In a piece about the value of “bad” reviews, the literary critic Andrea Long Chu spoke about a kind of hubris that plagues identity-based art. “...It's a different kind of dehumanization when you assume that the aesthetic contribution of a minority group is simply existing, as opposed to actually producing things of interest and value.” Chu was discussing her “takedown” of “Transparent” showrunner Jill Soloway's memoir, which went viral last fall, but stoked a critical struggle I've long kept guarded: How to think, write, and talk about art beyond representation.
I've always been interested in art made by South Asian musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists. My desperate search for brown art as a weird teen living in a diverse but homogenizing suburb of Toronto shaped my interest in the unbridled potential of culture. I bootlegged episodes of the BBC sketch comedy “Goodness Gracious Me,” and streamed the BBC's Asian Network radio over dial-up. After seeing the classic 1999 film East Is East, I scoured video rental stores and found more stories of brown kids caught in-between: Bhaji on the Beach, Chutney Popcorn, American Desi. Bands like No Doubt and Voxtrot earned my loyalty because of members Tony Kanal and Ramesh Srivastava. These things, and much more, were alternatives to the casual bigotry and cultural conservatism of my household and community.
Now the dilemma of conflating visibility with viability—when brownness is not enough—has become an unexpectedly annoying hurdle in my career as a cultural critic. I've enjoyed writing about art that reflects my identity (when I think the art is interesting) and personally reflecting on my identity (when it matters), but I wasn't prepared for the expectation (from readers, publicists, artists—and the internet) of a kind of nepotism. That I would broadly praise art with which I share some vague cultural connection when that art doesn't reflect or, even worse, offends, my own aesthetic, moral, or political instincts. In the race for pop star equity, this strand of criticism can be irrationally treated as treason.
I've mostly avoided taking a stance. This is something my friend, the artist Kindness, gently nudged me on during a radio conversation about Desi music in America. At the time I thought of my response—“when it's good enough it'll get props”—as game, but I was using subjectivity as defense. The only way I've been able to reconcile criticism vis-a-vis identity is when there is a clear moral imperative: This is why, a few months after that chat, I wrote about the rapper Nav from the perspective of his flagrant use of the N-word, and not his (very popular, very insipid) music.
It might seem counterintuitive to critique the work of, say, a popular poet or rapper-turned-actor when white supremacists are pulling up, but flattening representations of marginalized people—selling tropes back to ourselves like a Möbius strip of injustice—doesn't feel like progress, either. Writing beyond the desperation of representation gives critics (and their readers) space to consider art without being ahistorical or reductive of an artist's personal values and creative impulses. But collective aspiration as a social condition can prevent us from accepting that representation isn't justice served. Particularly when, as the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy noted in a recent interview, “big capital uses racism, caste-ism (the Hindu version of racism, more elaborate, and sanctioned by the holy books), and sexism and gender bigotry ... in intricate and extremely imaginative ways to reinforce itself, protect itself, to undermine democracy, and to splinter resistance.”
I was in a neurotic panic about all of this when my belief in the value of identity art was reinvigorated by A Sacred Bore, a late-2018 record by the Glaswegian multi-instrumentalist and DIY promoter Kapil Seshasayee. The album's explicit aim is direct action against the racist and classist ideology of the Indian caste system. And it made me feel optimistic by offering a simple (maybe obvious) solution to my critical dilemma: focus on art that better frames specific concerns, versus relying on major cultural institutions to do the work of nuance. That's because Seshasayee does something much different: He speaks directly to other brown people, within the diaspora as well as South Asia, rather than using the neutered language of representation and oppression to make himself legible to the mainstream.
Seshasayee implicates himself and other diasporic South Asians in perpetuating an indigenous form of injustice carried by migrants to the West, and reinforced through performances of identity that are nostalgic for a rapidly changing culture. The 10 tracks on A Sacred Bore—a title that cleverly claps back at noxious Hindu nationalist rhetoric dominant in India and abroad—combine literary narrative, experimental composition, strong guitar melodies, and Foley-type bricolage to eerie effect. The album is as influenced by DIY punk culture as it is classical South Indian Carnatic music.
Thematically, Seshasayee links back-home casteism and Islamophobia with the American coalition Hindus For Trump. He also parallels stories of caste-based violence in India and the diaspora. “The Ballad of Bant Singh” is about a violent 2006 attack on a Dalit folk singer and labourer in Punjab; “Ligature Hymnal” is a song for Jaswinder Kaur Jassi, the victim of a caste-motivated 'honor killing' in Canada. He doesn't linger in sonic gimmick; these are galvanizing rock songs with intelligent, deeply felt stories arranged with a 3D sense of space. Listening is like watching a play unfold.
Seshasayee's perspective feels weighty because it belongs to a continuum of South Asian “resistance” music made by diasporic artists like State of Bengal, Asian Dub Foundation, LAL, the Kominas, and, sure, even M.I.A. Resurrecting this canon of challenging work directly confronts the super duplicitous idea that brown art in the diaspora wasn't valuable or truly representative until it became commodifiable. The Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall grappled with this variable in the 1960s, writing in his book The Popular Arts, “The media themselves, their content and forms, are not neutral: we have to attend to the forms within which the new experiences are being presented, to discriminate between values… this is the only kind of moral control which we can apply to the sudden expansion that has taken place.”
With gains in the cultural (and lived) space, critics and consumers alike must ask deeper questions of identity-based art: What exactly is being represented beyond a surface performance of identity? What values does this art speak to? What constructs does it challenge or uphold? Who gains? Furthermore, what's lost when arts writing that purports to adhere to a social justice framework privileges representation over collective liberation? In her essential memoir of the AIDS epidemic, Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman pushes back against representation that “replaces most people's experiences with the perceptions of the privileged and calls that reality.” Is the representation that feeds the content mill really just a catfish?
Not all racialized musicians need to issue political invective (to be honest, let's not), but there should be space to push back on flattening, comfortable, middle class (or “crazy, rich”) narratives of representation that are ultimately about conformity and merely existing. As a practice, this kind of criticism doesn't have to be ideologically bulletproof—formal concerns keep ideas of injustice and oppression locked in abstraction when really they are human and complex. I like what “Surviving R. Kelly” executive producer dream hampton said in a recent interview: “What we have lost in this severe age of anti-intellectualism is the idea of criticism as a place to grow.” And that's what A Sacred Bore does.