A Complex Honor: An Immigrant Artist Reflects on Her Grammy Nomination (Guest Column)

Priya Darshini

When my debut album, “Periphery,” nabbed a 2021 Grammy nomination, messages began pouring in from back home, first from friends and family, and then from fans across social media.

“You are our Indian pride,” posted one YouTuber. “Hope you’ll make India proud,” said another. A third called it, “a very proud moment for Indians.” I was representing not just myself, but my homeland and as an immigrant, this nomination was a symbol of hope for the long enduring notion of “The great American dream.” For me, this nomination was about putting India on the map, and more importantly, showcasing India’s rich and diverse culture.

But as ecstatic as I was, a question nagged me: Why did their pride rely on Western recognition? I fell in love with jazz as a young girl in Mumbai, playing Ella Fitzgerald’s live album, “Ella in Berlin,” on repeat – seduced by her voice and her vulnerability. She begins the record telling the audience she hopes she can remember the lyrics. And she does forget the lyrics during one of the songs but, instead of stopping, or apologizing, or trying to cover, she makes up her own words. It was triumphant. So triumphant, that she won two Grammy Awards for that record. This woman of color with the bravery to stand on stage, bare her soul, and show her imperfections, sparked my lifelong dream of having the courage to stand on stage and do the same. Being recognized by the Recording Academy was also a part of my childhood fantasy. When my name was read aloud as a nominee at this year’s Grammys, it was a literal dream come true.

I moved to the United States in 2013. By any clear-eyed analysis, I have benefited tremendously from the opportunities provided by this country. But the actualization of my American dream wasn’t a given: It took the kind of hard work, and determination America expects of her immigrants. That success came at a steep social and emotional price, as any immigrant person of color living in post-9/11 America can tell you.

In India, as a light-skinned Brahmin I was instinctively perceived as someone educated and belonging to a higher class. In America, my brown skin, and the hint of an accent can often elicit a very different response; a kind of stereotype: inferior, unrefined, and possibly illegal.

Being in America deepened my understanding of the privileges I’d been afforded in the caste hierarchy of India. Being away from home enriched my understanding of it.

Soon after I had moved to the United States, while on a work trip to Tennessee, I found myself sitting beside a chatty man traveling with his son on a flight to Nashville. Though I had told him I was a musician traveling for work, he only seemed interested in discussing the Taliban. I refused to engage — when you have my complexion, there is a fairly long list of words you never say aloud during air travel; “Taliban” is definitely on that list. Finally, as we approached our destination, he turned to me, winked, and asked, “So, why are you really here?” Flooded with fear, my only response – maybe to prove to him that I was indeed a musician or maybe just to avoid any further interaction – was to sing.

I sang at full volume until we landed. In the years since, I’ve experienced countless such interactions — some menacing, others subtle, all communicating the same underlying message : You don’t belong here. For the better part of a decade I’ve wrestled with the paradox that America remains the land of opportunity even for the immigrants of color she too often denigrates. Now I’m grappling with the more troubling problem of why, in our collective imagination, American achievement is the most coveted version of success.

Yes, the entertainment industry here is a dominant global force with reach that doesn’t exist elsewhere. But there is something deeper at play. Like millions of my fellow Indians, I have been propagandized by a post-Colonial mindset that insists on Western supremacy. This cultural insecurity is born from centuries of European rule…and there is no reasoning with it. During colonization, the British systematically wiped out our Indian education and vocational systems, educating us in the English language in order to “civilize” and exercise control.

No wonder as a child, it was a matter of familial pride whenever I spoke or sang in English. I remember being embarrassed to let my friends know that I studied Indian classical music. As a young teen, I would perform pop and rock music in public, but continued to study Indian classical music in the privacy of my home. I must have understood the inherent value of my own culture, for I never stopped studying that music.

I am only now beginning to unravel the years of conditioning telling me that Western culture is superior to my own. And my album, unabashedly Indian-inflected and brimming with influences from around the world, is the direct product of my evolution. It isn’t lost on me that my American Dream came true after I embraced my own culture. Just like Ella, I had to find the courage to be truly vulnerable – and for me that meant bringing to the stage all of who I am: someone influenced by cultures from around the world, but still rooted in my Indian identity. Perhaps this is what makes my fellow Indians proud: that I succeeded in a foreign land while remaining true to the culture I was raised in.

As a cultural ambassador, I am grateful to find myself in this special place; a unique lens through which I can process and hold the multiple cultural complexities of my immigrant narrative. So while I remain honored to be recognized by the Grammys, for me, conveying this complexity through my art is my biggest victory. My music has, once again, gotten me safely to my destination.

Priya Darshini is an Indian singer/songwriter from Mumbai now residing in New York City. She received her first Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album for her debut album “Periphery” which was recorded live in a 12 hour continuous session in an abandoned church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Chesky Records released the album.