September 19, 2022September 20, 2022 8min readBy Tina Lapsia
As a Palestinian American whose family emigrated from Kuwait as refugees when he was a child, comedian Mohammed “Mo” Amer has brought a unique perspective as an immigrant and Muslim to his stand-up routines. Now in his semi-autobiographical Netflix series “Mo,” Amer tells the tale of Mo Najjar as he and his family navigate the U.S. immigration system in Houston, Texas.
“Mo” is groundbreaking in many ways, including being the first series to have a Palestinian-American as the lead and the first to depict the story of a Palestinian family. Brown Girl Magazine sat down with Amer to discuss his experience as an asylee in the south, his relationship to his faith and culture, and the significance of bringing a show like “Mo” to the small screen.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
We understand that “Mo” is loosely based on your life and your journey. What was it about the refugee journey that you wanted to share with the public? And why did you feel compelled to do so?
Man, there were so many things to touch about being a refugee and asylee to America; it wasn’t necessarily just one thing. It’s really complex and it’s layered. There was the obvious, which is the immigration and asylee part of it, and the immigration system and what it’s like to go through the asylee court. People usually think like, oh, you get your asylum and you’re a citizen, basically—well no, it takes 10 years after you get granted asylum alone. So there’s that piece, and then there’s the emotional one, the separation from your home and the generational trauma that comes with displacement and statelessness. There’s the Texas piece as well, as someone in Houston and from Houston and wanting to represent that properly. And then with each individual character, what they could go through. It’s just all these layers of, you know, the emotionality with each individual character and their origin stories, as well. It was a huge responsibility and to do that justice was something I did not take lightly.
A major aspect of “Mo” was the character Mo’s connection to Islam and his culture. How did your refugee journey and being in Texas affect your relationship with your culture and your religion?
That’s a great question. There are a lot of challenges, of course, with leaving a Muslim country and your relatives and your neighbors and your friends who are all similar to you in background. And what I would say is that, there were really challenging moments when we arrived in Houston—actually, challenging is kind of an understatement because it super difficult and sometimes gut wrenching—but faith is what truly got us through it, and continues to do so. Having that hope and understanding that in due time things do get better and figuring that out will make us stronger was a big part of that, and we wanted to showcase that, as well. Houston is the city that raised me, that embraced me, that cared for me. It’s the most diverse city in America and therefore created one of the most diverse friend groups for me. That made me a well-rounded human being for what I do today—not only traveling to 50 countries doing stand up, but being from Houston really prepped me for it.
What’s so relatable about “Mo” is that it involves people of so many backgrounds and you can see how similar Arab culture is to South Asian culture. Was there a specific audience you were looking to target when you made this show? Have there been any particular communities or people that have criticized the show?
There has been some criticism regarding the religious stuff, but it’s really minimal. It’s usually people who don’t have a proper understanding of how to tell a story. I consulted as many people as possible who were overqualified to do it, both on the political side and the religious side. I tried to keep it balanced as much as possible but in the end, you can’t appease everyone; you can’t please every single person. As far as who “Mo” was made for? This is like “FUBU” but “FUFU”—for us, for everyone, you know? That’s how I felt about making the show. This show is not just for Arabs or Palestinians or Muslims. This is an experience for anyone who’s felt like a fish out of water, who’s not being seen or heard. And it’s about that somebody who works day and night to try to live up to what they expected and their family’s expectations but falls short and in the meantime, they forget themselves and have all these, like, spiritual illnesses that are born out of this. Maybe they start self-medicating to find some kind of hope. But those are all the wrong answers and to find a way to dig deep and figure it out was really the goal for the characters and the growth for the whole season—finding the sore spots for everyone and how we can expand on those.
Season one ended on such a cliffhanger. It was such a wild ride, literally. What can viewers expect to see in season two?
I can’t share any of that right now, but we’re going to have to amplify everything like five or 10 times. I have some really great ideas, some really fun ideas for what we can do but it’s still super early.
