Ushamami Talks Community, Identity, Art, and Activism
Interview by Melina Powell
Ushamami is the electronic solo project of Mena Sachdev — a producer, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, and vocalist. Born and raised in the US and currently based in NYC, Mena’s music combines a multitude of genres including R&B, experimental pop, house, techno, and beyond. Ushamami’s identity as a queer, non-binary South Asian inspires her art and activism as a community organizer; and if that weren’t enough of an impressive resume, her music is just really, really good. Mena’s latest single “Jinx” premiered on Dazed, showcasing the breadth of her skills as a producer via smooth synths, sensual vocals, and danceable beats that transform just like the polyamorous, queer narrative of its vibrant music video.
Melina Powell of shesaid.so asked Ushamami a few questions about her upbringing, influences, thoughts about the music business and much more. Read on for their words:
MP: What was your experience growing up non-binary and Indian-American in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the US in general? How did your upbringing shape your interests, identity, and career path?
MS: Cambridge is a super diverse city racially and socioeconomically (at least it was when I was growing up there) and is full of so many artists, educators, immigrants, community organizers, all that “progressive bubble” stuff…so being in such a nourishing and tight-knit community there really shaped me and is still such a huge part of who I am. I’m still close with many of my childhood friends and it’s beautiful — we’re all starting to reconnect after going on our separate paths, because so many of us are on similar vibes now of making art, activism, and just being queer and creative.
In terms of my home life, growing up queer with Punjabi immigrant parents was so beautiful, confusing, challenging, and chaotic. I would listen to bhangra in the car with my dad, who grew up in India, and my mom, who grew up in Scotland and the states, would bump John Denver, jazz, and 60’s rock while she was cooking. I feel like that’s a good indicator of what was going on for me. I had a really wide range of influences and experiences shaping me. My upbringing as a queer Indian-American kid was equally difficult as it was fulfilling. I learned how to work my ass off, how to be extremely weird, and how to make a damn good chicken curry. I’m only recently starting to grapple with what being Indian-American means to me, and trying to carve out a space for myself in that identity.
“I would listen to bhangra in the car with my dad, who grew up in India, and my mom, who grew up in Scotland and the states, would bump John Denver, jazz, and 60’s rock while she was cooking.”
MP: You’re currently living in Brooklyn, NYC — What drew you to the big city, and how have you found community there?
MS: Moving to Brooklyn has been so great. Growing up in a little city like Boston and going to college in and even littler city just south of there in Providence, RI, I was definitely itching to get to somewhere with a more buzzing music scene and just more queer people of color in general. Finding my community here has been, surprisingly, really seamless and affirming. I was expecting the worst when moving to an intense city like New York, so I feel so lucky that I have found myself in a very welcoming scene of queer artists and organizers.
MP: Where did you get your start as a multi-instrumentalist, DJ, producer, composer, coder, and multimedia artist, and how do you unite technology and art in your work?
MS: I came into most of these things when I was in college. I was in a really dope program called Electronic Music & Multimedia Experiments — it was honestly heaven. It allowed me to explore all the things I love that are simultaneously artistic and nerdy. My element is being surrounded by knobs, numbers, EQ curves, vectors, all that beautiful “left brain” stuff, and I love marrying those skills with my hunger for creativity and cultural production. Being an AFAB (assigned female at birth) and queer person, it’s really important to me to be really assertive about my agency over technology. All of the hats that I wear that you listed above occupy super masculinized spaces. I’ve gotten so used to being the only non-cis-dude in the room, and I wish it weren’t that way. I want to be really open and confident about my understanding and ownership over the intersections between art and tech so I can put pressure on the folks around me to be more inclusive and mindful.
“Being an AFAB (assigned female at birth) and queer person, it’s really important to me to be really assertive about my agency over technology.”
MP: What influences made you fall in love with electronic music and inspired you to start producing it yourself, particularly under your moniker Ushamami?
MS: Wow, so many. I grew up playing jazz guitar and playing in an RnB band, so my gateway to electronic music was through listening to a lot of neosoul and hip hop-adjacent producers like Taylor McFerrin, Kaytranada, J Dilla, and Flylo, which was a natural progression from my favorite artists at the time (Bill Evans, Robert Glasper, Hiatus Kaiyote, you get the picture…). But then I discovered Steve Reich and Pamela Z through a class at school, and also started getting into house, techno, ambient, garage, jungle through clubbing more… and my listening habits broadened exponentially, it was this beautiful can of worms. Feel like I’ve spent the past 5 years being obsessively thorough and listening through the lineages of electronic music. Right now a few of my biggest influences & inspirations are Talk Talk, Mariah, Rosalia/El Guincho, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Kelsey Lu.
I started producing music myself after taking an intro music production class my sophomore year in college and I was hooked. I spent the following summer in upstate New York, occasionally interning at a recording studio, but mostly, I was holed up in my room going down the black holes of reddit and Youtube tutorials on music production. Not much has changed :)
MP: Your bio states that you are “committed to making space for queer people of color in the music, art, and tech worlds (especially at their intersections)”. Intersections is also a previous theme of our shesaid.so Alt Power 100 List, which was created as a response to Billboard’s (very white and male) Power 100 List in order to celebrate traditionally underrepresented communities. What are some ways you’ve combined your creative passions and activism in the past, and your vision for doing so in the future?
