The biographical language about me contains some highfalutin signifiers: MacArthur, Harvard, jazz. But to be honest I feel dwarfed by the presence of all of you here today, the real activists and organizers who bring your unique strengths to the trenches, changing America for the better. I’m thrilled to be invited to your party.
Back in 2001 I released my third album, titled Panoptic Modes. The CD began with an original composition called “Invocation,” dedicated to Rishi Maharaj, a young Indo-Caribbean man who had been the victim of a hate crime in Queens in the late 90s. He had been beaten nearly to death by a group of white men with baseball bats chanting racist and xenophobic insults.
My intent with this piece of music was to suggest to our own community, in case anyone was listening, that this young man was one of us; that we, as South Asian Americans, should embrace all of our massive diaspora, regardless of national identity or historical circumstance. Because community isn’t just about common roots; it is about parallel experiences, a shared predicament, a common cause. It is about the fact that what happens to this young brown man could, and indeed often does, happen to any or all of us.
Still I didn’t have any idea that this little piece of instrumental music might do any more than highlight the fact that “stuff happens” in America. So I was floored when some months later I received an email from a young lawyer named Deepa Iyer, Esquire (no relation), who had connected with Rishi.
She put me in touch with Rishi, who sent me a heartfelt, frank and devastating message about his life’s journey after the attack. He had moved to Alaska, to put as much distance as possible between himself and the experience. He thanked me for remembering him and for shining a light on his experience through music, and he confessed that he didn’t know what he was going to do next. The hate crime had thoroughly disrupted the delicate sense of rootedness and belonging that he and his family, like all of our families, had begun to cultivate in this country. But Deepa’s work helped rekindle a sense of connectedness for him and his family.
What is a community? A friend of mine, political scientist Cara Wong, in her book Boundaries of Obligation, defines community as “an image in the mind of an individual, of a group toward whose members she feels a sense of similarity, belonging, or fellowship.”
Community, in other words, is very much the work of our imaginations. And exactly because of this, it has important real-world repercussions. As Professor Wong demonstrates in her book, “self-defined membership can lead to an interest in, and a commitment to, the well-being of all community members… regardless of one’s own interests, values, and ideology.”
In the years since 9/11, our community has been challenged repeatedly, and common causes with others have led us to imagine ourselves bigger. As the African-American writer Greg Tate told me shortly in fall 2001, “Welcome to racial profiling.” We have had to embrace our own religious and cultural diversity — Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains; Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, Indians, Afghans, Bhutanese — as well as other communities of color — Arabs, Middle Easterners, north and east Africans, east and southeast Asians, all of their diasporas, and yes, African Americans and Latinos — because of a common predicament, a common cause, a common atmosphere of fear, surveillance, suspicion, and paranoia, and the persistence of inequality.
Also, as we have become one of the most affluent and nominally “successful” demographics in post-1960s America, we have had to develop new empathies to understand our place in the world. We have had to remind ourselves that Dr. Martin Luther King adopted the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, that our freedoms are spiritually yoked to the struggles for justice for the African Americans and other minorities who built this country.
Last weekend I was in Atlanta with my family, and we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site. There is a beautiful statue of Gandhi at this site. There is also a trenchant quote from Dr. King on display. It says, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
I want you to know that, all titles aside, I am first and foremost an artist. As an artist I ask myself Dr. King’s question every day. What am I doing for others? To this end I have pursued three main goals. First, I have strived to generate a consistent, un-ignorable, complicating presence in the landscape of culture. As African American innovators like Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix found, in the face of a culture that would deny them, it becomes necessary for an artist of color in the west to defiantly announce to the world: I am a fact.
That kind of defiant presence — the same kind you get from M.I.A., or Himanshu Suri of Das Racist, the kind that coolly roars from the margins — that kind of defiant presence has the power to disrupt and transform culture, to hearken and inaugurate a new America. That kind of defiant presence also has the power to activate and mobilize the imaginations of others like ourselves: young desis in our global diaspora finally seeing themselves represented positively in culture, finally empowered to dream a little bigger.
My second main goal has been to initiate and sustain alliances with other artists of color, from Amiri Baraka and Haile Gerima to Teju Cole and Mike Ladd, so that we can imagine, build, and enact a concept of community that transcends heritage, nation, and creed — so that we can really become an undeniable force: a disruptive multitude, imagining and bringing forth a new reality.
The third goal is to articulate and demonstrate a commitment to social justice. As Yo-Yo Ma has said, and as I always remind my students, a life in the arts is a life of service. I invite all of you who are political activists and community organizers to collaborate with the artists in your midst, so that our missions can serve your missions — so that we can activate radical imaginations in order to bring about necessary action.
On that note, today we’re here to celebrate the work of SAALT, and to thank Deepa Iyer for all that she has done for others– strengthening our communities; speaking truth to power; advocating and initiating political change; empowering us to dream big.
Thank you, Deepa, for all that you’ve done, and for inviting me to the party. It is an honor and a privilege to celebrate with you.
Jazz Pianist, Composer, MacArthur Fellow, and Harvard Professor
NYC, December 3, 2013