Salvin Chahal is a Punjabi-Sikh writer, performer, activist, and multimedia + event producer, born and raised in south Sacramento, California. His main medium of spreading light has been through writing, performing, and putting people in positions of leadership and power, whether that's literal or just giving them a platform. Salvin is a reflection of the support that he was given by his mentors. He has a background in community organizing, developing, and programming, and he transitioned into film/TV a few years ago - trying to break the mold and the stereotypes of how, not just south Asians are seen, but also just immigrants, people of color and folks from lower socio-economic communities. Chahal’s powerful stage presence and ability to convey layered topics has made him a relatable voice to crowds all over the world, specifically young people of color. His book, ‘Verses From Above’, a collection of poetry and workshops, reached #3 on Amazon’s Bestseller Asian American Poetry list, landing him on stages from Stanford to SXSW. Salvin has also produced events & media for nationwide campaigns, and has been developing community programs with organizations in California for about 10 years. As of recently, the State of California recognized Chahal as an official ambassador for the CA Census. CA Gov. Newsom and his team commissioned Chahal to write the official poem for the state’s emergency preparedness program and have slated him for more commissioned poetry.
Can you tell me a bit more about your ethnicity?
My parents are from Fiji, but my great grandparents and my dad's mother are from Punjab, India. I'm someone who had a lot of identity issues when I was growing up - I didn’t feel like I was Punjabi enough because of where my parents are from. And we're folks who are part of a community who helped build some of the Gurudwaras: the Sikh temples in Sacramento, but got kicked out of it. If I had to say what my identity is - I’m just a Punjabi Sikh individual. Who I am and what I'm about is related more to just growing up in the hood of south Sacramento, and the kind of morals and ethics I got from my Punjabi Sikh upbringing - just learning about our history, our roots, and just taking pride in honoring our truth.
Are there any tensions between your Fijian identity and your Punjabi-Sikh identity?
I definitely feel more connected to my Punjabi identity because Punjabi-Sikh folks, no matter where they're from, they’re boundless people - what they stay true to is their faith and their culture, and that’s not limited to where we might have transitioned, immigrated or moved to by force or by sheer will. My parents are from Fiji, but the culture they practice is mostly just Punjabi culture. When a lot of the Punjabi Fijians first got to California, a lot of the folks from India didn't even know that they were Punjabi Sikh folks in places like Fiji. They knew that folks like us would be in places like Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Africa, but they didn't think of places like Fiji - they didn't know a proper infrastructure existed there. My grandfather was the first student to enroll in Punjabi school in Fiji, but a lot of people don't have that kind of information. There's also a lot of Hindu people from Fiji, whose great grandparents were Punjabi, so a lot of them are running around with the last name Singh. When we got to California, they assumed that we were folks who weren't of the faith. I was someone who always felt like I had to pick one or the other. But now, I say: we’re some Punjabi folks by way of Fiji. I try to make sure not to disregard either, or to make one or the other more inferior.
My great grandmother was brought over by force, but then there was a point in Fiji where they wanted a lot of people over there. Just like how it is now - the farming opportunities for a lot of Punjabi farmers are not ideal, so the opportunity was given to a lot of folks to go to the island, get a lease on the land in Fiji, and start farming. Some of those folks went back to India, because they didn’t like Fiji. Also, the indigenous people didn't like us, which is understandable since it’s their land. But some folks really enjoyed it. At first it was peaceful and serene, but most of the Punjabi folks ended up getting kicked out. At one point, there was Punjabi folks everywhere in Fiji, but the fact that there were 100 year leases on the land, means that only about two or three generations lasted in Fiji. After the 100 year lease was up, they were forced to just find life somewhere else. That's why a lot of Punjabi Fijian folks ended up coming to California. My family came to places like the Bay Area, Anaheim, and OC around the 80s.
Tell me about your work as a writer, performer, multimedia artist, event producer - when did you become interested in those fields? What sparked that interest?
Backpedaling - growing up I had a speech impediment. And to get better at that, I had to read a lot. I was always just fascinated by stories, but didn't think anything of it. Then I came across things like Def Poetry Jam on YouTube, and the youth competition that was on HBO, called Brave New Voices. I was just fascinated by poetry, but before that, I was fascinated by hip hop, because I was someone who was one of the only ones who looked like me growing up. Listening to hip hop allowed me to resonate with a lot of the artists I was listening to, because they came from similar upbringings as myself. I was listening to mostly Black artists who came from lower socio economic communities. I was listening to all types of hip hop and finding solace in it. I was able to understand rhythm and flow from a young age onwards, just by listening to these songs so much. I would have a vision in my head of how I would direct a video, how it would look, just rapping the songs, understanding beats. By the time poetry came around, it was like this [snaps fingers]. It was an opportunity to teach my non-south Asian folks how it is to be south Asian. And teach south Asian folks who are not from the hood, what it’s like growing up in the hood.
I found mentors who were leading a lot of event spaces or cultural organizations, and opportunities to further develop my own skills as a writer and performer, just started popping up. Around 2011, I started writing and performing poetry - I had only performed one time without memorization, and I didn't want to do it again, because folks were more focused on me getting it right, rather than what I had to say. I learned real quick that I have a responsibility through poetry and spoken word. That kind of led me to the realm of: no one's gonna put me on except myself. My parents didn't want me to do this. I felt like I had to prove everybody else wrong. So I just started producing shows, producing content, performing - I started doing everything I felt I needed to do, and making mistakes along the way. Just risking it all because I saw the bigger picture and I aimed towards that at all time. I'm lucky I was put in a position to have the opportunity to write, perform, and produce shows with my friends. I was the only one who looked like me in all the sports I was doing, and I ended up being the best in every sport I played because I was the one who was different than everybody visually, so I had to work 10 times harder than everybody else just to show them I'm not inferior. That kind of energy carried on into the competitiveness of slam poetry, especially when I was new to the scene. But then I killed it.
Tell me a bit more about poetry. Why do you think that specific method of writing and/or speaking is so special?
I think poetry is special because it's boundless. All of what it could mean for you and the people listening. When I first got introduced to poetry, and how it was conveyed through my mentors - it was a tool for change, it was an opportunity to explore the internal and external world that we live in - internal being our mind, heart, spirit, soul, and external being people of color and the world intersectional identities live in in places like the U.S. When I first came across it, I realized I have the opportunity to change the way someone thinks or feels within two to three minutes. And if I have the gift of being able to do so, or the courage to do so, because it is hard to write something so vulnerable, so honest and so political, and so controversial - it’s just you, there’s nothing else.
I feel like poetry has the same impact that comedy does. There’s a collective response when you hear something that you’ve always experienced, but were never able to find the words for. That energy that arises when someone’s presenting it to you in real time. And not just reading poetry or writing poetry, but being at a show and for people to experience what's being said, and for people to collectively response, is the most beautiful thing because it allows people to understand: I'm not the only one who's thinking this or feeling this. To be someone who's curating that experience through performances, is just a certain type of responsibility. And as I got older, I realized, that's just the lineage we come from, the family we come from. We come from warriors and poets.
Can you elaborate on using the tradition of narration as a method within your poetry?
My mentors always taught me about griots, which are West African storytelling folks. They would go from village to village to share particular stories. It would be like poetry nights. Through narration, through this drama, through theatrics, through the performance - that was how people were basically able to exchange cultural information. Folks were able to come together when it was about collective efforts and a conscious need to just be - people felt affirmed, people felt like they’re not the only ones feeling like this. So, for me, I realized that narration is super important because there's an opportunity to convey a very micro, singular experience, as well as something that is super grand. And then it turns into how do I convey something like that, because I always felt like I was so different and unique from everybody else, but it's not until I started sharing my story, that I realized there are other people that feel the same way, but in different contexts. They might not have the same identity, but the experience is the same.
For me, it was important to share my micro experiences and then relay it back to the bigger picture - the macro, and allow folks to understand that those who have been persuaded, historically and systematically, to quarrel with one another, have an opportunity through honest narration, not something that's performative or made to please, to come together. It’s an opportunity for people to have their experiences understood and for them to feel affirmed, and and to know that someone else was going through something similar, but in a different way. I’ve always felt like that’s my duty, to say as much as you can within two minutes.
You've also situated yourself in the fields of social justice, systemic change and activism. Would you say that your kind of work was always been integral to these practices?
