Don't miss this Special Kondabolu Brothers Bonus Xtra Feature: The smart, funny stuff that got edited out of my column
The vicissitudes of deadlines and the hard, cold reality of editing meant that a late set of responses to emailed questions by the Brothers Kondabolu ended up on the figurative cutting room floor of my column this week (San Francisco Chronicle: Asian Pop—All Brown Everything) — which is too bad, because the stuff they sent is smart and funny and edgier than the stuff my editor left in. So here's a loop of bonus material from the Brothers K, Hari (the standup comic) and Ashok (a.k.a. Dapwell, hypeman for the incredibly awesome alt-hop group Das Racist, which if you don't know you should, and you will). Note to all, especially those living in Brooklyn or hell, the greater New York area: The Bros. Kondabolu are planning MINORITYFEST 2011, a sequel to their wildly successful monster comedy plus rap plus knowledge palooza of 2009 — exact date and lineup to be announced. Sometime this winter though.
[Light editing for grammar and clarity, of both questions and responses]
Right before I had to leave our interview [at Dub Pies in Brooklyn's Windsor Terrace — check 'em out, mmm pies] I was about to ask some questions about politics. So here are some questions about politics:
I feel like for artists of other races (e.g. white, black, and yes Latino), politics is expected as being part of the territory of their art. They get involved in Initiatives and advocate Causes, they support candidates, they urge people not just to vote, but to vote on specific issues in specific ways -- and it's all good. But no one seems to expect Asian artists or performers to be politically active, and certainly not to be vocally, openly politically active. Why do you think that is?
Hari: If there is an expectation of artists of other races to be political, I think it's a minimal one. I think there's more of an overwhelming sense of staying away from having any firm opinions on the world and avoiding controversy that is political in nature, and could affect you from getting future work. If there truly is less of an expectation for Asian artists to be political, maybe it's because the assumption is that "we've had it good here." It's that whole "model minority" thing. Obviously, the term "Asian" is very broad and we know there are a lot of lower-income folks and newer Asian immigrants — many undocumented — who are struggling. I will say there has been a lot of political art by Asians post-9/11, especially amongst brown Asians, and that's exciting.
Ashok: I think one of the most useful aspects is our visibility to the general public. Growing up there weren't very many "entertainers" who were South Asian/brown in general. Our politics (Das Racist and Hari's) are, I feel, fairly straightforward and oft-repeated. The band definitely trades in generating simplified political rhetoric and engages in messaging as well. We're often labeled as being racially ambiguous even though me and Himanshu are both Indian and Victor is Afro-Cuban and White (and oft confused for an Indian).
Have either of you ever had anyone (like a manager or prospective employer or booker or even a fan) ask you to tone it down? Has anyone ever suggested you'd go farther if you stopped being so obsessed with the race thing, or the Asian thing, or the Indian thing? You know, just let it go, get along to go along?
Hari: As long as you're successful, people leave you alone for the most part. I mean, random people say nonsense at shows or online every now and then. I have a decent amount of support within the industry, and the folks who may not like what I'm doing may not say anything because what I'm doing seems to be working. However, I'm sure there are opportunities I'm not getting because I do what I do. Doesn't really matter what people say to my face, if I lose out on things.
Ashok: No, they're scared of us. A few people have called our politics simple-minded and divisive, which they often are.
Do people ever call you racist for pointing out racism? Sorry, that's more of a personal bitchpoint of mine. Because I get that all the time. But do they?
Ashok: Yes, "reverse racism." Sometimes they are right, because referring to chunks of people as "white" is fairly meaningless — but often useful.
Hari — you worked on immigrant rights issues, and of course we're probably in the most horrendously xenophobic period of American history since World War II. What do you think is behind this resurgent fear/hate of immigrants? What's your take on Arizona, Alabama, Georgia?
Hari: People see their neighborhoods changing and they don't like it. They see change in language and culture and a struggling economy and they are looking for people to blame. People are always easier to blame than complicated policies.
Ashok — you guys, that is, Das Racist, did shows in Arizona...was that weird? Did you guys discuss not performing in Arizona (because of, you know, the hate)?
Ashok: Briefly, Victor's sister Vida lies out there so we decided to do it anyway (Tucson and Phoenix). We were going to actually read statistics and snippets of politically charged pro-immigration speech, but decided to scrap the plan when the Phoenix audience was predominantly Mexican. The Tucson audience as well was quite mixed, but there we still stuck with some "Fuck Jan Brewer" type stuff. Not particularly useful, but hey.
