A new music video called “Macaca” connects viewers to a milestone moment in South Asian American political history. The video is for a track on the debut mixtape Bengali Boys from Basmati Brothers, a musical collaboration between producer/vocalist Brooklyn Shanti (Nabin) and emcee Ko the Timeless (Koushik). This isn’t the first time the Brothers have lent their voices to a message of political empowerment — the 2016 election season saw them joining artists contributing to Voices of Our Vote: My AAPI Vote. This also isn’t the first musical track referring to the “macaca” controversy — jazz artist Vijay Iyer‘s 2008 Tragicomic album features a track called “Macaca Please”.
For those who don’t know, in the 2006 “macaca controversy” Virginia native S.R. Sidarth, a college student and volunteer for Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb changed history when he recorded Webb’s opponent George Allen singling him out with a racial slur, calling him a “macaca” and welcoming him to the “real America.” For an overview of Allen’s political demise and what else transpired in the aftermath of his infamous comments, read Sidarth’s Salon Person of the Year profile or dig into the treasure trove of Sepia Mutiny archives on the topic.
More than a decade later, living in a nation with a rising tide of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and hate crimes, South Asian Americans are still seen as outsiders in the nation they call home, making the “macaca” moment still relevant. Have a look at Basmati Brothers’ “Macaca” video below and read the interview with Brooklyn Shanti following it.
What inspired you to create a track called “Macaca” ten years after Allen used it to refer to then college student and campaign worker S.R. Sidarth?
When we were looking at topics to cover as the Dum Dum Project (one of the groups I’m part of) a decade ago, this was one of them. Sean Dinsmore (DJ Cavo) and Niraj Chag really wanted us to sink our teeth into this type of topic because for the U.S., it was a milestone moment that wound up on the radar globally. They (Cavo and Niraj), as all great producers and mentors will point out, were aware that this was not going to be an isolated incident, and had discussed a lot of what had gone on in the UK over the years and educated me. At the time, I didn’t really know how to handle it. It was overwhelming.
“It didn’t begin with this current administration. It hasn’t been latent.”
After the recent election, when we were putting together the Basmati Brothers mixtape, I realized that Cavo and Niraj were 100 percent correct. Since that particular incident, I have had a certain set of life experiences which align with understanding what was being explained to me by my mentors. Now that I’m mentoring Koushik, I realized that his generation isn’t quite as up on the fact that this type of incident isn’t isolated. It was just the tip of the iceberg. It didn’t begin with this current administration. It hasn’t been latent. We grew up outside of D.C. — I thought everyone knew about the macaca slur…but that’s not true. So I wanted to bring this back to light.
Have you been in touch with Sidarth?
No. In my opinion, the best way to start a conversation, as an artist, is through creating and sharing the work. We’re in that moment right now. I’m not a “call a person and pitch an idea” kind of guy — I just do the damned thing, put it out and keep it moving.
Musical samples seem to be contributing to the overall sound of “Macaca” — can you share who those artists are?
There’s one predominant musical sample and two drum breaks, but a little more at play here. If you listen to the entire Bengali Boys mixtape as well as our forthcoming album, From Rice to Riches — this remains a recurring theme. Lyric references from the original song being sampled as well as other songs which may have used the same sample run through our messages, and that’s 100 percent via my part as producer and architect when we pick subject matters to rhyme about.
What I really want people to do is figure out who else sampled this and flipped it, and what those statements were about. If you’re up on that, then you understand what the continuation of the statement is. When I’ve played the Basmati stuff for heads that were brought up to read between the lines — they know the samples, and know what the “Macaca” sample flip is expressing…it’s a lost art these days, but not dead.
If anyone wants to participate in that coded communication, I encourage highly that same type of detection and exploration. Hint: Who sampled that same bassline (I’m not gonna tell you what it is, you gotta dig) and then put it on a song on an album that never dropped until it was bootlegged by Bobbito? From where I sit, that’s an easy one. I’ve got much tougher jigsaw puzzles on the full album because I went into sufi music, old Bollywood and much more. It’s a layered multiverse — very much like the lyrics on a Camp Lo or De La Soul album.
With the artwork behind you as you perform in the video, can you share where that is filmed?
We had wrapped a radio interview with GenerAsian Radio in Houston, and my good friend and long time collaborator, Nibu, suggested that we visit a graffiti park they have out there. It’s a location that’s well known to the fam, but kept low key. We all come from a really DIY scene and aesthetic, so we knocked out four music videos that day with Nibu and he created the contexts behind why we were placed in front of certain murals and just rocked.
Would you be willing to share the lyrics to “Macaca”?
My skin is my sin: Brown while it glistens
In the rain, under the moon while we listen
Imprisoned by the type of intuition
that found South Asians’ freedom in tuition
How is one race treated like they smarter
while the next work non-stop physically harder
Shanti Brando, the new godfather
the poetry’s to better lead our sons and our daughters
Bengali B-Boy I make em all jelly
Cuz even when I’m lyrical I rock the mic steady
I stay spreading love, you know I gots plenty
But when I’m trying to slay find me sippin on the Remy
Semi-God swagger, feel it in the flow
A little bit, arrogant, blame it on my glow
See I’m the kind of love ya just cant say no
So when I knock em out, shout it out: KO
It goes 6 in the morning, they don’t know I’m a star
only see a brown face and the name…
Underestimated ‘cause I might be miniature
all around the world, fans asking for my signature
I don’t see color, only sisters and brothers
Everybody’s family — friends and lovers
Officers asking what I am: I’m an artist
That paints with the sound of the words that my heart’s in
The game gone weak, its time that we move in
And even though its televised, this Revolution
Basmati beats keep the street steady groovin
And steadily our melodies keep competition droolin
Already proven, resume stacked
Timeless rhymes yall know where I’m at
I clone and attack, gotta throw biddies back
And focus on the craft, going back to boom bap
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