February 3, 2021March 21, 2021 7min readBy Brown boy
It was the age of skinny jeans, side bangs and saving money to buy concert tickets. We would listen to an album on CDs from Circuit City with songs downloaded from Limewire. There was this epic experience associated with seeing your favorite bands perform, a time where music listening and discovery served as a haven.
Subconsciously or overtly, much of what we consume has an immediate physical identity associated with it; musicians, artists, actors, writers and more. Now more than ever, the way we appreciate art is deeply nuanced and contextualized based on its creator. When I think about the artists I listened to before social media I ask myself: what parts of them did I love, what made me a “fan?” Was it the lyrics, the person that introduced me, or the place I heard the songs? We don’t live with music in the same way anymore.
Music is a universal language I believe transcends, but I didn’t always see the representation across genres. I searched for the nonconformists. Could we be the composers, the mix and masters, the singers? Will we ever feel the magic of cd signings and band t-shirts again?
My best friend and I were driving from New Jersey to Queens when her playlist shuffled to a song by Young The Giant. I remember telling her I had a crush on the lead singer some years ago (but that story is for another time) and used to beg to attend their shows, she turned to me and said “I mean, he is such an attractive brown man,” and I was like:
“Excuse me, what?!”
It didn’t occur to me that Sameer Gadhia was behind some of my best nights, belting “Cough Syrup” with the windows down, during my teenage years. Who taught me that? Did I subconsciously believe that genres like alternative rock were exclusive to a specific community?
In an effort to get to know the vocalist who graces countless playlists, concert venues, and fan’s hearts, I reached out to Sameer Gadhia, host of podcast “Point of Origin” and lead singer of the alternative rock band “Young the Giant” to talk politics, identity, and navigating a time where people spend less and less time with the music.
Hey Sameer, It’s a week before the election, you’ve been a politically vocal artist, how did that begin?
It’s a subversive thing that most people don’t know I’m Indian. Being a brown person in a band, I don’t have the luxury to be apolitical. When we tour, there is this inherent division we see within the country. One of the greatest things about touring is being able to leave our metropolitan bubble and see what the rest of the country is really like.
We started to see the division on college campuses around the country in 2014/15. That’s when we made our first “political” record, “Home of the Strange,” which is about the immigrant experience in America. It was in anticipation of a wayward trend we had begun to see pre-Trump.
In a space as non-diverse as alternative music, what was building a career like and how did your community react?
Music was always part of my life and I didn’t think it would be my career until it happened, which I think was great because I didn’t have an expectation. I had the privilege of attending Stanford and studying biology, so when I decided to go off and make music with my friends there was some friction with my family at first. Having had some success, I was able to have a community dialogue to break the model minority myth and that is something I’m now consciously working towards.
Did your immediate South Asian community follow you as listeners after that dialogue?
When we released our first record ten years ago, Spotify didn’t exist but MTV also wasn’t as relevant anymore. There was an interesting moment in alternative indie rock music where it was largely faceless, I don’t think many people knew I was Indian. The genre as a whole was seen as “white boy music,” which I’m working to dismantle in “Point of Origin.”
It had a lot to do with timing, now audiences care about the face and identity behind the music; for better or for worse there’s a fine line and it’s inherently important. Artists of color have to deal with the combination of representation and just wanting to be seen and heard for their craft as complex human beings. I’m trying now to re-write that narrative for myself, but at the same time, I’m grateful for the subversive quality I have. They listen to music without thinking about my identity, which current up and coming artists of color have to constantly think about.
I think we’ve changed a lot of minds with our music, specifically our third album. I’ve had people in deep-red states approach me and share that they learned something or connected and didn’t realize I was Indian until they came to a performance.
“Point of Origin” unpacks identity and perception in the arts, tell us about it!
It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s a story playlist. A format that is like a podcast with a fire playlist mixed in, on SIRIUSXM’s ALT NATION and PANDORA. Every two weeks I feature an up-and-coming artist of color. They have guaranteed spins on alternative radio, which is in itself a largely white thing even though alternative music was a response to a homogenous narrative in rock music: [a] historically white space. Feature by feature, I’m shedding light on a whole different world of alternative: artists who exemplify the genre.