Have either of you guys encountered racist/anti-brown types, either while on the road, performing, or in your personal life?
Hari: Definitely in my personal life, and occasionally on the road. Usually people in the audience will yell random garbage or whisper something racist on stage so only I can hear it. There is also lots of well-intentioned, condescending racism too, as well as straight up stupid shit like asking me yoga or Indian food or telling me about a trip to India they want to make. I've experienced the great diversity of racism that the U.S. has to offer!
Ashok: Not really. People who come to see us know what they're getting for the most part. Victor beat up a man wearing blackface in Rome and he beat up a dude wearing an afro wig in Birmingham, Alabama.
It does seem that South Asians have been much more prominent in government/politics recently — President Obama has appointed many Desis to his cabinet and to high office (<cough>Kalpen Modi</cough>). Do you ascribe this to anything in particular? I mean, Chinese parents tell their kids not to get involved in politics...dunno if that's the case for Indian parents too.
Hari: I can't speak for all Indian people — obviously, I am one human....but our parents were not like that. Our paternal grandfather was a politician back in Southern India, and I have a political background. I interned for then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton back in 2003, and have worked at various nonprofit organizations. Our parents were concerned with us getting hurt, and sure there was the fear of potentially losing work opportunities, but I think they are proud of who we are and that we stand up for ourselves. My parents are fighters, in their own way. They don't just take crap from people and though they are not "activists," they do things that create opportunities for other people and are quite open-minded. My mom is the "cool aunty."
Also, there are now TWO Indian governors, and both of them are crazy right-wing evangelical crazies. Can you explain this? Please? Seriously, WTF?
Hari: Both are educated Christians who are easy to digest. They only scare hardcore racists.
Ashok — I thought it was hilarious when you said that Victor [Vasquez, Das Racist's Kool A.D.] used to get mistaken for Sikh on the street, because given that the other two of you are Indian, he must get mistaken as Desi all the time anyway. Does he embrace his honorary Indian status?
Ashok: He thinks it's humorous but he'll always correct people unless he feels like fucking with them.
Hari — While watching your other YouTube clips, I stumbled across the channel for WorldCompass, in which you address some pretty serious stuff, in serious fashion. Badass, man! I particularly liked your take on white guilt vs. racism. Can you tell me about the project and how you got involved in it?
Hari: Kavita Pillay contacted me from WGBH in Boston saying that they were starting a new initiative with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that involved a greater web presence and they wanted videobloggers. It's not something I'd really experimented with, but I was excited to try. They provided me with a great platform to do it, and it's been an overall success. I'm definitely self-conscious about the piece,s and wish they were stronger, even though the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I've even heard some of the videos have been used in various high school, college and grad school classrooms. The best in this field is Jay Smooth of "Ill Doctrine." He's the standard by which any thoughtful videoblogger/ essayist is judged. (At least in my opinion.) [Ed.: Mine too!]
I think Ashok mentioned Third World unity in passing (in relation to an organization at Stuy, I think?)...but here's a serious question: Do you think brown unity is truly possible? If so, what's it rooted in and where is it going?
Hari: That's too big a question for the Kondabolu Brothers to answer if you are talking about geopolitics. If you are talking in the U.S., then another generation or two of young ,educated brown people growing up together will help create that end. The South Asian disapora is not a unified one. It's very much split by nationality, class, caste, religion, geography and language. However, you already see some unity in this newer generation with the growth of "South Asian" organizations in politics and business. That identity is one we've tried to empower and build off of. Especially after 9/11, there was some great cross-community organizing around it and that's a start.
Hari — we talked about the (relative) preponderance of Indians in comedy recently; can you think of any other reasons, besides the ones we talked about, why Indians are breaking out in the humor space? Is Indian culture inherently funny? I feel like Chinese people are not really that funny by nature. At least not in a way that anyone else can comprehend. Maybe it's just me
Hari: I'd first stay away with anything that involves "by nature." It's basically that educated brown kids now have the ability to waste the educations and opportunities their immigrant parents worked so hard to pay for.
Half kidding, half-serious bonus questions: Is Brown the New Black?
What can brown do for you?
Ashok: "Sing and dance," literally and figuratively in both our cases. HA! But also punch you if you're in blackface and have sex with your white daughters!
Das Racist's RELAX drops August 30th on Greedhead Records. And yes! Minorityfest 2011 will be happening this winter!
[Kondabolu Bros. out!]