MS: On a creative level, I try to be really intentional about being honest and unapologetic in my art. Everything I make feels deeply rooted in my lived experience as a queer brown person, so I guess that my art is inherently political in that way. But, I really try to push myself to be impactful and conscious beyond that. As an organizer, I am always prioritizing booking people of color and queer folks. I honestly can’t remember the last time I booked a white man. I often am collaborating with social-justice focused collectives in Brooklyn, and, while the spaces we create are far from perfect (especially since we’re mostly gentrifiers), they are beautiful alternative celebrations that combine activism, fund-raising, music and performance.
In the greater music industry, when it comes to basic things like booking, pay, and just being respected as an artist, I’ve had to get really tough about speaking up for myself. I often feel like I can be a diversity token. By now, I feel like I’ve had a lot of practice using the right language to advocate for myself and others. But, as important as that is, I really want to find ways to be politically impactful beyond visibility and representation. Standing up on a stage with my brown and queer body is great, but as an activist and artist, I recognize that I will never be politically perfect. I really want to challenge myself to use my growing platform for more than what I’m doing now.
MP: The video for your latest single “Jinx” offers a multi-dimensional perspective of queerness and relationships. What do you hope viewers will feel when they watch it?
MS: I love what Nadya Agarwal wrote about it in Kajal Mag: “Ushamami has created a physical space to occupy. It’s warm and inviting. Above all, it fits to every form.” She articulated it better that I ever could. I just hope queer folks will watch “Jinx” and take solace in it. It’s for them. Sure, the content is challenging and fresh, especially under a Eurocentric/patriarchal gaze, and we have gotten a few trolls in the comments to prove that. But, we weren’t super concerned with those people when making the video. I don’t want to make art that is a reaction to that gaze. I want “Jinx”, and all of my art, to be an assertion of queerness and “a space to occupy”. I want people to feel welcome in our little queer future.
MP: It seems as though queerness and diversity have become forms of cultural capital in recent years, with brands, companies, the media and so on adopting these themes to appear “cool” in the mainstream. Yet queerness is still misunderstood and largely unaccepted by societies around the world. How do you think that diversity can authentically be represented and promoted by businesses while steering away from tokenism?
MS: This is a big issue and something I think about a lot. It’s hard to see these brands who have traditionally been so hetero and white all of a sudden jump on the representation bandwagon and profit off of that. That money is going back into the pockets of the same people who got the cash before diversity was “cool”. Of course, it’s dope to see Indya Moore and Kevin Abstract in a Calvin Klein ad, but it’s genuinely hard to know how much impact that actually has. I hope that this representation is giving more than just visibility, but it’s so hard to know at this moment because it’s such a trend. Regardless, I sincerely hope the big name queers and POC are getting the checks they deserve on this and getting paid as much as the people that came before them.
I don’t know if there’s a way for businesses to authentically diversify their image because it’s so wrapped up in capitalism. I’d like to see businesses that are using all these black and brown bodies shipping those profits to the communities that a lot of these minority models and celebrities are coming from (low income black neighborhoods, undocumented migrants, immigrants), so I guess that would be a start, but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. It’s mad heady talking about queer representation within the constraints of capitalism. I am simultaneously frustrated but also benefiting from the cultural capital I get as a queer brown person. I could say so much on this, there’s a lot to unpack.
“I’d like to see businesses that are using…black and brown bodies shipping those profits to the communities that a lot of these minority models and celebrities are coming from.”
MP: As an independent artist, you’ve had to act as your own manager, agent, publicist and beyond. What’s been your experience in the music industry thus far, especially as it pertains to being in control of your own image?
MS: I definitely have been learning by doing. I made my first EP as part of my undergraduate thesis, so I was kind of blinded by the confines of being in a privileged college student bubble. I just dropped the EP and had no idea how to navigate publicity, labels, managers, or any of that. I was mostly focused on the music. With the drop of “Jinx”, I learned that I could just cold email publications and get people to write about my shit, so that led to the Dazed premiere and a lot of other exciting things. I have some new people on the Ushamami ~team~ now but I feel lucky that they’re all really supportive and allow me to be the creative and musical director of the whole effort. Being independent is great because all I think about is making the best art possible and only having to worry about our own vision.
MP: What’s next for Ushamami in 2019?
MS: So much is in the works right now! I have a full length album on the way, but I’m not sure when that will be out. Maybe early 2020? I’m trying to be patient. But, there will definitely be some new music from me by the end of the year. And lots of visuals to go along. I’m excited to share how my music has developed. It feels like I’ve finally found my sound.
Ushamami’s next performance in NYC will be on Sat, July 13 at the Abrons Art Center for the Happy Family Night Market festival. She will be performing outside in the amphitheater at 5pm with a live band — Tickets here.
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