What was kind of unexpected about “Mo” was that there were actually a lot of really emotional and dramatic scenes in the show. What was your thought process behind balancing the dramatic and comedic scenes, and was it difficult for you as a comedian to act in the more serious parts?
I didn’t find it hard at all to act in those scenes. It was so deeply rooted in my experience that I found it painful more than anything to relive some of those things and really cathartic, as well. There were some things I realized that I dealt with properly and there were some things that I realized that I didn’t deal with, or didn’t give them enough time that I kind of just buried and glossed over. The show gave me the opportunity to really experienced that emotion on camera, which made it a really natural experience—a painful one, but a good one—and it really seems like people are resonating with it deeply and connecting with it in a beautiful way. I had a lot of fear doing that, you know; it was like scary thing to do. Like in episode three with my dad. That’s a real thing for me, for my father—not necessarily the church scene and everything but it was just like, the content of it was so heavy. I realized after we filmed that scene just how many people were impacted by it in a deep way. So it’s a blessing to be able to do it. I’m just glad we did and I’m trying to honor my family and at the same time give the voice to the voiceless.
What is one piece of advice that you’d like to give other immigrants or people who are struggling to get through the immigration system?
The advice is just really holding firm and believing in yourself and not letting go of hope and your faith. I think people who have faith really grow in painful moments and those who have doubt will get stifled in deeply painful moments. So it’s really, really important to just ground yourself to get the help that you need, and I’m talking spiritually or with counseling or therapy to truly work through those things. Because, in the end, whatever you fear about getting that help is what’s holding you back. Allow the fear to push you forward and make you better rather than let it be your headwind. I forget where I heard that from, but I found it to be deeply profound. The moment that I let fear be my tailwind is the moment that I became successful, somebody forgot themselves. The moment I started writing something or putting a storyline together and then started getting worried or feeling anxiety about it, I knew I was heading in the right direction.
A big part of the show is how a Muslim family is being portrayed. Obviously, there haven’t been many portrayals of Muslim families in mainstream media. So what was your goal and what message do you hope the audience received from your portrayal?
I think it’s just some understanding, right? Viewers have never had a Palestinian lead in a show and to have three Palestinians playing Palestinians, whether it be my mom in the show, my sister in the show or myself, is such a groundbreaking thing. To have a face to who you are and just have some kind of common ground into that is what truly creates understanding, some sympathy, some empathy. When you start relating to a Palestinian family, that’s deeply powerful. That’s really it.
What advice would you give your former self or someone else who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Be patient. Stick true to what you want to do and your vision. It’s really important along with being a great collaborator, because sometimes people think that for you to execute your true vision, you have to be unbreakable in your vision. Remembering to not compromise your story and being a great collaborator are two different things. You have to combine the two to be great—you can’t just be like, “I don’t want to hear from anybody, I got this.” You have to be really open and understand what direction you’re trying to head in. Being open to ideas will enhance whatever vision you had for your story. And I love notes. I think there’s no wrong note, there’s no wrong question. If things don’t fit, you can just say they don’t fit. You have to make sure that you’re answering out of a place of sincerity, not a place from your ego. I think there’s a lot of artists and people with a particular vision who maybe don’t want to hear questions because they think they know exactly what it’s supposed to be. I did—I knew what the story was, but to have all these different perspectives just enhanced everything.
We all really worked hard to make sure that we never went away from my story and what I went through and to make sure “Mo” was grounded in that. And then the rest of it was just like great seasonings. It’s like you’re making a dish—I always think about this, I always go back to food which is such Arab thing to do—but it really is, right? It’s like when you’re making a dish, the seasonings, the balance of it is so important. If you put too much of one thing in it, it’s not easily digestible so you have to make it with simple ingredients. It’s really elevating simple ingredients. That’s what it’s really about. Next thing you know, you have a really great dish that people can consume really quickly and digest easily.
Are there any last words you’d like to share with Brown Girl Magazine and our readers?