I think that's the foundation of my work, because I’ve known since the third grade that my identity is political, mostly because I was different. I knew there's a reason why folks hated me. And it's not because it's me, personally, but rather what they know of me, or see of me. My whole educational career - I grew up in the hood, but then where I ended up going to school for a little bit, was not a ‘better’ school, but it was considered to be better than the schools located in my hometown. I was able to see the dualities of how I grew up, and I was always questioning: why are there no resources in my community? Why is there like hella liquor stores? My new friends were able to go outside, go on walks and hang out their friends, but I can't leave my front yard, you know? And through music and through the guidance of my mentors, I just had a super radicalized education. At 16 I was learning about shit like melanin, I was learning about the criminal justice system, I was learning about the parole system - all this type of shit, because I had educators who were trying to put us in a position and say: y’all have a voice, y’all are leaders, motherfuckers listen to you. Your existence is political, and the world is working against you systematically and culturally and through multimedia, to always point you as other. And you will always be the other, in some capacity.
A lot of the hot topics that people are talking about, I was introduced to through educators and organizers. Back then, there was the same intention that there is now, which is to activate people who are experiencing something and get them on the side of doing their part, whatever that may look like. My job is, through talking about socio political issues, to get people to become activated, to bring light to something that they might be avoiding themselves without being able to voice it. I think everyone needs to play their part, when it comes to what liberation looks like for their communities, unless people are activated, it's not gonna happen.
You've organized and led workshops with youth groups, focusing on constructive expression and deconstructing masculinity. Where do these topics stem from? Perhaps due to your own experiences?
I got a lot of training as a young person on all these topics, which is something I'm super grateful for. I got trained as a poet, mentor, educator, to go into middle school and high school classrooms, to basically put young people through a very extensive one and a half hour workshop session, in which four to five different workshops are integrated. They're allowed to experience more in that one and a half hour period, than they would in months, because of what is brought to light, and what they're forced to discover within themselves. Since that intention that was put on me, I started conveying that and reflecting that back. I started working with a different south Asian groups, going into their retreats, seminars and conferences, and putting people through what they don't experience, which is an emotional experience - a very truthful, authentic experience with writing. Their relationships with adults, especially in classrooms is just to listen. They don't really get to have someone hear them out, and they don’t get to engage with one another properly either. So I'll do that with them. I also started working with those same groups to have discourses around, not just creative expression, but just masculinity. When I’m doing this, a lot of the time I’m not even talking because I don't believe that as an adult, I should go into classrooms and tell people how they should act and/or feel. It's just more about facilitating the discussion, moderating a discussion between young people about what masculinity is. A lot of the time kids are not able to have these type of conversations around their friends. So, for me it’s just creating that space where people are able to feel seen, be challenged, feel affirmed and just experience something which they usually don’t, unless they’re fighting within themselves in the shower.
The creative expression workshops are an opportunity to be authentic, and the deconstructing masculinity workshops are for young people to let go of that anger, let go of that idea of what they feel like they need to be because of the circumstances around them. The only reason I do that is because you can't unlearn anything in my personal opinion, the only thing you can do is confide in an alternative option - have another option that you feel like you really want to pursue. If young people don't have alternative options that they feel really excited about, they're not going to pursue it. That's why the arts, like poetry, music or whatever, is something that's so accessible to kids, because it's just authentically you.
Can you elaborate on how you were confronted with the boundaries of masculinity, especially when you were younger?
I'm one of about 40 great grandchildren on my mom's side. And that's just one great grandmother, you know? But in my parents’ generation, the women are the ones in power. So for me personally, I was able to experience being raised by powerful women. My mentors were Black and Brown women. I've had a lot of love and respect, as well as this need to just show up and be there for the women around me. At the same time, I'm someone who grew up in the hood, you feel me - like the way we were conditioned to perceive women or approach women, is not the healthiest and not something that I take pride in, but that's just how we grew up. We still might listen to music that speaks about women in this way. I would see the way particular men would be towards women when I was growing up - in high school, college, and just in general. I wouldn't want my mom or my sister to experience that, and I wouldn't want them to see me treating another woman that way. Why would I want to hang with folks who disrespect women, when the most powerful folks around me happen to be women? To this day, most of my friends are women, because they have this intimate understanding of friendships, death and just showing up for each other, which men are afraid to commit to. I've always been the sideline protector of making sure that the homies around me that are sustaining or perpetuating any fucked up bullshit, are kept in check. But I know that that's only a direct result of the love I was given from Black and Brown women. I'm forever gonna ride with that.
Can you explain your process of becoming an advocate for inclusive and intersectional movements such as your recent video depicting the LA protests in support of the farmer movement in India?
