Many rap artists have produced songs integrating music and social justice that have topped the charts over the years, but the list doesn’t include many Indian names. That may be about to change.
The release of Indo-Canadian hip-hop rapper Shah’s debut solo album, “Day of Shah,” is just a few days away, but two tracks, “Rookie Card” and “Don’t Do It Mandela,” from the EP are already making waves in the rap music scene, with fans lauding him for his raw honesty.
Shah’s music (He goes by one name) has been crafted on, about and for gender equality, from issues of police brutality to overcoming his own adversity and childhood hardships, which provided him with empathy for the underdog.
The musician, though relatively unknown to most Indians, is glad to be making music that he is passionate about, but he also wants to be able to represent his community.
Growing up in Toronto, Shah says he didn’t have cultural role models to look up to and now he is striving to be that person for today’s youth, in particular, the young Indian American population.
“Growing up, you wouldn’t see any Indian musicians or actors on television, and when we would be depicted, it would not be in a positive way,” Shah told India-West. “I want the kids of today to not feel like I did and feel sort of isolated. I want the kids today to be like, ‘I can be the president. I can be Michael Jordan.’”
The Toronto-born rapper, who now frequently shuttles between New York and Los Angeles, said he wants to be a force for change.
Stressing the importance of pursuing dreams with courage and faith, Shah said, “Rap music doesn’t have a lot of ‘us’ in it. This is something very important to me. I want kids to feel empowered [more] than I felt while growing up.”
“Day of Shah,” a five-song album, will be accompanied by a cinematic music video series.
Shah, who enjoys being able to speak his mind and taking charge of his creative output, began making music when he was in high school.
But he did not want to deviate from the norm, and so put his singing dreams on the back burner to pursue education, and went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Toronto. During med school, he joined the New Orleans Saints football team, which, after a year of his joining, he said won the Super Bowl 2010.
“Pretty early on in medical school, I realized that I wanted to do something fun with my life, something more rewarding for me,” the 32-year-old singer told India-West. “To be making music, enjoying, and being happy and that’s when the switch started taking place.”
Often dealing with conflicting thoughts, whether this was the right career move, Shah said once he became sure of his decision, he devoted hundred percent of his time to music.
“2014 was when people started to come around and support me,” he explained. “This is not something you can do by yourself. Rap music is so competitive, there is so much to it. That’s when I thought I can do this, it will work out.”
Shah’s mother is a native of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, and his father is from Tanda, Uttar Pradesh. He said at first his parents dismissed the idea as a joke, but eventually came around after his strong pitch.
“When I explained it to them that how I’ll be able to make more money, be able to help people on a bigger level than a doctor, then they thought about it, and said, ‘Go do it!” Shah told India-West. “My parents are very supportive. They’ll always be the first to help and support.”
Though his favorite singer is Asha Bhonsle, Shah said that Tupac has had the most impact on him as an artist.
“He was someone who made excellent music but also from a society standpoint, he was someone who used his fame to stand for something strong. That is something missing in rap music today,” he told India-West.
Shah, who believes in the teachings of the likes of Gandhi and Malcolm X, writes his own songs.
Among Shah’s two major sources of inspiration are the people who have been supportive of his music over the years, and his strong urge to speak out against social injustices.
“From New York to Toronto to India, to Australia to the Caribbean, seeing these people get rewarded and get paid off, that’s one big motivational factor,” he elaborated. “There is still so much discrimination and racism. Discrimination women have to face every day, growing up you don’t really get it. But now these are areas I want to use my influence to impact.”
“I am someone who believes that when it comes to discrimination, it is going to be someone from the group of people who does the discrimination that’s going to be able to make change, like Bernie Sanders,” he added. “It’s going to be easier for a male to speak to other males when it comes to ending issues like discrimination against women.”
Along with trying to change people’s perception about rap music, Shah also aspires to bring back the music’s lost glory.
“The social justice aspect of rap music used to be a big factor, which you don’t see anymore. And now people want to make money, have fun, which definitely is understandable, but the broader purpose is the motivation for me,” he told India-West.
“Some people will describe rap music as the lowest common denominator, “he said. “They will use the race tool to put the music down.”
Shah is also trying to dispel the notion that hip-hop promotes negativity in society, saying a few have steered it away from its roots.
He said most of the mainstream music is catchy, and is successfully capturing people with shorter and shorter attention spans, which leads to artists making music that doesn’t have depth.
“What I have realized over the last couple of years is that there is no need to sacrifice the depth or in this case no need to give up on music having meaning.” he explained.
His music, he added, requires some listening skills.
“It might not be until the fourth time that you are listening to one of the songs that you are going to catch it and say, ‘Oh! I see what you were saying there.’ It definitely captures, but it’s like a journey that the listener takes,” he said.
Watch Shah's “Don’t Do It Mandela” and “Rookie Card” music videos: