It took twelve years of grueling touring and four album releases for me and my band, Young the Giant, to headline the legendary Forum in Los Angeles in 2019. The storied venue that had once housed every act under the sun — from Marvin Gaye to Bob Dylan — was now welcoming me, an Indian kid from Michigan. A kid who started out playing to no one at the Viper Room, The Roxy, and Whiskey a Go Go, too young to even be in the audience. As I walked on stage that night, I couldn’t help but trace all the footsteps that got me there: the sacrifices that my parents made by immigrating to America so that I could stand here, on the precipice of history.
But I’m not writing to talk about the past. I want to tell you about what happens next — about our future. At the notorious Forum Club after the show, I had just finished cutting a slice off a triple-tiered Young the Giant cake when my friend and mentor, Dr. Varun Soni, came up to me and said, “You do realize that you’re probably the first Indian-American lead singer in an American rock band to headline the Forum, right? Why is no one covering that?”
I had struggled to answer similar questions with each passing milestone in my career with no success. Maybe I was afraid of what the truth might uncover. Regardless, what I found in its place was an insatiable anger that served no other purpose than to threaten the good things in my life, and so I just stopped asking.
Somehow, in the afterglow of that performance, holding that slice of cake with my face on it, however, things finally started to click. The hard part was setting my epiphany into words. The following is my attempt to do so without being misquoted. It will take us across genre and time, to a man named Farrokh Bulsara known around the world as Freddie Mercury, and my new show, Point of Origin. But first, let’s start with the basics.
The simple answer is: no one covered that night at the Forum because most people who’ve heard my music but never seen my face think I’m a white guy. Yes, even people of color — even Indian people.
Music, in a vacuum, is faceless. With this subversive power, the musician can change people’s minds, not by yelling or spouting political discourse, but through the shared love of song. When people listen to my voice on alternative radio, they have no reason to believe that I’m anything other than the norm for the format — but “normal” in our world of context means “white.” The footsteps that have gotten me here are erased in one leap; the very fabric of who I am, snuffed out in a second.
Why? Because I am a part of a genre whose diverse stories and songs have historically been white-washed. Why else would Jean Dawson and Simpson, just two of many amazing black artists who sound like the future of indie rock, be called “trap music” in the press and not get their single on alternative radio? Why is a white guy making hip-hop getting spun instead? Genre doesn’t classify the style of music we listen to —it segregates the artists who make it. Our problem is that we’ve conflated these two to mean the same thing.
Because we still fail to see the flaws of our genre system, society lashes out at the false stereotypes of our constructed institutions without addressing the real problem. This, in part, is why rock and alternative have taken a major hit in popularity. Pitchfork once published an op-ed titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” (great Kundera reference) and even The New Yorker branded alternative and indie as “A Paler Shade of White.” Type in “alt indie” on Google, and you wouldn’t have any reason to believe otherwise: the main links will take you to primarily white, male artists.
The assertion that indie/alternative is strictly white is categorically false: myself and countless other artists are living proof of that. What is true is that the alternative artists these publications have historically chosen to spotlight are overwhelmingly white, perpetuating this fictitious narrative even further. This lack of representation has significant consequences. It could dissuade the next prodigies from picking up a guitar because they’re black or Korean, or confirm to the late Farrokh Bulsara that he was right in changing his name to Freddie Mercury. Freddie taught Indian kids like me that erasing who you are and where you come from would be the only way to find success, and it’s a dangerous narrative that still rings true today.
In its nascence, however, alternative shared a truly “alternative” narrative, born as the Irish elder twin of hip-hop. Though “rap/hip-hop” wasn’t codified till the 1980s, these new sounds rose with alternative from the glitz and rubble of the Lower East Side and Bushwick in the 1970s: the collaborative home that united Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and Talking Heads’ “Cross-eyed and Painless” through shared drummer Chris Frantz at CBGB’s and Studio 54. How did a genre that was once a collaborative refuge for marginalized misfits come to be misrepresented as the homogenous blob it once revolted against?
This is the main dilemma I set to correct with my SiriusXM Alt Nation feature, Point of Origin, where each month, I spotlight an artist of color from the alternative space and trace their point of origin to their childhood. We bond over shared victories and defeats, music, and the American experience. For the full month, each artist is granted substantial on-air exposure on the channel, and their story — comprised of our interview interspersed with the songs that influenced them — is featured as a Pandora Stories Playlist and on Pandora’s Point of Origin Mode on ALT Select Radio. Self-producing this has been a labor of love, but it has become more and more apparent to me that alternative was, is, and always will be, a haven for all who are misunderstood. Perhaps if I keep going, the rest of the world will see that, too.
Still, the job of setting the story straight is a thankless one. Every artist I’ve talked to acknowledges this. We are tired of the soapbox. All we want is to just be complex human beings: artists, not “artists of color.” But we don’t live in a vacuum, so we don’t have that luxury.
This is the tightrope for musicians of color to walk, between the timely context of representation and the timeless anonymity of art. Now that “wokeness” is a desirable commodity, we are fetishized by executives wanting to absolve their sins, or benefit from the incentivized marketing structure to do so. The result is that we are tokenized like rare collectibles, and the strength of our work is devalued by this unsettling exchange. After all, history is still being written by the same people who had written us out before.
One may ask, why should we highlight artists of color if that too is problematic; if it’s a zero-sum game, then why does any of this matter? If nothing else, it’s because representation matters, no matter how we arrive at it. With representation comes community; community emboldens narratives that challenge both our beliefs and institutions. If enough of this happens, we can stop being “artists of color,” and finally be seen as artists and complex human beings who deserve to make whatever music we want.
The marketing behemoth that has incentivized cultural diversity is a necessary evil on the road to progress, but we must dig further in order to reach our goal. I want those young artists staring up the insurmountable wall of acceptance to know they’re not alone. With each milestone, I will be there to cheer them on, and if the next Indian kid to reach The Forum knows that they have a community, and that their work has just begun, then maybe I have done something useful with my time behind the microphone.
Sameer Gadhia is the lead vocalist of Young the Giant, which he co-founded in 2004.
From Rolling Stone US