We have a major gender problem in independent music, but the issue of racial representation is even worse. When only a few women of color stand out amongst a sea of white faces, this precedent prevents women of color from attempting or succeeding in music careers. Asian Americans make up 5.8 percent of the total U.S. population. Yet in independent music scenes as with the mainstream, diversity (or lack of it) is an issue.
It practically goes without saying that a blinding whiteness pervades our mainstream media — Asian performers are elusive, all the way from the charts to the pages of music magazines. When it comes to South Asian American women making indie music, you might assume there are none. But they’re out there, trust me. In spite of insufficient mainstream media coverage, they’re f*cking badass.
Combining unique sources of inspiration, from the bustling streets of New Delhi to New York or Bollywood to the internet, they’re creating a powerful wave of new sounds that is guaranteed to hit you hard. Here are five of the best South Asian American woman artists making their mark on the current indie musical climate.
Having fled the Soviet invasion with her family at a young age, Azar Swan‘s Afghanistan-born Zohra Atash’s hauntingly stark vocals narrate many stories of lust, war, and identity layered over brooding synths and snappy beats. Such an example is the cover of Marianne Faithful’s pacifistic anthem “Broken English” — Azar Swan’s glorious pop remake explores the significance of the lyrical hook, stressing the need to shatter English’s position as a superior language.
Shilpa Ray’s newly released record Last Year’s Savage sees a departure from her former band, Her Happy Hookers, and an entry into a bluesy, punk rock world full of pain and realness ranging from subdued to conspicuous. Ray conveys depths of witty and equivocal emotion in her soulfully smooth vocals whilst maintaining a roughness around the edges; “Nocturnal Emissions” has her sing “there goes my ego exploding.” Shilpa Ray is fragile; she is human.
Like fellow Massachusetts musicians Speedy Ortiz, Boston trio Mini Dresses is the latest in a string of female-fronted Lo-Fi bands. Keeping the focus on dreamy vocals, lead singer Lira Mondal’s magical and ethereal voice floats amongst delicate minimal 60s-inspired guitar hooks. “Bracelets” is like taking a Heavenly song and putting it through a hazy filter that strips it down and lets it revel in its raw-edged beauty.
Coming from a background in slam poetry and equipped with a mirthful might, Vancouver-based Jasleen Powar’s latest EP, Bollywoes sets out as an homage to Bollywood and to decipher millennial life in a truly authentic and refreshing way. From sampling 90s hits that defined desi millennial childhoods to lamenting “I’m just a girl tryna live IRL in the URL world” which defines the teens and twenties of millennials, Horsepowar’s lyrics reflect her struggles with presenting as her most authentic self. Struggles notwithstanding, Powar’s stage name itself is an empowering reclamation of her surname. Basically, she seeks to be as desi as she can be without giving a f*ck about you.
Ami Dang’s music is pretty much indescribable — the first word that comes to mind is a mess. Don’t let that put you off though. Quoted as saying “I am inspired by the powerful, positive energy that results from a group of people coming together to create…”, Ami Dang’s music reflects just that. A huge range of analog and electronic instrumentation comes together to create a hedonistic mist of trip hop and Indian classical-inspired “Bollywave” in which listeners lose themselves.
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Sarah Sahim is a freelance writer based in the West Midlands, UK. She cohosts the intersectional feminist podcast Not All Women, and her work has appeared in the likes of Pitchfork, Playboy, and Rolling Stone.