Chicago soul singer Zeshan B uses his powerful voice to tell tales of loss, injustice, love, despair, and ecstasy—in other words: life. Before he brings the messages from his debut album, Vetted, to the David Rubenstein Atrium on May 31, Programming Manager Meera Dugal spoke to him about his unique musical and cultural background.
Meera Dugal: Before we get into the music, I want to back up a little bit. In other interviews you've mentioned that your dad was a journalist in India who covered the civil rights movement and Black arts expression, and that he also had an epic record collection. How did that happen for him?
Zeshan B: He's an interesting man, just an amazing human being. And actually another person who I'm really grateful for, who I've never met in my life, is his dad, my dadaji. He was a very poor schoolteacher in rural Southern India, but his most prized possession was a record player. Now, I never met this man—he died before I was born—but I've heard from my relatives that he would come home, light up a beedi, which is like an unfiltered cigarette, and sit and listen to his record player. So my dad grew up around that appreciation of music. When he was 16 he left home and moved to Mumbai and he really. . . I think that hard times endear people to certain things, you know. For me, hard times endeared me to food and music. For my father, it was definitely music.
When he moved to Mumbai he was a railroad porter, which was a very difficult job. I found out not long ago that because he didn't have enough money for food he used to go to bhatiyaars, the little dhabas—you know, the little roadside cafes—and he would offer to write letters to the workers' loved ones in exchange for daal and roti. So amazing, you know? And I think going through all that, music was his saving grace. He told me he would listen to the radio and sometimes the DJs would play pirated music that dockworkers who'd been to America would bring back. So he would get to hear The Temptations and Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. I guess to me it's no surprise that a man that went through severe hardship loved soul music, and that it spoke to him. Soul music is about that, you know.
He also got turned onto African American literature: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, you know. He would just go to the library and read. He was woke! He was just a woke man! I think that style of music, that writing, just saw him through the darkest of days. And certainly when he came to America he brought that love with him, and it endeared America to him even more.
And my mom… she ended up becoming a social worker at County Hospital in Chicago. Talk about soul, man, she's got soul, too. She saw some real crazy stuff. This is during the crack epidemic. I guess they were peas in a pod. I mean, they actually met in Mumbai because they both used to volunteer for this organization that worked with inner-city disenfranchised minorities and Muslims and Dalits, the "untouchables," and this and that.
"There's a great tradition of Urdu soul music and Punjabi soul music that doesn't get the cred it deserves. It's about being down and out: 'I'm sad, I'm cold, I'm poor, I'm hungry.' That's soul. If I've inherited such a cool tradition, why not strut it unapologetically?"
MD: And in Chicago, like a lot of your idols, you grew up singing devotional music, only in your case it was in a mosque instead of a church. Tell me more about what you were singing, and your transition into the gospel world.
ZB: From kindergarten to third grade I went to an all-Muslim school, which was a really awesome experience. At first we were taught to read the Koran but in a very unimaginative way. Then this new teacher brought in a tape of a guy who was reciting the Koran really beautifully, and I still remember that electric feeling like, "Wait, where's this been all this time? That's dope!"
I was drawn to it, so I learned that whole chapter of the Koran and I could do it just like him. Long story short, I became the official muezzin, who is basically the cantor of the masjid, the mosque. I just really liked doing it. I felt like that was my way of accessing something. I didn't think much about religion, it just sounded cool. I feel like that's when I actually felt a certain sense of spirituality. I'm not really a person for organized faith or religion, but I am certainly into spirituality, and I got that from singing in the mosque and then later singing in a gospel choir.
MD: When you moved onto gospel, how did your Muslim community react?
ZB: I sang in my high school's gospel choir—things just kind of fell into place. You know, if you grew up listening to Bill Withers or Stevie Wonder… I just knew how to imitate those sounds. Of course, I'm the only non-Black person there, but they were like, "He's got the goods!" so they made me the soloist. I mean, I was taken in by them.
As far as the reaction from my family, it was very positive. Everybody felt very positive about it. First of all, I was always taught to respect all people, all faiths, so I had very positive reactions, positive encouragement all along the way honestly.
MD: In terms of the Black Church and Muslims, there's a history of involvement in social justice issues. Do you think that's been part of you being accepted as part of the scene?
ZB: I think so. That's actually a very astute point, because to Black folks, Muslims are not the bogeyman. My piano teacher, Mr. Tisby, did a brief stint as a Muslim after he came back from Vietnam. He was like, "I just wanted to try being a Muslim. It was great." He was a Black Panther, too.
Among my Black friends, "My daddy was a Muslim" is something I would hear often. And there are revered leaders like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Wallace Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad. It's also their ancestry. I don't know the exact figures, but I know there was a certain percentage of slaves who came from Muslim regions of the world. It's in them.
So the relationship between the Black community and Islam is a lot more fluid and chill than it is with white folks and Islam. With white folks it's like the bogeyman until you tell them, "Well, actually, we believe in Jesus, too." Then they're like, "What?!"
MD: I want to go back to what you mentioned about spirituality. You've mentioned Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers as influences, but was there also an aspect of the devotional nature of gospel that drew you to it?
ZB: I think so. I think that I always sought spirituality in one way or the other, like there's some greater purpose in life. I don't know what it is. I don't know what the higher power is, but I'm in search of it, search of the light, search of the truth, you know. Sort of sentimental like that, I guess.
For me it was, first of all, just that raw emotion and desire for deliverance from pain. You know, when you sing gospel music at the end you're healed, you're delivered, or at least there's some reprieve. If you sing blues and soul, at the end of the song, you still got the blues.
MD: You're further in it.
ZB: Yeah, you're further in it.
MD: With a lot of religious music, even with a lot of South Asian or Middle Eastern traditions, the healing nature and the ecstasy and frenzy nature is very much related to what happens in the Black Church or what happens in those moments of tarab or duende or whatever you want to call it. Do you feel like you ever get into that sort of rapturous state with your music? Is that something you're reaching for?
ZB: I think my goal is to achieve that somehow. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't, because I'm very critical of myself. I tend to get that more when I listen to other artists that I really enjoy. With myself I'm too in my own head. But with some of these Pakistani singers my mom and dad listen to--whoo, man! I mean, like Mehdi Hassan and Shaukat Ali, man, those cats... whoo, throw me. So, yeah, I seek it out.
MD: You talk a lot about advocating for black and brown unity—Indians, Muslims, South Asians, and other minorities taking up the struggle alongside other marginalized communities in terms of social justice issues facing all of us. Can you talk about why you think there is a barrier between Indians or South Asians joining with other groups who are oppressed?
ZB: I have some theories as to why. I think that classism is so ingrained in Desi culture that it's made its way over here in very unfortunate ways. A lot of our people came over as white-collar workers, for the most part, and because of that I think the waves of people just felt a sense of entitlement. It's not that they didn't have to struggle, they certainly did. But from the beginning they weren't the bottom rung. And it's almost like this thing that I've seen with other immigrant groups: "Well, as long as we're not the bottom rung," you know. Fortunately, I didn't grow up in that type of household.
MD: Do you feel like because Muslims and people of color from South Asia are being targeted in a new way it's spurring more of this black and brown unity?
ZB: I think so. You know, I wish it didn't take that to make it happen. But I think it is, and better late than never, right? But since day one, my mom and dad were woke about this stuff.
MD: In terms of wanting to reach out to these communities, when you write lyrics in Punjabi and Urdu, what are you trying to communicate with that?
ZB: I think the best way to be something is to do it unapologetically. For me, I'm an Urdu-speaking brown person, I'm going to be unapologetic about it. I'm going to write these lyrics in Urdu. Here they are, take it or leave it. Surprisingly a lot of folks that are not Indian or Pakistani love it. Anything that's got a groove, that's all that matters. That's all that matters. Doesn't matter what language it's in.
Growing up I never thought I would sing in Urdu, but I love singing it, and I inherited a great tradition. There's a great tradition of Urdu soul music and Punjabi soul music that doesn't get the cred it deserves. It's about being down and out: "I'm sad, I'm cold, I'm poor, I'm hungry." That's soul. If I've inherited such a cool tradition, why not strut it unapologetically? I've done it on my own terms and I'm going to continue to do it whenever I want to.
MD: You've played in New York quite a few times. What is your perception of audiences here?
ZB: They're honestly the best. They are the best.
MD: Chicago is listening, by the way!
ZB: Chicago! I love Chicago, they turn up. I love my people. But New York audiences are open minded. There's just so much that goes through here, there's always somebody down to listen to something new. People embrace change here, people embrace fluidity, people embrace elements of the bizarre. I'm excited to see what'll happen if I play New Orleans, because that's another place where they do that. New Yorkers show love, man, they show real, real love. And they're informed and really engaged, and it certainly creates higher pressure. It's a discerning audience. The best of the best come here and play, so you better bring it.
MD: Okay, last question. You've played for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. If you were invited back to the White House now to perform one song, what would you play?
ZB: Ray Charles's "Hit the Road, Jack."
Meera Dugal is the Programming Manager for the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.