My name is Sowmya. I am Indian. I am not a doctor or an engineer. I am a music journalist and hip-hop expert. For most of you—my parents included—your minds are probably blown. How does a nice girl from Kalamazoo Michigan—by way of Calcutta, India—come to hang out with rappers like A$AP Rocky, J. Cole and Rick Ross or appear major TV networks talking about celebrities? I’m guessing some combination of watching 10 hours of MTV every day after school and listening to very loud rap on my Sony Discman had something to do with it.
Lately, I’ve written a lot about Aziz Ansari’s crusade to bring diversity to Hollywood. The music industry, I’d argue, is far worse. Being an Indian-American is rare in hip-hop but being an Indian-American woman is like being a damn unicorn. I’ve lost count at the shock and confusion most artists have when I walk into the room. Over time, as I’ve built up my bylines in reputable outlets like Rolling Stone, Billboard, Vibe, Village Voice and XXL, the questions are fewer. Still, music journalism and the hip-hop industry are dominated by straight men—mostly black and white—and everyone else is an outsider. These are some common reactions I often get along with my translations of the actual, underlying race and gender questions that people want to ask but are too afraid to:
- Q: What are you?
Translation: What race/ethnicity are you? I’m confused and don’t want to say something offensive.
My answer: Indian. Also, a human.
- Q: Are you mixed? Are you sure?
Translation: I don’t believe your race/ethnicity. You’re a liar!
My answer: Unless I was adopted and my parents never told me, I’m pretty sure I know my own race.
- Q: Wow! You sure know a lot about rap?
Translation: Gee whiz! Girls like rap and not just that Auto-Tune bullshit they play on the radio? Outrageous!
My answer: Yeah. I grew up on Biggie, Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep. I can recognize a DJ Premier or Alchemist beat before you can, goober.
- Q: What kind of guys are you into?
Translation: Who are you dating? Based on my race, do I have a chance?
My answer: I like all guys. Just not you.
There’s so much institutionally wrong with the music industry that one paragraph doesn’t really do it justice. Literally, I could write an entire book. Note to self: Write a book.
Another reason that Indians aren’t represented comes from our own communities. My parents are immigrants and most first generation Indian kids are put under a ton of academic pressure that begins when we become old enough to read Goodnight Moon. Despite my 10 hours of MTV every day, I had a perfect 4.00 GPA and attended a prestigious math and science center. I took the S.A.T. in the sixth grade and went to the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Basically, I'm a nerd. For Indian parents, success comes from an Ivy League degree and a good ass job, preferably a doctor or engineer. Anything outside of that is considered a failure—and Indian parents have no problem telling you and the whole community about it.
I wanted to work in hip-hop since I was 13 years old but I never told anyone—not even my parents—because I knew they wouldn’t be supportive. When I got my first music industry internship at Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records, I finagled another internship on my own to pay my way. I’ve temped and done plenty of underpaid, overworked jobs to follow my dream. It’s given me a ton of confidence in myself and only inspired me to work harder.
Last year, I was asked to speak on a panel at John Jay College in New York City called “I Don’t Want To Be A Doctor,” specifically aimed at South Asians who want to pursue non-traditional professions. Time and again, kids ask me what to do if your parents don’t support your dreams. Now, my parents are very supportive, but for years, they had no idea what I did. They were horrified when I had to go to say, a strip club to hear an album or come home smelling like a marijuana dispensary. As an adult, I understand where they’re coming from. Being an immigrant in a new country is scary. I can only imagine how, well before social media and the Internet, America must have seemed like a strange, terrifying and lonely place. My parents, like so many others, just wanted to make a stable life for themselves. They didn’t want their kids to take risks because they themselves were new, they didn’t have a plan B.
This year, I hit 10 years in the entertainment industry. Despite the challenges, both within the industry and from my culture, I’ve been extremely successful and I’ve accomplished more than I could have ever dreamed of. When I was a kid, there weren’t any role models of success who looked like me. I had to look up to guys like Diddy and Kevin Liles instead. I hope one day some brown girl or boy can look at me and realize that that they can do whatever they want. Whether it’s in the music industry, Hollywood or something completely zany. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or what people expect of you. You determine your own destiny. Believe in your dreams. Everything is possible.