Waiting for the rise of Indian Hip-Hop in USA

By Basab Dasgupta

In my excitement at the worldwide success of Indian IT engineers, I predicted many years ago that the next major global import from India would be music – more specifically Bollywood music.  My comment was prompted by some of Michael Jackson’s music videos which showed Bollywood-style dance choreographies and the belief that the IT engineers themselves would bring their music with them in the same way they brought food and some outfits.

Alas, that never happened but I had glimpses of hope here and there. A. R. Rehman’s Oscar win as the best music director for the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire” prompted the group “Pussycat Dolls” to do a version of the song “Jai Ho” in English. The old song “Jan Pehchan ho” was prominently featured in a Heineken commercial. You can hear music from “Dum Maro Dum” in the background in a recent I-phone 13 commercial. Shakira did an Indianized version of her song “Hips don’t lie” in Indian costumes in a New York concert. Some of the rappers used Bollywood tunes in their songs. The song “It’s my birthday” by Will.I.Am and Cody Wise is an obvious imitation of the song “Urvashi, Urvashi”.  However, there has been no widespread popularity or even recognition of Bollywood music as an influence of any kind.

One key reason for this is the cultural disconnect between the two countries. What appeals to us and strikes our emotional chords fall flat on deaf ears of Americans. I believe that there have to be, at least, two features in any Indian music video to make this connection: enough English words in the lyrics so that the listener can understand the gist of the song and dance moves that get Americans excited enough to hit the dance floor themselves.

My favorite musician is a rapper named Yo Yo Honey Singh (YYHS). Three years ago, I did not even know the name YYHS. I was looking for a song titled “Loca” by famous Colombian pop singer Shakira on a YouTube channel and came across a song by YYHS with the same title. I became a fan ever since. I believe that even if Bollywood music as a whole fails to penetrate the American market, he can be a solo performer taking the world by storm.

The formula for the success of these rap-style music videos has the following traits: videos are filmed in some exotic location, or using a very colorful background; the singers themselves dress in colorful outfits; there is a repetitive element in his songs which can be both hypnotic and addictive; lyrics are meaningless, and dance choreographies are amazing to watch. The videos are very entertaining and the tunes are catchy.

Rap-style Bollywood music has the ability to bridge the aforementioned disconnects, especially since rap seems to be a common denominator with pop music worldwide. There are already plenty of English words in the songs.  The rappers can certainly write complete meaningful songs in English. I am personally not crazy about lyrics that are a mixture of words in English and Hindi. I am in favor of releasing two different versions, one in English and one in Hindi or even Punjabi with the same tune and same visuals. Dance moves by the rappers would be quite appealing to the western crowd. This is where Bhangra heritage and Punjabi vibe come in handy.

YYHS has proven that he can sing slow romantic ballads like “Dheere Dheere se meri Zindagi…” which enhances his versatility. I am especially impressed by his innovativeness. His music videos such as “Blue Eyes”, “Brown Eyes”, “Makhna”, “Manali Trance”, “Saiyanji” and “Bring me Back” are all very unique. He should not narrow his image to being just a rapper and must continue to innovate.

The key question is how these songs can be marketed outside India. In my opinion, one should take a page from Shakira’s playbook. She can effortlessly sing in both English and Spanish, thus ensuring following in both North and South America as well as in Europe. She can sing in a variety of styles. The appeal of the visuals in her videos helps a lot.

At first, the Bollywood singers have to conquer the Middle East and Asia. They are probably already well-known in Dubai, Abu Dhabi area if not the entire Middle East. There should be no problem in connecting with fans in South Korea where K-pop is very popular. YYHS already had concerts in places like Bangkok and Singapore. Then they have to connect with the Latinos. The popularity of the song “Senorita” from the movie “Zindagi na Milegi Dobara,” featuring a Spanish singer shows the appeal of a mixture of Hindi and Spanish tunes.

As Shakira has shown, penetration into the American music world can be facilitated by collaborations with popular rap groups in the USA and UK. Shakira herself worked with a number of rap and hip-hop groups to bring her music to mainstream America. Such collaborations are now quite common in the Indian musical scene and Indian singers should not find it difficult to work with foreign rappers.

A number of live concerts around the globe would be a great promotional tool. This is where some major improvements are necessary. Videos of past foreign concerts by Indian performers are less than impressive. Typically, they are held in small and dark venues without much fanfare and visual displays and mainly for audiences of Indian origin.

Apart from the opportunity of gaining international fame, there is another reason why the rappers should break out of the Indian market. I believe that if the rappers are solely focused on the Indian audience their creativity would not be fully appreciated and as a result, they will not reach their full potential.

To be clear, I am not really a fan of American rap or hip-hop music, mainly because of the lack of real melody and the use of obscene if not violent imagery in the lyrics. The Bollywood rappers have successfully blended rap with Indian tunes to make the songs pleasing to the ear and the lyrics are largely free of vulgarity and violence. YYHS has himself written “Grammy le Aunga” in the song “Issey Kehte Hain Hip Hop.” My plea to all the Indian rappers is “Go for it and Go Global”.

(Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.)

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