I think that question is based on the realm of knowing how to show up, so for me, rather than going into any community, I just listen first. What's really needed? And is what I'm doing a benefit for me or a benefit for the cause and the people? My family would see shit on the news, about how bad our community is, but the people claiming that aren’t from our community, so how can they say that?
We had family members who would come in from different parts of the world and they were scared to sleep in our house because our circumstances are very different to theirs. I know firsthand - don’t try to show up and don't try to be present in any community, if you're not from it. And if you're not from it, then you gotta ask the folks from that community how to best show up. Like right now, I’m in Leimert Park, this is a super gentrified spot. I’m not from out here, so I’m trying to make sure - if I’m finna be out here, where’s my money going? What are some groups out here that can benefit from me just being here, rather than me just literally taking up space? It’s about just being mindful. You feel me? We could talk all day about how we're doing the work and what it means. But we need to normalize being reflective, taking steps back and asking, what do these communities really need?
When I was creating the video of the rallies, that was just a reflection of thinking: it’s so beautiful here. So powerful here. I'm feeling it in the spirit, you can feel it in the air. And so how do I best convey that? How do I show, especially non-south Asian people or non-Punjabi people, the resilience - the power I experienced that day? I feel like people kind of get misinformed or confused about who we are and what we're about, so I think it's allowing people to be invited into deeper, more intimate spaces that they're not usually a part of, so they can really see what's going on. Because that's how I've been integrated into particular groups and efforts - really being taken in first, and really understanding what's going on so that you can grasp the different levels of commitment.
Do you think the Punjabi-Sikh community differs from other south Asian communities? And if so, why?
I think, what sets us apart is we have a crazy history. I'm not trying to make it seem like other folks are different or worse, not in any way, but the way we just really show up collectively, has been instilled within us for generations. There’s just this element of selflessness. At the forefront, there's this idea, this mentality of: what does liberation look like for all people? I don't see that on a socio-political level with other south Asians of different faiths. We have women on horses that will cut your head off. I don't know of any other group that has that. I think we just have a history of being tested, thoroughly. And even in regards to what's happening today, we with the bullshit - we're not gonna back down.
Tell me about your relationship to your faith - how was it practiced during your upbringing? How have continued that practice now that you're out of the house that you grew up in and further away from your family?
When I was young, I wanted to be closer to my faith - I wanted to grow my hair and stuff but my parents didn't think that that would be the best decision because they didn't have time to teach me a lot of things. At the same time, I was already so different from everybody else, so being closer to my faith would bring even more attention my way, and they wanted to protect me from any violence. But I would say I was super connected to the faith growing up. I wanted to be around people who looked like me, but I didn't have that opportunity until college, straight up. We would always go to the gurudwara, about two times a week. I definitely had trouble with the language growing up, but I got better at it when I had to start learning it on my own.
Not knowing the language was definitely a barrier, but I feel like my parents and my cousin's parents instilled the values of our faith within us enough, that we're now able to convey that to ourselves, our peers and other people. As we got older, we realized that on top of the sociopolitical circumstances that are going on - where we’ve felt for the longest time that there have been efforts to try to exterminate us, get rid of us or get us to conform - there’s also been more efforts for us to stay more rooted in our culture.
I’m the oldest on my mom side so there is a kind of responsibility. Growing up, I had to figure out how to embrace the faith on my own terms, in a way that is honest to me. I told myself in 2020 that I wanted to get closer to my faith but I wasn’t able to, so hopefully I’m able to do so this year.
The biggest struggle I have is that I want to go all the way with it, but I cant because of the type of work I’m doing - I feel like there is still work for me to do before I commit to that level. I know once I start tying my hair up, rocking a kirpan and just fully embodying the practice of what it means to be a proper Sikh, it will put me in a box. It will provide more hurdles and I already have a lot of hurdles being a Punjabi-Sikh person in film/TV, when everybody else is not that. I want to do the work to make sure motherfuckers don’t put us in a box and to be in a position where I am just able to be. Then, I feel like I could have a closer relation to the faith in the way that I want, because I did the work that was needed to show we also live outside of that.
What do you think are some misconceptions that other people have about you and/or your community?
There’s a lot of people who grew up like me, in what you would call the hood, who don’t have a voice in the way that I do. A lot of people that are leading the creative world, the shit on Twitter and these general discourses, they all went to university. My cousins didn’t have those opportunities. There are all these experiences that are missing, that are still real to the immigrant experience, especially immigrants that came here and lived in low socio-economic communities. I feel like for me, people might assume that I want to be or act a particular way because they don’t know who I am, because a lot of south Asian people don’t really come across people who lived in the circumstances that I did. The type of shit we saw by the time we were 16, is stuff most folks don’t see in their entire life time.
