Diana Quiñones Rivera photography
Zeshan B and his harmonium
Soul singer Zeshan B was born in Chicago, but from a glance at his bio you might not expect him to have rooted his debut solo album so strongly in black music—he's the son of Muslim Indian immigrants, and that "B" stands for "Bagewadi." He studied opera in college—we were in the same program nearly a decade ago—and he's trained to sing qawwali,
an ancient Sufi devotional music, as well as ghazal,
a south Asian poetic form that often refracts romantic love through the lens of Islamic mysticism.
Zeshan's album, Vetted
(Minty Fresh), which comes out Friday, April 7, includes songs in English, Punjabi, and Urdu, but it draws heavily on soul. The lead single is a cover of "Cryin' in the Streets," George Perkins's 1970 lamentation for MLK. It blends Zeshan's soulful singing with influences from the blues and Indo-Pakistani music, and the video includes historic and present-day protest footage. Ahead of his album-release show on Monday, April, 10 at Untitled Supper Club
, Zeshan talked with me about music, politics, and his connection to Chicago. (The city also recently announced a Millennium Park concert on Thursday, June 29, where he and his band, the Transistors, will open for Lady Wray.) Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Cristina Burack: You studied classical Indo-Pakistani music from a young age, then opera at the undergraduate and graduate levels. How did you make your way to the world of black protest music?
I grew up listening to black music. My father, a journalist who covered the American civil rights movement in India, was an avid listener of Chicago artists—people like Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway
, Mahalia Jackson. I thought they were amazing because they spoke of the times. My mom was a social worker at Cook County Hospital on the west side, and Curtis Mayfield grew up in one of the projects where she sometimes assisted. So I had this atmosphere all around me. And I grew up with a certain pride that these people were from Chicago.
I sang in gospel choir in high school, and during my classical studies at university I always missed my roots. And my roots, as much as they were the Indo-Pakistani music my folks always listened to, were also gospel music and R&B and soul. When I started my opera career, I was getting hired by opera companies, but I felt constrained—like I wasn't doing what was really me. That is why I came back to this music. It was a return to my roots.
As for protest music, all the artists I respect engaged in social and political commentary. One thing Nina Simone said that stuck with me is that an artist's duty is to respect the times. I really do think artists have a mandate—if you have the means, the talent, and the following, then you have a mandate to speak to what is going on around you.
You point out that artists speak of the times. Here we are: It's 2017, and you're covering a song that was released in 1970. This highlights a big time gap, but also a sense of timelessness. Why this song, and why now?
Timelessness is a connection between then and now. The connection I see between 1970, when George Perkins sang "Cryin' in the Streets," and today is that some things have changed for the better, some for the worse, and some not at all.
In 1970, we had the Nixon administration. There was civil unrest and insurrection in major cities all across America. The government responded by giving black people access to housing—on paper. But there was a caveat. We'll give you certain rights to equal housing and schools—not much—but guess what, we will allow drugs to come into the ghetto and then we'll declare a war on drugs and create the incarceration apparatus that still exists, commonly referred to as the prison-industrial complex, which is modern-day slavery. So are we better off now, when we have 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population existing solely in America and the majority of those people are black or Hispanic?
The evils of structural racism still exist, as does mass incarceration, police brutality, redlining of neighborhoods, the collapse of certain socio-economic spiritual ecosystems, inaccessibility of health care, of clean drinking water, green space, and education. Was this the same in 1970? Yes. There is quite a connection.
As for why now—when Black Lives Matter came into existence, I strongly supported its message and the awareness it was creating. Things took somewhat of a personal turn when Sandra Bland died. Sandy—I knew her in high school. She was in my same circle of friends, though we weren't super tight. Her death under mysterious circumstances was a personal shock. It galvanized me and made feel that I had to do something about this vis-a-vis Nina Simone's artist mandate.
I chanced upon "Cryin'" as we were picking repertoire for Vetted
. Time and space stopped, and I thought, "This is something very special." How simple it is, how poignant and visceral and raw. I thought, "I want to do this. I am not going to make this album unless I can do this song."
What are you trying to communicate through your cover of "Cryin'"? Is there a message you hope people take away?
"Cryin'" very much laments the despair of disenfranchised people in America and their centuries of struggle. The Perkins version is like a funeral march. It helps to know it was written in response to and in observation of MLK's assassination. At the same time, the song aims to galvanize listeners to come together and work towards a better day.
Our spin on "Cryin'" is about black and brown unity. This is part of the "brown-skinned soul" aesthetic. Having grown up in an immigrant Muslim community, I can say it is largely a privileged community. However, we have been stagnated by the racism that exists in our community. I hate to say that it exists. We need to do a better job of aligning ourselves with the people who created the paths for us—blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. My parents always said that if it weren't for the civil rights leaders, we would not have been able to come here. They fought, laid their lives down, and opened the doors for us. America would not have accepted us without them doing that work first.
Now, Muslims are being put on the burner. We are being raked over the coals. It is a wake-up call. We need to align ourselves with black people, Latinos, Native Americans and internalize their pain.
Speaking as a Muslim American, I didn't get my way with this election. But disenfranchised indigenous minorities have not gotten their way for hundreds of years. Look at their resilience. We have to come together and fight for their rights, because they are fighting for ours. We have lived comfortably because of their fight. We must take up their struggle and fight alongside them.
So do you see the song and your message as particularly aimed at the Muslim Indian community?
It's aimed at everybody, but I think there are some very salient and personal takeaways for the Muslim community and the Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan communities. That it is time to wake up. That it is time to take up the struggle of other people. That it is time to unite.
You've referred to "brown-skinned soul." How do you describe this?
It is very simple: I am brown skinned, and I got soul! I've got soul because I have been listening to black soul music for my whole life.
There is also genre of soul music that exists in India and Pakistan from the 60s and 70s, though they don't call it that. But it is about lowliness, despair, poverty, about being down and out. These songs are very groovy, and they are soul stirring. These are the other tunes I grew up hearing that were in my stream of consciousness. And this is what we are doing with brown-skinned soul—bringing those worlds together. It goes back to black and brown unity.
President Trump and his policies thus far, whether pertaining to immigrants or to Muslims, would seem to hit home hard. What are your thoughts? Have you been personally affected?
I still think I am privileged, despite what is going on. But of course, it has affected me personally. My wife is Mexican-American, and we are at the epicenter of this because there are policies targeting her people and policies targeting my people.
And as the child of Muslim immigrants, I take it very personally that Trump's policy has been antagonistic towards immigrants and Muslims, because I can't think of people who are more American and patriotic than my parents. They love America. There is, of course, an attachment to the homeland of India, but they consider America their country. That Trump is going around filling people with hate and asserting how American white people are and that we don't belong here—I take offense to that.
What do you hope for with your music going forwards, both with this album and further in the future?
is a hodgepodge of tempestuous soul arias and ballads, some tales of ecstasy and urban despair. I hope people will internalize all these things and take away something personal. That matters a lot to me. What is great about soul music is it stirs the soul. I would be the happiest man in the world if I do a little bit of soul stirring through my musical process.
Do you have any particular hopes for Chicago?
I would like to see not the gentrification but the revitalization of neighborhoods like Englewood, Roseland, Austin. I would like to see growth in these communities, with social entrepreneurship coming in and creating jobs for people, making them proud of where they are because they come from neighborhoods with great histories.
And I want to see people come together, because I think Chicago is still very segregated. Regardless of whether you are racist or not, you are conscious of what race you are, where you belong, where your people are. I would like to see that loosen up.
I firmly believe that Chicago is the greatest city on earth. I don't think there is any other city in the world that is as world-class and cosmopolitan yet so down-home as Chicago. I am a very proud son. Chicago will always be home base for me.