Believe in yourself. Be patient. Don’t rush. Everybody wants everything today. It takes time to make something special and the more time you take, the better. If somebody does something before you, it’s okay. It’s an opportunity to be different and to be unique and original. So don’t worry. You have to be patient, believe in yourself and then just adjust as you go—be malleable. As Bruce Lee says, “Be like water.”
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
From receiving his MBA from Harvard business school to being the CEO of Asia’s largest music festival brand Sunburn, Karan Singh combined his interests to push his passion for music! Singh received his bachelor’s degree in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked as an investment banker for three years at Ambit Corporate Finance before working at Sunburn which is a part of his family’s business. Sunburn started providing the music festival experience starting in the year 2007. The first festival was in Candolim, Goa. The music festival brand has put on over 5,000 events over the past 15 years. In 2022 The Sunburn Festival will be in it’s 16th year. Continue reading to learn more about Karan Singh’s journey with the Sunburn music festival!
What does the Sunburn brand offer and what made you have the festival in Goa as opposed to other parts of India?
We believe that Sunburn offers a really unique experience and is a melting pot of diverse people & cultures from not only across India but around the world. Goa is the ideal setting for this as there is something magical about Goa in the winter-time and truly enables us to tap into that global audience.
Safety at live events has always been a concern among concert goers. Considering recent, events more individuals have asked brands and artists to do more to ensure audience safety. What are you doing to ensure safety for live concerts?
Safety is a huge priority for us. We work with the best-in-class security agencies as well as closely with the police and requisite authorities. For anyone in the crowd a Sunburn safety officer will always be close by and easily visible. We also run an awareness drive on both social media and on ground.
What was the first Sunburn Festival like and what did you learn from this experience?
The first ever Sunburn Festival was in December 2007, and I had actually attended it as a fan, not part of the crew. However, it was absolutely eye-opening as the first proper music festival on Indian shores and opened up our minds to a world of possibilities.
As Sunburn houses so many electronic dance musicians who have been your favorites throughout the years?
It is difficult to pick from the list however the favorites for Sunburn, in no order and because of the amount of love they have shown Indian audiences, are Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren.
Do you plan to expand the festival to add other genres into the mix as well as more activities?
We have already expanded into different formats like Arena, Campus, Club, Reload and things like merchandize & academy. In terms of genres, we have been dabbling with genres like rap, hip-hop and pop, however our focus remains on electronic dance music.
What can someone expect from the festival as first-time goers?
Apart from a state-of-the-art production & line-up, one can expect a special experience, meeting interesting people from all over the world, and embarking on a creative journey of the theme for the year.
How does the festival help local musicians from Goa as well as the surrounding areas in India?
This year we had set up for the first time a special stage and village in the festival only for Goa which gave a platform to local Goan artists. But beyond that a huge focus for us has always been to showcase domestic home-grown talent and indeed 60-70% of the line-up each year is locally sourced.
What was the experience like this year in 2022 and how is it different from previous years?
The biggest difference was that this was the first time the festival was back to its full scale since the pandemic hit after 3 long years. It was a fantastic release for everyone there. Our theme was “the future is now” and this was reflected across the festival experience and particularly in the main stage design – termed “Cyberpunk City” which received rave reviews from all.
What was it like having the legends Black Coffee and Afrojack this year as well as the DJ duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike?
Afrojack and DVLM are both Sunburn & India veterans, it was amazing having them back crushing the main stage after very long. Black Coffee for us was something very new and exciting, to have a special artist and a unique sound like that close the main stage on day 2. However it was very well-received and took our experience to the next level.
As you have had the artist Avicii back in December 2011 how do you feel he revolutionized Electronic Dance Music?
Avicii is one of my all-time favorite artists and his show in December 2011 was actually my first one working on Sunburn so will always be extra special. There is no doubt that he revolutionized EDM by taking massive risks and introducing an entirely new sound which a lot of others then followed, but no one as well as he did.
How does it feel to be in charge of one of Asia’s biggest Electronic Dance Music Festivals?