I think there are misconceptions around me because people really think that folks like me don’t exist. And I feel like that’s why it’s even more important, you know when we talk about poetry - it’s important for you to hear me speak and perform, because when you do, you are experiencing an authentic experience. You may look at me and think: oh, he’s just a south Asian like me, but when you hear me talk or realize what I’m about, there’s a lot of different experiences going on.
There are folks like my cousins and people from my neighborhood, who appreciate that I’ve been trying to break these barriers, because we don’t see nobody from the hood in the south Asian creative fields. That’s why I do what I do, that’s why I’m a workaholic - because there's an opportunity there, there’s a responsibility. Being myself just creates more barriers, but I’d rather go through the process of doing the work and showing the world what I want to show in a way that’s authentic, rather than conforming to how people want me to be. I was already doing that when I first met south Asian people in college, it was all I wanted, so subconsciously I assimilated to a Brown version of myself rather than an authentic version. There were comments made and questions asked: ‘why do you talk like that? We don’t like that’. But then as those folks grow older, they wanted to start embracing Black culture. Growing up, we didn’t even realize what we were doing or that how we were talking was Black culture, because either you was with it or not. All my coaches for all my sports were Black, my karate instructor was Black, my mentors were Black. I didn’t really see white people until I went to college, straight up.
When we talk about safe spaces, what does that mean & what does that look like to you?
I don’t know what a safe space might look like but I know what it might feel like. I think it would feel like a place where there’s no judgement, where you’re able to be true, able to be free and able to express what you want to express – whether it’s a thought or an emotion. A safe space is where - what you’re conveying and what you’re experiencing is not just being heard or felt, but it’s being celebrated and being honored.
I feel like every safe space that I’ve found comfort in, was when I was surrounded by healers, writers and educators who knew how to open up a circle but also knew how to close it. There are a lot of people who know how to open up circles but they don’t know how to close them. And that’s super important, because people are conveying, experiencing or contemplating things that are traumatic, or they didn’t even realize were traumatic until it came up in that moment.
I feel like a safe space is just an embodiment of celebrating and honoring one another, which is a lost practice. We’ve limited that to social media. Me and my cousin might have a conversation about feeling guilty about partaking in particular vices with the certain circumstances of where we are in our lives, and that is a safe space right there - where we’re able to convey some of those super hard truths that are difficult to talk about. Discussing your crutches, the things that are holding you back and being honest about it, is not easy. And even for my cousins who aren’t usually around the type of conversations that we are surrounded by, they feel comfort and they appreciative these spaces too. They forget that shit like this exists, they’re like: its crazy how you can be feeling some type of way and not realize that other people feel it too [smiles]. They might not be around it but they need to know that these spaces exist. A safe space is also just knowing and learning when to step up and when to take a step back.
How does it feels to perform? Does it come naturally to you or did you have to work towards public speaking?
I don’t get nervous when I perform but I get anxious like I’m ready, I can’t wait, because once I start memorizing my work, and as I’m getting older, I’m realizing more and more people are tuning in to what’s happening socio-politically. I’m ready to perform because I know a hell of a lot of people are going to feel it and it’s gonna resonate with them. And I just can’t wait for that moment. When I perform, I’m almost a completely different person - it’s really coming from my spirit and my gut. Sometimes I won’t even use a microphone when I am on stage. I’ll really just about projecting my voice. I haven’t been on stage in forever because of the pandemic, but it’s one of the only times in my life where I’m able to be me, and say whatever the fuck I want. There’s nothing else like it. If I could do anything for the rest of my life, it would be that.
How does it feel to speak so publicly and be so exposed in regards to your opinions, experiences, and upbringing?
When it comes to being outspoken, I tell my parents all the time: I would rather die living in my truth and embracing my culture, than live in the comfort of white people and white America. So, if I walk around and get tested because of the way I look or dress, I don’t care. I’m not afraid to say what I need to say even it if makes people of our own background feel uncomfortable because they are reinforcing things that are aligned with whiteness. I feel like I can’t be fearful around it because there’s a responsibility, and being a public face when talking about these things, did create a lot of like anxiety, stress and indirect pressure. Every time something happened, people asked: what’s Salvin’s take on it? That’s when I started writing less poetry because I’m like: I’ve already said these things numerous times in the best ways I could, especially when it comes to things like police brutality. At a certain point it gets exhausting and traumatizing internally, to keep talking about these things that you been talking about, hoping people will finally see the light of day, and won’t reinforce fucked up shit.
