Shebani Rao’s delightful illustrations add joy to your life in unexpected ways. See, for example, her coloring book visualizing the upbeat tunes and lyrics of Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-nominated Coloring Book, or her drawings bringing to life TV’s quirkiest friendship compliments by Parks and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope.
Rao, who is getting her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, also offers humorous twists on “old academic dudes” like Adam Smith and John Locke with a series of philosopher doodles. In the aftermath of racist fliers being distributed on the campus, she shared an expressive image to show South Asian support for Black Lives Matters. Last year she made a zine (“Dope Depression Symptoms”) for anyone struggling with depression. A multi-faceted artist, she paints, performs stand-up comedy, and writes.
Rao identifies as a 1990s Desi-American kid, and she grew up watching early 2000s films like American Desi, Bend it Like Beckham, and Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai. Those films and more ’90s Desi-American Kid memories make their way into her latest creations, a series of eight illustrations she shared with The Aerogram for those ’90s kids and everyone who loves looking back at the past. Have a look below and read our interview with her after the illustrations.
Eight Things Only ’90s Desi-American Kids Will Understand
Q&A With Illustrator Shebani Rao
How did you get started drawing cartoons? Have you had any formal background or training to draw or paint?
I am lucky to have been born into a family full of artists, who have nurtured my artistic abilities since the moment I could first grasp a pencil. I learned to draw and paint through both formal classes and informal art sessions at the kitchen table with my parents, grandpa, and great-uncle. As a dorky little elementary schooler who loved both drawing and telling stories, I naturally gravitated towards making cartoons. While I spent most of my high school and college years developing my painting and drawing skills, I’ve since returned to creating cartoons as an adult. Its the perfect combination of art, writing, and humor, and feels like the most authentic medium for me.
Were you a kid in the 1990s? What does that decade mean to you?
I was a ’90s kid, so the ’90s will always be full of nostalgia for me. One goofy thing I love about the ’90s is that Blockbuster (and of course Patel Bros’ VHS section) still reigned. I’ll always fondly remember the whole process of convincing your parents to drive you to Blockbuster, picking a movie you knew nothing about, and then watching the whole thing even if it was terrible because you had no other option. (And then probably watching it five more times before returning it, just cuz.) I feel like ’90s kids have so much terrible pop culture knowledge and movie quotes committed to memory as a result, which might not happen as much anymore.
Some of your #90skids cartoons have film references, like American Desi, Bend it Like Beckham, and one that wasn’t obvious to me — is that SRK in the mesh shirt?
That’s actually Hrithik in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai! I taught myself the dance to “Ek Pal Ka Jeena” when I was ten and busted it out any chance I got for years.
What are you studying for your Ph.D.? Do your scholarly pursuits connect with your creative work?
I’m getting my Ph.D. in sociology, with a focus on race and ethnicity (particularly South Asian racial identity and political activism). My academic interests in race, my identity as a desi woman, and my art are all intertwined and inform one another.
How did the South Asians for Black Lives image that you created last fall come about? What inspired you to create it?
Last fall, horrific, racist fliers were posted around my University’s campus. A dope student group, Students4Justice, responded to this and other racist incidents by covering the campus in fliers about black love and black excellence. They suggested prompts that allies could use to design fliers, including “South Asians 4 Black Lives.” I loved the prompt and ran with it — as a brown woman looking for a way to express solidarity with my black peers and fight the anti-blackness inherent in my community, the image became a way to channel my ongoing anger and frustration. I hung the fliers around campus and made the image widely available for South Asians to use. I also sell merchandise with the design on my store (Society6.com/shebanimal) and donate the proceeds to Black Lives Matter.
You’ve created a wonderful and unofficial Chance the Rapper Coloring Book. What do you like about him and his music?
There’s so much I like about Chance the Rapper, but maybe my favorite thing is how rooted in Chicago he and his music are. Chance’s love for and commitment to his city really inspires me. Plus, I could just jam out to his music all day every day.
How long did the coloring book take to create? Is it something you’d consider doing for another album or mixtape in the future?
The eight-month process of creating the book involved blasting each track on repeat, digging into the lyrics to understand all the references, and going through multiple pencil sketches before drawing the final images in pen. The process was also collaborative. I’m luckily friends with a bunch of Chance fans, who listened to the album on repeat with me and gave me feedback on whether my designs were capturing its spirit and themes. I’d love to create another one — possibly for Telefone, by Noname, who is another one of my favorite artists.
Have you seen the Coloring Book created by The Interns? What do you think of it?
I actually hadn’t seen The Interns’ coloring book until after I started mine. I think it’s awesome and does a great job of bringing to life vivid, playful lines from each track.
How are you involved with SubDrift?
The first time I ever did stand-up was at a SubDrift open mic night a few years ago. I had so much fun that I kept doing stand-up and kept returning to SubDrift each month. I hosted the show and danced some months as well. It was a great, supportive, and creative environment of South Asians in D.C., and even though I no longer live there, I still feel like I’m part of the fam. I’m so grateful that I found them.
When did you start doing stand-up comedy? How would you describe your comedy’s style and/or topics?
I started doing stand-up in 2013. My stand-up personality is basically an exaggerated version of my real personality. I talk about anything that’s on my mind — my family, friends, dating, race, mental health, movies, grad school, general self-deprecating humor…anything is fair game. Here’s an embarrassingly pun-heavy clip.
You mention that you specialize in puns and dad humor. Any favorite puns at the moment? Is your dad a funny person? What’s one of the funniest jokes he’s told?
Ha, no favorite puns at the moment. Both my parents are consistently hilarious, so its hard for me to pick out the funniest joke my dad has told. A current family joke — that has ceased to be/perhaps never was funny yet my dad keeps it going, which is perhaps the key characteristic of dad humor — concerns the unsuspecting Dunn Loring Metro Station in Northern Virginia. If you’re driving along the highway, you pass by signs for all of the metro stations except, we thought, Dunn Loring. We began to joke that Dunn Loring wasn’t even real, until one day my dad finally spotted the sign for it and got really excited. Since then (for the past several years) he makes this big deal of announcing it every single time we drive by, usually to no effect. Sometimes he even takes pictures of himself next to the sign and sends them to me. It will never die.
Your artwork draws on everyday life things as well as music, film, pop culture and TV for inspiration. What’s inspiring you these days in terms of future projects?
Right now, I’m illustrating a Hindi-English children’s book written by a former classmate, Shivani Amar. I’m also creating a web comic about a desi family.
How can people purchase prints of your work?
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