By Teja Dusanapudi
So says Anik Khan in his breakout song “Big Fax,” lounging on cars and rapping about “mixing up the masla with the militant,” while a woman in a magenta sari tosses a mango and smiles knowingly at the camera.
Amassing over a million views, Khan joins a host of prominent South Asians in the modern rap movement. “First brown boy to get it poppin’,” NAV, short for Navraj Singh Goraya, is known to brag. But the roots of South Asian hip-hop dates back before NAV’s breakout song with superstar Travis Scott, all the way back to one of the most popular songs of the early 2000’s: “Paper Planes”.
Written and recorded for rapper M.I.A’s second album, “Paper Planes” currently sits at one-hundred and forty seven million views, was once nominated for a Grammy and was awarded Rolling Stone’s best song of 2008. The catchy, syncopated beat and simplistic lyrics disguise a deeper meaning: as M.I.A. herself says in an interview with entertainment news site The Fader,
“Really the worst thing that anyone can say [to someone these days] is some shit like: “What I wanna do is come and get your money.” People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever. So in the song I say “All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money.” I did it in sound effects. It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.”
To argue that the worldwide popularity of “Paper Planes” derives from its subversive rhetoric would be pushing it, but M.I.A.’s unprecedented, meteoric rise to fame as a person of Tamil descent cannot be denied. The rest of her discography follows a similarly critical perspective: one of her most recent songs, Borders, repeats the phrase “Borders? What’s up with that,” while the music video displays people struggling to crawl up barbed, chain-linked gates, an overarching interrogation of the anti-immigrant structures across the world. Working most recently with musical phenomenon Kendrick Lamar and iconic producer and artist Pharrell Williams, M.I.A.’s appeal–and that of her politically polarized music–clearly has not evaporated, her influence still potent and apparent in today’s hip-hop scene.
Hitting the music scene just two years after the acclaim of “Paper Planes,” rap trio Das Racist (composed of Himanshu Suri, Ashok Kondabolu, and Victor Vasquez; the former two of Indian descent) won accolades from The Guardian and SPIN for their single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” and later, for their album “Sit Down, Man.” The music of Das Racist, much like that of M.I.A’s, is unapologetically rooted in diaspora culture, emphasizing experiences of minorities and the absurdity of persecution, with songs focused on the cultural appropriation of accents to song hooks rapped in Punjabi. Their acclaim, according to noted music review sites such as Pitchfork and the Village Voice, is not described as made despite their rhetoric, but because of it. Unlike “Paper Planes,” listeners of Das Racist directly recognize it for its cultural voice, a voice that ends songs with questions like “What can brown do for you?/What has brown done for me lately?”
Das Racist, while influential, was also short-lived. After breaking up in 2013 according to Noisey, its members continued to amass awards, critique, and discourse across the globe. Suri went on to create the rap duo Swet Shop Boys with famed actor and activist Riz Ahmed, who most recently appeared in Rogue One and The Night Of, to highly critical appeal. Their most recent EP, “Sufi La,” follows the trend of contemplative diasporic rap: Riz Ahmed raps ““I think, what if I was fairer skinned, had less of the melanin?/Would I get more work or would I not be worth anything?”
Ashok Kondabolu’s brother, Hari Kondabolu, contends with similar questions with much of his stand-up, from his recent Netflix special to a documentary focused on the decades old Simpson character, or perhaps caricature, Apu. Kondabolu, much like Das Racist, dissects the spotty cover of pop culture placed over scenes of prejudice.
Where M.I.A began, Das Racist was able to continue: in a post “Paper Planes” world, Middle Eastern and South Asian artists can build from this platform and make music that directly reflects and derives from their experiences, and succeed greatly based on the subversive strengths of those both unique and collective experiences.
Between the recognized voice of the individual and the worldwide pop music of the masses, then, lies the diasporic hip-hop of the remaining 2000s. Hip-hop becomes the bridge between this divide, the art form which can be a voice of resistance in the dominating, sterilized sound of the airwaves. It is here, in the contradiction of hip-hop that the ME/SA community has risen and will continue to rise to recognition. Not yet has there been a Das Racist that has risen to global fame, much like there has never been an M.I.A. famous the world over for her political message rather than her catchy radio sonics. This is the world of Anik Khan, and the other rising artists like him: NAV, Raveena Aurora, Lushlife, and the others, undiscovered and unknown, but perhaps blasting songs like “Big Fax” at this very moment. Even if America never truly “got” M.I.A.’s message, maybe it’ll get theirs.