By Dawinder S. Sidhu | For years Ive listened to bhangra, traditional folk music of Punjab, India, with my immigrant parents and other second-generation South Asian friends. Lately though, I havent had to use my fathers CDs or visit an obscure website to hear bhangraradio stations, clubs, and even MTV have been playing Beware of the Boys, a bhangra song performed by internationally renowned DJ-rapper Panjabi MC featuring hip-hop star Jay-Z. This single, acclaimed by Billboard as a summer anthem, has taken America by storm.
Coinciding with Panjabi MCs entrance into the conventional mainstream were two celebrated movies directed by South Asians, featuring South Asian actors, and presented from a South Asian perspective. The first, Monsoon Wedding, takes viewers through the chaos of wedding in contemporary India, while Bend it Like Beckham focuses on the difficulties a second-generation South Asian girl faces in balancing her parents expectations with her modern Western interests.
Aside from providing bhangra aficionados with greater access to the music of their choice and moviegoers with authentic representations of South Asian life, these recent South Asian elements in American popular culture may have a profound impact on the ways in which South Asians are viewed and treated in this nation. More specifically, they represent a tremendous opportunity for South Asians to not only become properly assimilated in these United States, but to obviate the driving force behind the wave of post-9/11 hate crimes, namely ignorance.
Those interested in the welfare of the South Asians in America know all too wellthrough personal experience, anecdotal evidence, e-mail action alerts, and news storiesthe severe backlash that South Asians, particularly Sikhs, have endured following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Four days later, Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed; his gunman explained he did it because Sodhi was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban. In the five months following 9/11, the FBI investigated more than 400 hate crimes.
The need for South Asians to improve their social state in America is clearly urgent. However, appealing for tolerance and restraint have only gone so far, as hate crimes are an ongoing problem. Political involvement and formal advocacy are conventional strategies, but South Asians have not yet entrenched themselves in legislatures or on Washingtons K Street.
With the widespread acceptance of Beware of the Boys, Monsoon Wedding, and Beckham, I have started to wonder whether Panjabi MC and his progeny represent an alternative, and perhaps more expedient, route to the advancement of South Asians.
Several Penn graduates have been exploring the possibility that social progress for South Asians can be secured through the arts. Vijay S. Chattha C00 [Profiles, November/December 2000] directs Project Ahimsa, an organization established shortly after 9/11 that regards leadership by South Asians in media and entertainment as a reliable means of South Asian empowerment (www.projectahimsa.org).
Project Ahimsa has hosted a series of concerts featuring South Asian musicians. The purpose of these concerts, according to organizer Nihal Mehta C99 EAS99, is to raise money and raise awareness. So far they have been very successful, raising $57,000 for victims of hate crimes.
Some may not be as optimistic about the impact of the rise of South Asians in American media and constructive efforts like those of Chattha and Mehta. The arts are arguably superficial components of broader society, their importance limited to entertainment value. Songs and movies, like other facets of popular culture, regularly fade from the publics interest.
However, if Panjabi MC and Project Ahimsa artists continue to bombard the airwaves, televisions, and auditoriums with sounds and images of South Asia, South Asians may be more identifiable and therefore less a target for the hatred of those who conveniently associate certain minority groups with terrorists.
Another Penn graduate directly involved in ensuring that South Asian art infiltrates American social consciousness is Nimesh Nimo Patel W00 of the hip-hop group Karmacy. In an interview for littleindia.com, Patel expresses confidence in the ability of South Asians to remain artistically relevant in America. He notes, There is definitely a movement in construct [P]eople of all types are starting to open their eyes and minds to all types of art being developed by South Asian-Americans.
Clearly, members of the Penn community are at the forefront of a movement to improve the social state of South Asians by way of assailing Americas senses with elevating sounds and emotive imagery.
Equally clear to me is that the next time I hear Beware of the Boys, Ill be nodding my head with a little more enthusiasm and pride, as a social revolutionwhich stands to benefit music fans as well as all South Asians in Americais unmistakably underway.
Dawinder S. Sidhu C00 is a law student at The George Washington University. He frequently writes on Sikh affairs and equal-protection issues.