I had just finished our last tour and we headlined The Forum. As an LA kid, that was a huge milestone for me. I’m lucky to have a few South Asian mentors, like USC Dean Dr. Varun Soni, who came to the show and verbalized something I’ve been thinking about: that I was the first South Asian lead singer of a band to headline at The Forum and no one was talking about it. I realized in part I needed to unpack that. There was no community for “others” who live outside what musicians are supposed to look like, it’s still being made. There’s no place to commiserate and share failures and successes.
I wanted ‘Point of Origin’ to be that. Also, no one was talking about it because most people thought I was white. I wanted to treat that as an opportunity to speak to my alternative listeners about the nuances, about narratives they had never heard like my own.
Straight white males dominate much of the industry, and have commoditized ‘wokeness.’ It’s a tough dichotomy for new young artists. It’s a tightrope everyone has to walk between representation and art. In an episode of ‘Point of Origin,’ I talk about Freddie Mercury’s journey as a Parsi from Bombay to England, and the need to hide his cultural background. Coming out as Indian was a radical truth, a deep dark secret. Had many of us grown up seeing him and his identity, the monolith theory may have looked very different today, which tips the scales in representation’s favor.
Artists I’ve spoken to from all backgrounds want to normalize our existence so it doesn’t constantly need to be contextualized. Let’s talk about more than arranged marriages and colorful weddings.
Let’s talk deals, what was the business side of the band like?
There wasn’t a first degree type of racism, but we didn’t have a bidding war either. We had a few interested that wanted to sign us and those were our options. There were people who wanted to f*ck with us and people that didn’t, but they would have those same conversations with our white counterparts. Being in a band at that time was largely faceless so it wasn’t as overt.
Platforms like Spotify didn’t exist when we made our first album, so we don’t own all our masters and the majority of our revenue was touring contingent. Most people think artists of our size are ‘rich and famous,’ but we don’t profit from streaming revenue in the same way. We were slaves to our touring schedule, but quarantine has forced us to become creative about potential revenue streams.
You’ve graced the world’s most iconic stages, what’s your best festival story?
We’ve played some great festivals and the most stand out ones are the weirdest and most off kilter. Our song “Cough Syrup” had charted in the top 40 in Italy. We’d never achieved that type of crossover success in America, but in Italy it was huge. I think folks thought I was Italian as well. Ha.
We played a festival in Rome called Prima DiMaggio, which to date may be the largest festival we’ve ever played because we were part of a lineup during a labor movement. We were the only American act. They gave this speech denouncing western excess and capitalism, and proceeded to introduce us ‘… and now the only American band, Young The Giant.’ Each act had to play two originals and one cover. The irony may have been lost on some, but for us, it was very apparent that we were representing this capitalistic ideal and we chose “American Girl” by Tom Petty. 500,000 people in Rome, it was an epic experience.
Music is your first love, but there’s more to Sameer.
No matter what, I’ll be creating new music with ‘Young The Giant,” pursuing my career as a solo artist but I’m also a writer. During this quarantine, I was able to explore screenwriting and think about my own identity as an artist at large and start leaning into what that means in a world that is social media first. I don’t want to sound like a geezer, I’m only 31, but it feels like I was part of the last set of folks to get signed in an analogue fashion, and now I’m navigating this new world of not being faceless.
Which South Asian artists are on your playlist?
Cornershop definitely has to be on there, the singer was this Indian guy in the ’90s in the U.K. who was really pivotal. There’s a great song called ‘Brimful of Asha’ [on] an album called ‘When I Was Born For The 7th Time.’ People may know the single, but the rest of the album is a towering achievement. They even managed to reclaim Norwegian Wood, and it was given the stamp of approval by George Harrison.Abhi the Nomad, Freddie Mercury,Jai Paul, who is this mysterious genius. As a brown kid in California, Brownsound and Tony from No Doubt were the representation we had and it was great to see as well. Most definitely M.I.A as well.
Despite my shattered webcam and desire to limit my fangirl nerves, Gadhia and I were able to expand on the nuances of artists as entrepreneurs, being a new parent during quarantine, and the value of community we often don’t realize. Gadhia took a pain point and transformed it into purpose with his new podcast “Point of Origin,” spotlighting up and coming alternative musicians and sharing origin stories. Check out all the episodes here, and keep an eye out for new music from Gadhia and “Young the Giant.”
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.
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.