Zeshan B On 'Melismatic' And Creating Music That Champions Brown Power

Jun 7, 2020

Zeshan Bagewadi is in many ways, a classic soul singer. As Zeshan B, he channels the music of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. His signature, though, is combining that classic soul sound with lyrics that pay tribute to his South Asian roots. On his latest album, Melismatic, his first collection of entirely original compositions, he sings in both English and Urdu.

Like Cooke, Gaye and Redding, Zeshan B also tackles the issues of the day through his music. "Brown Power," the lead single from Melismatic, is all about solidarity between historically oppressed minority groups. That parallel history is something that he says he has always heard as a common thread between Indo-Pakistani music and soul.

"When I was growing up and my folks were bopping to Desi music as well as soul music, I felt that these things were so intrinsically linked because of that shared struggle," he says.

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to Zeshan Bagewadi about his own activist music, as well as his thoughts on the recent protest movement against police brutality and experiencing the frontline of the coronavirus epidemic alongside his wife, Dr. Alexandra Roybal, an anesthesiologist working at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for a transcript of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro: You are the son of Indian Muslim immigrants and social justice is front and center on this album and in much of your music. It seems the death of George Floyd has hit you hard. Last weekend you posted your rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." And you wrote this: "No matter how smooth or sweet this Sam Cooke song is and no matter how calm I seem, I am still burning with rage like a lot of you. We need to make damn sure that a change is gonna come from all this ... by any means necessary." That's a strong sentiment.

Zeshan Bagewadi: I think that this is a time that strong sentiments need to be aired out. I think that it's a time for the older generation to listen to the younger generation. I've been saying for some time that I think it's really about time that millennials take over. We are at the breaking point. We are enraged at seeing all of this play out in real time before our very eyes. When it comes to millennials, we are the first generation in American history that has it worse than our parents. We trusted our elders to solve their own problems, like systemic racism or climate change, and I'm sad to say that they've let us down every step of the way. I think that when it comes to change coming, and this change that I sing about, I think it's time that people of my generation, who have come of age during the Great Recession and the presidency of Donald Trump and the digital display of police brutality that we've seen time and time again, it's time that we take over and I intend on being a part of that.

A kind of universal vision of equality comes out in your powerful anthem, "Brown Power." Tells us about this song which seems particularly relevant right now.

I think America is becoming more and more brown by the minute, which has everything to do with why we've seen the rise of white nationalism and the normalization of it. It's because the GOP and Donald Trump and the alt-right, all ideological bedfellows, they're all shaking and shivering right now because they don't want America to become brown. And their base of support, they don't want to see that browning of America. It's a backlash. It's a white-lash.

I think it's time that people of my generation, who have come of age during the Great Recession and the presidency of Donald Trump and the digital display of police brutality that we've seen time and time again, it's time that we take over and I intend on being a part of that. -

So "Brown Power" consequently is about the social, political empowerment of black and brown people in America through empathy for one another. I think there's a nexus that just naturally exists between pretty much all melanistic people in this world, in that we at some point were colonized, enslaved or disenfranchised by a white power structure. Even though we all have disparate cultures and disparate languages and disparate narratives, that's the one common strand of DNA that we have — besides our beautiful melanin. I think we should find common ground with that, and that's what "Brown Power" is about.

I've advocated that for years within my own community of Indians and Pakistanis. I always felt that we were so apathetic and tone deaf to the plight of black people and Hispanics and Native Americans, and it bothered me. These are the people who paved the way for us to come and get a slice of the so-called American pie. I have to say that even with everything that's happening around the murder of George Floyd, I'm pleased to see that this alliance between black and brown is starting to take shape. I'm seeing a lot of Indians and Pakistanis on social media finally waking up and showing support and solidarity with black people. And while I do wish this had been the case many years ago, better late than never. The point is, we combine our resources, whether they're financial resources, political resources, intellectual capital, whatever it is — we combine that as a people, there'd be nothing stopping us.

You have spoken about the visceral link between American soul and Indo-Pakistani music. Talk about that relationship.

Once again, it goes back to brown power; it's that common strand of DNA. What is it that we have in common? It's that at some point we were colonized, enslaved, oppressed, disenfranchised. And consequently, the themes of Indo-Pakistani music as well as the themes of soul music of being down and out, of poverty, of urban despair, I've always found that those things really coincided with one another. When I was growing up and my folks were bopping to Desi music as well as soul music, I felt that these things were so intrinsically linked because of that shared struggle. Not necessarily in the same continent, not in the same context.

[If] we combine our resources, whether they're financial resources, political resources, intellectual capital, whatever it is ... there'd be nothing stopping us. -

On Melismatic, I seek to draw out that nexus. If it's alright, I'd like to talk about a concept, it's called the "blue note." It's known in academic circles; Dr. Cornel West talks about it a lot. The blue note of black people, it's not just a straight note ... it's bent out of shape, it's jagged. It's born out of systemic oppression. I think that us brown people, we also have "blue notes" and they're called melismas. You don't quite hit the pitch right on there. That thing has always been a link between us and our music, and I love singing it.

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"Nausheen" is "an ode to the intelligence, beauty, and effervescence of South Asian women." Who is the Nausheen in this song?

Nausheen is not anybody in particular. Nausheen to me represents the amazing South Asian women who have influenced me throughout my life, whether it be my mother, my grandmother, who had an enormous, enormous influence on me — in fact, my grandmother was the reason I even spoke Urdu, why I can even sing in Urdu and gave me a really strong appreciation of my culture and my people and my heritage. Because of the misogyny that is so rampant in the Desi community, and because of the fact that the bar is set so low for men, I think the result of that is a super race of superwomen who are extremely intelligent, extremely creative, extremely bright and I think it comes as a result of having had to subvert and having had to exist alongside men who are far more mediocre than them. So "Nausheen" is an ode to them.

And of course, we have to give a special shout out to your wife, Dr. Alexandra Roybal, who is an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and on the COVID-19 frontline. How are you two handling the crisis?

I think it's brought us closer to one another, certainly. We've always been grounded in our passion for what we do, but it's been challenging. In her case, she is very driven and is very passionate about medicine, about giving medical care. It's amazing how despite the fact that she's just working day in and day out and in the ICU and on the frontlines, for her it's just kind of like "Well, this what I was put on this earth to do." That sense of duty and that sense of devotion to her field of medicine, I think it's been inspiring for me because as a musician, I've had to watch everything from the sidelines while she's on the frontlines. It's sort of inspirational to see that, and it's inspired creativity within me as to how I can continue to put out music.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Zeshan Bagewadi is, in many ways, a classic soul singer. He channels the music of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY")

ZESHAN BAGEWADI: (Singing) I want to stay. Won't run away, no. I want to play just like we used to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Zeshan B, as he's known, has a signature take on soul, singing in English and Urdu on his new album. It's called "Melismatic." And it's his first collection of all original music. And Zeshan B joins me now from his home in Baltimore. Welcome to the program.

BAGEWADI: Thank you for having me, Lulu. It's a pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. How are you holding up?

BAGEWADI: (Laughter) Oh, best as I can. You know, we're - in some ways, you know, we're all sort of in this together, aren't we?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hmm. You are the son of Indian Muslim immigrants. And social justice is front and center on this album and in much of your music, and it seems like the death of George Floyd has hit you hard. Last weekend on Instagram and Facebook, you posted your rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," and you wrote this, no matter how smooth or sweet this Sam Cooke song is, no matter how calm I seem, I am still burning with rage like a lot of you. We need to make damn sure that a change is going to come from all this by any means necessary. That's a strong sentiment.

BAGEWADI: Well, I think that this is the time where strong sentiments need to be aired out. I think that we are at the breaking point. We are enraged at seeing all this play out, you know, in real time before our very eyes. And I think that when it comes to a change coming and this change that I sing about, I think it's time that people of my generation who have come of age during the Great Recession and the presidency of Donald Trump and the digital display of police brutality that we've seen time and time again - my generation - it's time that we take over, and I intend on being a part of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, a kind of universal vision of equality comes out in the very powerful anthem "Brown Power."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN POWER")

BAGEWADI: (Singing) We've been marching so long. Wore our feet down to the bone. But we ain't tired, no. Got soul for miles, yeah. From Karachi to Michoacan, we've come so far, yeah, we keepin' on. And we risin' higher, yeah. Oh, higher, higher, higher. We been payin' our dues.

"Brown Power" is about the socio-political empowerment black and brown people here in America, through empathy for one another - you know, I mean, I think - I mean, Lulu, you and I can wax on this. I think there's a nexus that just naturally exists between pretty much all melanistic people in this world in that we...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Melanistic people, I like that.

BAGEWADI: ...In that we, at some point, were colonized, enslaved or disenfranchised by a white power structure. I mean, even though we all have disparate cultures and disparate languages and disparate narratives, that's the one sort of common strand of DNA that we have, right? Besides our beautiful melanin. And - you know? And so I think that we should find, you know, common ground with that. And that's what "Brown Power" is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN POWER")

BAGEWADI: (Singing) Brown power. Oh, brown power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You grew up in Chicago. And you've spoken about the visceral link between American soul and Indo-Pakistani music. Tell me a little bit about that relationship.

BAGEWADI: Well, I think that relationship exists because both of those idioms of music - once again, it goes back to "Brown Power" - it's that common strand of DNA. What is it that we have in common? It's that at some point we were, you know, colonized, enslaved, oppressed. And, you know, in "Melismatic," I seek to draw out that nexus. If it's all right, I'd like to just talk about just the concept - it's called the blue note. And it's known in academic circles - you know, the blue note of black people. It's not just a straight note, you know, the note of blues in jazz. It is bent out of shape. It's jagged. It's born out of systemic oppression.

And I think that us brown people, we also have our own blue notes. And, you know, they're called melismas. For example, like, a straight note is (vocalizing). But the blue note of black people is (vocalizing) - you know, that's like - it's bent a little bit. And then the blue note of brown people - of people from Indian and Pakistan is like (vocalizing). You see? The - you don't just quite hit the pitch right on there. And so that thing just has always been a link between us and our music, and I love singing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZESHAN B SONG, "NAUSHEEN")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to listen to "Nausheen," which you say is an ode to the intelligence, beauty and effervescence of South Asian women. Let's hear a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAUSHEEN")

BAGEWADI: (Singing) We were shooting for the same degree you work so quietly, eyes on the prize, not on a guy like me. I was tangled up in my own strings, learning how to spread my wings...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who is Nausheen in this song?

BAGEWADI: (Laughter) Well, look. You know, Nausheen is not anybody in particular. It's - Nausheen, to me, represents the amazing South Asian women who have influenced me throughout my life, whether it be my mother, my grandmother, who had an enormous, enormous influence on me. In fact, my grandmother is the reason why I even speak Urdu, why I can even sing in Urdu and, you know, gave me a really strong appreciation of my culture and my people. And, you know, because of the, you know, misogyny that's so rampant in the Desi community and because of the fact that the bar is set so low for men, I think the result of that is a super race of super women. And so Nausheen is an ode to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We can't end this interview without giving a special shout out to your wife, Dr. Alexandra Roybal, who is an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and on the COVID-19 frontline. How are you two handling this?

BAGEWADI: In her case, she just is very driven and is very passionate about medicine - about giving medical care. And to her, it's like, well, this is what I was put on this Earth to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there a song on "Melismatic" that we could go out on and dedicate to your wife and all the frontline workers?

BAGEWADI: Oh, sure. I think "Only In My Dreams" - it's about the societal disparities that exist - you know, that COVID is disproportionately affecting minorities. And that song is all about the disparities that exist in our society, and so I would love to dedicate that to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY IN MY DREAMS")

BAGEWADI: (Singing) Don't wake me up 'cause you know that I've had enough. I go back to sleep 'cause this world isn't what it seems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zeshan Bagewadi - Zeshan B - his new album is called "Melismatic." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BAGEWADI: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.