotify, scrolling through a friend’s iTunes playlist and exchanging burned CDs remained the best ways to share music. My friends’ eyes would always widen in surprise when they found that my tiny SanDisk Sansa was filled with rock, punk, emo, and even some metal songs. A usually quiet, shy, and obedient student, they hardly expected that I was head banging to Weezer in my spare time. 


I developed a taste for rock music while searching for CDs in the library, which I would check out, burn, and add to my MP3 player at home; my parents, unfortunately, never allowed me to buy songs on iTunes. Their CDs consisted of old Bollywood music, ABBA, and Boney M, which I eventually came to appreciate when I was older. But, listening to the Black Keys, Papa Roach, and Franz Ferdinand allowed me to experience a critical sense of rebellion and cathartic angst, which I could not engage with otherwise. Belting out songs like “American Idiot” let me break away from, albeit temporarily, society’s expectation of me as a second generation South Asian— demure, obliging, and soft spoken. This subversion of expectations and defiance remain reasons why I continue to gravitate towards rock and its subgenres most. 


I realized too recently that my taste in rock music skews heavily white and male, as demonstrated by the bands I mentioned above. At first, I struggled to understand why, since the non-rock artists I listen to are diverse. But a cursory glance at the history of rock shows that it has been white-washed since Elvis was crowned king of the genre. Rock music’s origins are intrinsically Black, Chuck Berry and Little Richard being a few of its pioneers. It has always been a subversive genre at the center of social and political change. But while Elvis’ subversion of social taboos propelled him to stardom, Chuck Berry was portrayed as a womanizer and degenerate. Even Little Richard, who inspired bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, did not achieve his white peers’ acclaim.


As Black artists were edged out of rock music, finding space in the genre became challenging for women and people of color. Those that did were forced to whitewash their ethnic identities, like Freddie Mercury, and/or work twice as hard as their white peers, like Jimmy Hendrix. Rock music seemed to be by and for white men; within the South Asian community, I find few people that share my taste in rock music, most likely because they don’t see themselves represented in the genre. Moreover, though Asian representation remains generally lacking in the music industry, South Asians have “made it” across mainstream music, be it through Bollywood hits, soft jazz, or rap. The popularity of the “R.R.R.” soundtrack, Nora Jones, and M.I.A. respectively, demonstrates this. Rock, however, remains the exception. 


Even so, South Asians’ absence from the genre is not for lack of trying. They, too, have been galvanized by rock music’s ability to spark social change. For example, after Margaret Thatcher became the British prime minister, Ausaf Abbas, Azhar Rana, Pervez Bilgrami, along with self described “token-white man” Huw Jones, started an anti-racist, anti-facist rock band called Alien Kulture. Britain’s “Rock Against Racism” movement inspired Abbas, Rana, and Bilgrami, all children of Pakistani immigrants, to fight against the rising tide of conservatism and Nazi-sympathies that threatened to overwhelm British politics in the early 1980’s. In addition to being overtly anti-Thatcher, their songs described the South Asian immigrant experience and the struggles children of immigrants faced. For example, “Cultural Crossover” describes the demonization of the South Asian immigrant in Britain: “First generation, illegal immigrants, second generation juvenile delinquents,” sings Bilgrami in the chorus. While speaking out against British racism, Alien Kulture also grappled with the conflict between second generation British South Asians and their parents, in songs like “Arranged Marriage” and “Asian Youth”.


After performing 30 shows and hearing one of their songs played on the radio, the band members decided to prioritize their studies and careers outside of music. Although Alien Kulture did attract South Asian fans, many also expressed disgust at their music, accusing them of disgracing the community. Moreover, despite their attempts to use punk to speak out against the establishment, Alien Kulture found that Thatcher and her brand of conservatism had grown increasingly popular since her ascension to office. Hostility from South Asians paired with the realization that Thatcher had defeated punk likely contributed to the band’s decision to break-up.


Forty years later, Curtis Waters, a Canadian-American singer-songwriter born to Nepali parents, was similarly inspired to express himself through rock music. Songs like “Starkiller” describe feeling short-changed by late-stage capitalism and how authorities target minorities. In “System”, Waters sings, “Sell your soul for a good price…. They do not want us to breathe, can't even walk in the streets, to them we're all just machines, in the American Dream.” Although Waters’ rock music videos have found some success on Youtube, he is best known for his pop-rap hit single “Stunnin’”, which went viral on TikTok in 2020. While “Stunnin’” has almost 300 million streams on Spotify, Star Killer has yet to reach 400,000. I was frustrated that Waters’ rock music, which demonstrated exceptional talent for such a young artist, did not generate acclaim and buzz equal to that of “Stunnin’”. Though there could be a myriad of reasons for this, including the mainstream marketability of pop and rap in general, a wider audience may have failed to see Waters as a “fit” within the rock genre. 


Other rock artists and bands in the South Asian diaspora, including Nadu, Pinkshift, the Kominas, and Maya Lakhani have struggled to make their mark in mainstream rock music, despite their talent. Regardless of the strides South Asians and the diaspora have made across the music industry, their presence in rock music remains as it was when I was in middle school flipping through my MP3 player. The absence of diversity in the rock genre undermines the very principles of progressiveness and revolution which it often proclaims to champion. Rock music will decline without bands like Alien Kulture and artists like Curtis Waters, demanding change through their lyrics. Giving such artists the platform and recognition that they demand and deserve will ultimately serve to enrich the genre and draw listeners from marginalized communities. 

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