Celebrating Deepa Iyer and SAALT

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Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Com­pos­er, MacArthur Fel­low, and Har­vard Pro­fes­sor

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.

Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Com­pos­er, MacArthur Fel­low, and Har­vard Pro­fes­sor
NYC, Decem­ber 3, 2013

For more infor­ma­tion on Vijay Iyer vis­it his web­site or fol­low him on Twit­ter @vijayiyer.