It feels great, we have a very young but ambitious and hard-working team and our primary focus is to continue delivering the best possible experiences for our fans, artists and partners. India is such a vibrant and exciting market that I cannot help but be pumped about what the future holds.
Do you feel Electronic Dance Music is a misunderstood genre?
More so in a country like India possibly yes, where people who are not exposed to these experiences sometimes have preconceived notions about EDM festivals and the like. Oftentimes those people are also in a decision-making capacity and can directly affect the industry. However, things are certainly improving as the industry overall gets bigger and gets more acceptance.
What does music mean to you, Karan Singh?
Music provides a sound-track to life, it is something which is always there!
How do you choose to react when you receive negative comments about the Sunburn Festival?
Well, you have to be able to differentiate between those which are just trolling and those which are constructive or fair criticism. The latter is very important as it helps us to look at ourselves and continually improve, we are still a long way from where we eventually want to be.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I hope it allows us at Sunburn to reach a wider audience of the desi community around the world and hopefully get some more people to fly down to Goa for Sunburn Festival 2023 which I can promise you all will be the best one yet!
Dimitri Vegas Like Mike
We have had a long connection with India. The first time we played here was more than a decade ago. Going from clubs to being a regular feature at one of Asia’s biggest electronic music festivals which is now an institution in itself. It’s been an exciting evolution to see how Sunburn has grown over the years. The fans at Sunburn are some of the most insane and every show is a special one. We’ve always had an incredible experience at Sunburn.
Honestly, the energy I feel when I am in India is one of the most amazing things. I would say the culture and energy is what keeps me coming back! India is like a second home to me, just like Sunburn. I feel so comfortable and welcomed here. I’m always excited about coming to India and playing at Sunburn, experiencing new cities, meeting more of the people, hearing more of the music, and seeing more of the country that has influenced me so much.
Sunburn has helped dance music artists world over to tour India and connect with their Indian fans and I’m always excited about performing at the festival.
I’ve a long history with the Sunburn team. They are a great team to work with and they also give the fans amazing experiences. As an artist, I want to be a part of providing fans with lifelong memories and so we all share the same vision.
Sunburn is one of the pioneers of the dance music festival scene in India and has been instrumental in creating a truly world class platform that supports the dance music industry and all of its stakeholders. I’m always excited about touring India with Sunburn.
“Ghoomer,” R. Balki’s latest directorial venture, had its world premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne 2023 (IFFM), earlier this month, and the moment was nothing short of memorable. Lead actors Abhishek Bachchan, Saiyami Kher, and Angad Bedi, were present to unveil their labor of love to the world, and all three were left speechless at the reaction of the global audience; the film received a standing ovation on opening night, leaving the team extremely emotional — a feeling that Bachchan tells Brown Girl is one he cannot put into words.
“Ghoomer,” tells the story of Anina (played by Kher), an exceptional cricket player who loses her right hand in an accident. Downtrodden and with no will to live, Anina finds a mentor and coach in Padam Singh Sodhi (played by Bachchan), an insensitive and brash failed cricketer who helps her turn her life and career around; Anina also has the unwavering support of her husband, Jeet (played by Bedi). Sodhi teaches Anina unorthodox techniques to make her mark on the cricket ground once again. Enter, ghoomer, a new style of bowling.
Balki checks all the boxes with this feature — his protagonist is a female athlete, the film is his way of giving back to cricket (a new form of delivery), and he highlights the idea that nothing is impossible for paraplegic athletes. The heart of Balki’s film is in the right place — Kher mentions that the film is meant to be more of an inspirational movie and less of a sports-based movie. One can only imagine the impact that a film like this would have on an audience that’s hungry for meaningful cinema.
And, to chat more about “Ghoomer,” Brown Girl Magazine sat down with the stars of the show. Bachchan, Bedi, and Kher came together to talk about their inspiring characters, the filming journey, and how their film aspires to change the landscape of cricket and paraplegic athletes in the country. It was all that, with a side of samosas.
Take a look!
The featured image is courtesy of Sterling Global.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix