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Urban Desi: A Genre On The Rise

Mainstream hip-hop fans in the U.S. may have missed the latest single from the rapper Snoop Dogg. But ask a Hindi-speaking music fan about the song, and he or she can probably sing you the hook. That's because it's a collaboration with the Bollywood star Akshay Kumar.

The song is called "Singh Is King," and it's from a popular Bollywood film of the same name. In the video for the song, Snoop dons an embroidered coat and a turban, and sits with his legs crossed atop a throne. He looks quite comfortable in the role of Indian royalty and it seems he's gotten a cultural pass. Some South Asian music critics even describe the scene as Snoop Dogg "going desi."

The word "desi" comes from Sanskrit and means "from the country" or "of the country." It's used by South Asian immigrants to refer to someone or something from the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora. The word implies shared values and bonds.

This is not the first time an American rapper has collaborated with a desi artist. In 2003, Jay-Z released the track "Beware of the Boys," a remix of the Panjabi MC song "Mundian to Bach Ke," rocketing the South Asian artist to a global audience. But Singh Is King marks the first time a U.S. rap star has appeared in a Bollywood film.

Anjula Acharia-Bath created the Web site www.desihits.com. She left the United Kingdom for the United States in 2001 and says she was dismayed to find that the fusion of music she'd grown up with — a mix of Bollywood with bhangra and hip hop — wasn't really getting much play here.

"If you think of someone like M.I.A., she really represents that genre which we call urban desi. Reggae, hip hop, ska. In the U.K., it's really commonplace; you hear it in clubs, bars, everywhere," Acharia-Bath says.

M.I.A. has achieved critical and commercial success in the U.K. and the U.S. Music from other urban desi performers like Panjabi MC and RDB is making its way to this country through U.K. distributors and is sold primarily in South Asian stores.

Shaman Ajmani first heard urban desi while working the counter at his father's Indian music store in Berkeley, Calif. He says it took a while for American desis to break into the rap game and that even though black and South Asian melodies blend seamlessly, the cultural exchange isn't always harmonious. "I do see some Indians over here using the N word. It's so annoying. I feel like saying, 'What're you doing, man? Don't try to be black.'"

Acharia-Bath says for young South Asians in the West, this music culture represents a kind of freedom — not having to choose between two worlds.

"We needed to create something that defined us and was our identity but makes us feel really good about this bicultural life that we lead," she says.

Now, urban desi music is trying to circle back to the motherland, finding an audience among young people in India. Western content is flying there through social-networking sites. Snoop says he's making plans to tour India.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nishat Kurwa