Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.
Our next Smugglivus guest is Mimi Mondal – writer, poet, editor, essayist – whose essay Characters Are Not A Coloring Book Or, Why the Black Hermione is a Poor Apology for the Ingrained Racism of Harry Potter, we published last year.
Please give it up for Mimi!
2017 was a year of holding my breath. (I won’t be surprised if I wasn’t the only one.) I watched as the United States, where I came only a couple of years ago, spiraled down the same route of hateful right-wing rampage as my own country, India, had taken about a year prior.
One of the hardest, but also most crucial, things to remember in times of extended disaster is that life isn’t inherently like this, so that we don’t turn into the proverbial frogs in boiling water. I existed much of 2017 in a state of stubborn denial. I read the news obsessively, added my voice to resistance in both of my fast-unravelling countries, but the rest of the time I folded in on myself, burrowing into the past so that I don’t forget what a happier, more hopeful, more benign world feels like—the kind we must remember to rebuild once we have survived the horror of the present.
Which brought me back to music. There was a time in my blissfully misguided youth—before it sunk in that writing is the only thing I can do without embarrassing myself and everyone involved—when I aspired to be a rock musician. (I may have spent many hours in practice pads or acquired an ill-advised tattoo, but let’s pretend those are unrelated to present conversation.) Music is my secret indulgence. I am not skilled enough to perform or well-informed enough to be a music journalist, but I make a damn good playlist. So here is a list of songs that kept me sane in 2017. It is a personal selection, arranged in no particular order besides my feelings.
1. The Scorpions – Winds of Change (1990)
One of the biggest power-ballad anthems of my teenage with an intro I can still whistle, this song was released right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Scorpions were an older band, existing in that zone between classic hard rock and melodic heavy metal that belted out those full-throated, soul-scouring monster ballads of the ’80s and the early ’90s that were entirely my jam. This song sits right in the middle of my vocal range. Even listening to it on full blast makes my lungs feel clean, and god knows how rare that feeling is to come by these days.
2. Pink Floyd – Us and Them (1973)
Possibly the most abstract song on this playlist, unless you are celestially moved by the music itself, like I am. Some of the happiest years of my life were spent listening to Pink Floyd on loop. Personally, Floyd feels less directly political to me and more expressive of a cynical, paranoid society barely held together by violence and human alienation. Disenchanted urban hipster liberal as I was in my brighter days, and as were my friends, this was the comfort music of our youth.
3. The Cranberries – Zombie (1994)
One of my friends’ bands had picked up this song while I was in college, mostly to give their only female bandmate a chance to sing in the otherwise all-male-vocals covers set. I added it to my collection immediately, where it still remains a karaoke staple.
But what I also did, because of this song, was to read up on the contemporary political history of Ireland and the conflicts with the IRA, which had had no converges with my youth and education in India at that time. My earliest political education was all channeled through music and fiction, and for that I am forever grateful.
4.Indian Ocean – Bandeh (2003)
This song has no official video, though Indian Ocean is one of the oldest and biggest rock bands in India. Indian bands, until quite recently, were more focused on touring than creating music videos, since airplay opportunities were limited—rock music was an alternative culture in India, rarely aired on national radio or television when those were the only options available. Every Indian rock fan has heard Indian Ocean in performance at least once in their life. This intellectual, activist and musically path-breaking band looms in Indian rock culture in a way that is nearly impossible to surpass.
“Bandeh” remains one of the most famous songs by Indian Ocean, originally composed for the film Black Friday, set against the backdrop of the 1993 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in Mumbai. It is a song of communal harmony, and one of the benchmarks of Sufi rock, that uniquely South Asian genre.
The first track from British desi dub/electronica group Asian Dub Foundation, this song only floated into my purview by the time I had stopped listening exclusively to rock music. The thing that drew my attention to it was the sampling of the poem “Bidrohi” (The Rebel) by the revolutionary early twentieth-century Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh. I had read Nazrul’s poetry in Bengali as a child, but never expected him to turn up in my English music.
The music of the South Asian diaspora was entirely unfamiliar to me to begin with. Diasporic South Asian fusion music has a history and trajectory distinct from the fusion music from South Asia (rock bands like Indian Ocean from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh being the kind I grew up with), just as South Asian immigrant culture is somewhat different from the postcolonial culture back home. “Rebel Warrior” is a song of immigrant culture, of “colonization in reverse,” and the joy and energy in it are infectious.
6. The Ska Vengers – Modi, A Message to You (2016)
The Ska Vengers are part of a new wave of bands from India, those that incorporate more Western influences than classic rock and metal in their music (like ska and reggae, obviously; and they also have music videos, because hey, the Internet!). They also don’t bother with coded messages, as is clear from this song that directly addresses the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and was released a few months before his election victory. The lyrics may carry less meaning to anyone unacquainted with Indian politics, but it’s a fun, upbeat, satirical song sang to the tune of “A Message to You Rudy.”
7. MC Kash feat. Mohammad Muneem and Highway 61 – Listen, My Brother (2012)
Another South Asian musician who doesn’t sugarcoat his words is Roushan Illahi aka MC Kash, the first hip-hop artist from Kashmir who adapts the name of his war-torn land into his stage name. His earliest music is less innovative in composition, but the improvement in production as well as collaborations with Urdu and Kashmiri musicians shoot up the quality of his later work to world-class levels.
What is gut-wrenching throughout, though, are his words. Even in those early YouTube tracks, sounding no different from any Tupac imitator elsewhere in the world and probably shot with a basic handycam, the lyrics are haunting—the voice of a relentlessly massacred population that we hardly ever get to hear, even (especially?) within India. Being rather easy on the eye doesn’t hurt the mission of MC Kash even a little bit, of course.
8.Motorcycle Shayaries – Holi Hai (2016)
A relatively new band that I came across recently, Motorcycle Shayaries’ “Holi Hai” combines heavy guitar distortions with rap in Hindi, creating a sound reminiscent of ’90s rap rock like the Beastie Boys or Limp Bizkit, all of which I had reverently followed in my time. The lyrics of “Holi Hai” are critical of the decay of culture and public values in India under the current right-wing government. (Don’t ask me about the Che Guevara obsession, however. The song makes no reference to Guevara, and Indian history and politics have hardly anything to do with him. I suppose he makes a good-looking backdrop.)
9. Beyoncé – Formation (2016)
I want to link all of Lemonade here, but the entire album is not available on YouTube. I can barely bring myself to write about this album—I am reduced to silent tears of gratitude. Is this album the pinnacle of popular black art? Not being of the community, that is not my decision to make. But as a non-black woman of color—a Dalit woman who is the least valued demographic in her own country—I imbibed more history, poetry, beauty, resistance, faith and healing from Lemonade than I have done from music in a long time. This album gives me life. There is practically not one redundant line, note or visual. If art of this monumental power can still exist, what will the oppressors steal from us?
10. K’naan feat. Residente, Riz MC & Snow Tha Product ¬– Immigrants (We Get the Job Done) (2016)
The only other recent American album that measures up to Lemonade in sheer brilliance and contemporary relevance is the soundtrack of the musical Hamilton, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I have not been rich or fortunate enough to catch a show of Hamilton yet, but then they released a music video for this song. All through 2017, with every dream or opportunity that slipped from me because of my visa status or relative unfamiliarity with this country, I have kept chanting to myself: “Look how far I come.” I’m an immigrant alone in a country across the world from home—the highest educated in my family, the first fluent English speaker—and that country happens to be on fire, as is the one I left behind. Every day I survive is an act of triumph. I will make my way through this horror show, one excruciating day at a time—because us immigrants? We get the job done.