In regards to minority representation and responsible storytelling, when did you become a spokesperson for these topics? What do you hope people will take away from a lecture that you would give on these kind of concepts?
I think just being in the room and bringing other people with me was how that kind of identity was formed. I want to make clear that my story is cool, but there are so many other people from similar backgrounds such as myself, who are probably more talented as well – who don’t have the same resources or access to the platforms that I have. I’m always putting people in position because people always putting me in position and I was able to do something with it. And when it comes to the latter part of the question, my shit is always about questioning: what is the true intention, meaning and proper way to embody and practice what we say? We say all these things that need to happen and what we should be doing, but who is really embodying and practicing this shit?
The George Floyd protests happened and everyone out here posting all the books everybody should read, but bruh - are you reading these books too? Are you adding to that discourse? Or are you just sharing it because it makes you look like you know what you’re talking about? I feel like not a lot of people are engaging with the shit that they’re telling others to engage with. But when it comes to the idea of representation in media and marginalized communities, I hope that when people hear me talk about it and see what I do, they learn that there’s proper equity to be created within artistic POC spaces. Every time I do a show, it's mostly women of color. Every time I have a set, it’s mostly POC, you get what I am saying?
I don’t think I’ve ever hired a white person, for anything. Ever. And that’s how I hope to always keep it. I think people need to see what exists when white folks aren’t in the room, when white perspectives are gone, and we’re able to just be. I think when people are able to see the type of film/TV projects that I come out with, and the intention behind what the public sees but also the behind the scenes: the crew and every one that’s involved, then they’re able to get a redefined idea of how to show up and how to put people in position. Because there are so many of my peers who are dope folks in films/TV and they are battling the same thing we are talking about. I’ll say this: especially as immigrants, we’re always told to be the top of the class, but we're not ever taught that we need to be in levels of administration. I’m just hoping that on top of being the best creatives, we're also the best executives, and the people that are in position to give a green light a lot of things.
How does your work allow for you to express yourself & maybe even aid you in further exploring your own identity?
It’s like reading a book, right? You read a book when you’re 19 or 20 and you pick it back up when you’re a few years older, and then you see things that you didn’t see before, you read things in a new way. I think with writing, I’m able to reflect on the work that I created during different moments in my life and see my own growth. This is just a process - I believe that we’re continuously rediscovering who you are. I’m 26 years old, and the relationships that I’m in, the partnerships that I’m in, the businesses that I’m in, and the work that I’m doing, different elements of my 26 years of life will show up in ways that I can’t expect or don’t think about or even forgot about, until I’m put in that position. Something like writing or any kind of artistic expression, allows you to document your own journey. I was someone who was super afraid or hesitant to embrace my culture and let people know that my parents are from Fiji, because I didn’t want to be seen or treated as inferior. And now I’m like: this is where I’m from cuz! It’s necessary for anybody to have something in their life that allows them to be authentic and true, without any outside judgment, because that’s the only way we’re gonna grow.
To have writing be one of those things is one of the most beautiful tools to have in my toolkit as a human being. Not even to write well, because there’s no such thing as writing well. Something that I always have to remind myself, is that it’s not about how much you write, or how well it sounds, it’s about asking yourself: were you truly authentic and honest when you were having this conversation with yourself during this process? If so, you already won. If you are doing the job of trying to make it look good and sound good, but it wasn’t authentic, then you are lying to yourself more than anybody else.
In what ways have you been able to build communities and empower them through your work? Do you feel that your work has provided a strong sense of community for you too?
In the community that I grew up in, there were always all these different types of groups. Especially as I get older, I see the light in so many people around me, such as creatives and women, and I am always the one who’s connecting the dots. I’ve always been the bridge for people - seeing them create beautiful partnerships, beautiful pieces of work, and I feel like for me, I’m someone who is very much by myself. I just have my family members, a few friends and the people I work with, but I just kinda take pride in and I’m happy to see the by-product of my efforts through the lens of people just existing, that I was able to bridge together. I put thousands of dollars into creating shows and opportunities for artists of color, so they can do exactly what I did, which is get the ball and do something with it. My community is just a reflection of people I’ve been in the trenches with, a reflection of folks who have the same intention of using their medium as a way to spread light. The people I admire and fuck with most are the folks I know personally. We just kinda found each other in similar circumstances, and found a way through it. I think the community I built is still growing - it’s a group of folks who are just radicalized people of color, that’s it. I wouldn’t want to have anyone else around me.
What moves you? Where does your inspiration come from?
I have healthy and unhealthy pieces of inspiration, deeming one thing healthy and the other unhealthy is subjective, but when I see poor work being celebrated and I can see that there’s a level of artistic excellence that’s missing, that moves me to step it up. So, I’m inspired by poor work that’s celebrated [laughs]. I am not inspired by optimistic, happy shit - sometimes I have to experience anger, grief and/or frustration, to get that battery pack in me that allows me to say what really needs to be said. Whether I’m writing or tweeting something in the caption, it’s all just creative energy, right? I feel like as I get older, it’s less about speaking about particular topics or themes but more about speaking to the collective conscious of what’s happening right now. The collective experience - we all experience difficulty in finding a routine, difficulty to find discipline, difficulty to stay motivated, but we’re not talking about that. So, to speak on these things and experience them, has given me motivation because I know we’re all experiencing the fucking world right now. The shit that upsets me or saddens me, inspires me just as much as poor work that is celebrated. The optimistic shit is the product of those feelings, the anger and the frustration, because you want people to experience this level of love, relatability and resilience, and that comes from the absence of that.
Can you name some people - activists and advocates - that have influenced your work, people that you look up to, or others who have inmpacted your personal style?
Gotta give a shout out to my mentors, Estella Sanchez, and my Youth Speaks folks that really put me in position. Apart from them, when I think about folks that have inspired me, its always those who were considered radicals, like Malcolm X. I’m also super inspired by the history of my own people, Punjabi-Sikh folks, not even just particular members but just the collective community. My whole ancestry and history is forever an inspiration. I love the work that’s being done by folks like Eva DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Regina King, Barry Jenkins - I just love the depth of not just the socio-political issues that are explored through their work, but also the intimacy of Black homes, families, and experiences that we don’t have as south Asians.
I feel like it’s my job to create the representation of south Asians in films/TV, which has been limited to cultural tourism, like my nose, the hair on my arm, etc. And I feel like we’re past that. I think the south Asian experience, culture and community is not a collective one as it includes so many layered identities, religions, and languages - but the things that do bring us together, is our collective fears and traumas, especially living in the Western world. We are people who have been displaced numerous times, who fear for our lives because of the way we look and all that type of shit. I feel like that has not been explored to the depths of what it could be, especially in film and TV. In the end, that’s what’s going to allow south Asians, regardless of their race, religion, and identity, to feel represented, because of the things that do bridge us together.
What diasporic community do you consider yourself a part of?
I would say Punjabi, more than anything, because I never felt south Asian growing up, and I still don’t feel like I’m limited to what a south Asian person is. Even a lot of Punjabi folks don’t claim to be Indian. Why would you want to claim the identity of a country and government that’s doing you dirty? I feel like so much of my identity is not about being a south Asian, but is specifically about two things: being from the hood, and growing up in a Punjabi household. That’s it. All this south Asian shit people talk about, I can’t really relate to. We eat the same food and watch the same movies and that’s what kind of bridges us together - that’s cool, but our experiences are still so different. I was not one to be hella excited when Kamala Harris rose to the position she’s in now.
Do you consider yourself to be American, and if so, what does that mean for you?
I’ve never considered myself to be an American. I might have been born in America but to say something like ‘I’m an American’ is not a claim I take pride in. Patriotism is a very violent form of national terrorism. Just like how Punjabi folks are not gonna claim an Indian identity, if they’re aware and on that tip. And so, I can’t claim to be an American. I love to be where I am right now and to be able to do the work that I’m in, but to say that I am taking pride in being an American, would be to say that I am taking pride in what America is doing to people who look like me or people who from communities similar to mine. And I will never take pride in that. If I ever do say that, it’s because being an American is better than other countries, circumstance wise. I’m an optimistic person, I feel like we do have opportunities to transform, envision and live in a world that we’ve been seeing and imagining through collective effort, which is why my work is to activate people. The macro change we wanna see is through micro activation. But nah, fuck America.