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Zeshan B Is Back With a New Civil Rights Anthem “Brown Power”

Written by on March 10, 2020

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Photo by Harris Ansari

First generation Indian and Muslim soul singer Zeshan B is back with a new civil rights anthem and will help present the inaugural gala of Chicago’s brand new South Asian Institute.

Three years after his last album, Zeshan’s new song “Brown Power” is out now, along with a video featuring Ilhan Omar, Hasan Minhaj, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Cornel West, and more. He sat down with Jill Hopkins to discuss solidarity within the struggle and his partnership with Chicago’s new South Asian Institute.

The Institute will have its inaugural gala on March 14, where Zeshan will debut “Brown Power” live for the first time.


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How did a young Zeshan fall in love with soul music?

It was sort of what was playing in my house, you know? My mom and dad listened to it a lot. And I felt like it always spoke to me – it resonated with me, it always stirred me. I always wanted to know who it was that was singing this song…I remember some of my earliest musical memories are of Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder – my parents bopping to that and my sister bopping to that, and sort of, you know, it was kind of through osmosis. I found that when it came to performing too, and when it came to my own voice, I felt most at home singing soul music because it just was who I was.

I love soul music and its power to tell love stories, and you certainly do that with a lot of your music. But soul music is also historically very intrinsically tied to the struggle. Why is it important to you to maintain a relationship in your writing with this soul music protest history?

Well, you know, I think that as an artist you gotta tell it like it is. Otherwise, what are you putting out there? There’s no better way to tell the struggle than to sing it.

Because at the end of the day, when you’re in the struggle or you’re reading about it or you’re empathizing with those who have it, it’s almost like a moan – a sort of aching moan that you feel going up and down your spine. And the best way to really transmit that moan is through music I think.

And I found that no matter where I went musically in my life I always came back to my roots which were singing soul music. And that’s not just American soul music but Indian soul music which is its own thing. That’s also what I grew up listening to: the old soul music from India that tells about the struggle.

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The song and video are calls to arms for all of us brown folks to come together – it’s like a unified force for justice. Why is this brown allyship something you wanted to address?

I think that we need more of it. And I’m starting to see brown people coming together slowly, but I want to accelerate that.

I always felt that here in America there are two categories of brown: one that is more indigenous, aka blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, who are largely disenfranchised, shut out from from privilege, and discriminated against in a way that’s just tried and true to the story of America. And then you have the other groups of brown, like Asians.

By the way, a lot of people don’t want to look at Indians as Asians, but they are. And we’re brown in that, yeah, our skin is brown and our grandparents went through the same struggles that the indigenous minorities here are going through right now.

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But at times I feel like we’ve forgotten that. I feel like we’ve gotten very comfortable with our own privilege here and with our wealth and with our security, and we’ve conveniently forgotten that only a generation ago people went through this. My grandparents lived through the British occupation of India. They tilled the soil for the British Empire. They suffered it firsthand. They suffered the horrors of the partition. At some point or another, our people have been disenfranchised, enslaved, colonized, take your pick.

And that’s what’s in our DNA, that’s what we all share in common. Why not hold our hands together and why not fight the injustices together and take on the plight of others?! The privileged brown people, such as myself, should be taking on the struggles of black folks and Hispanics and Native Americans. We should be lending our resources, we should be lending our empathy to that plight.

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Let’s talk about the South Asia Institute. First of all, how did it take this long for Chicago to get something like this here? And secondly, tell me about the role that you’re playing in their grand opening gala.

The South Asia Institute is something I’m really proud of. The founders, Shireen and Afzal Ahmad, are real brown power. These two have [an] enormous art collection from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka… basically the Indian subcontinent.

The Art Institute called them up and asked them, “Hey, we’re doing a thing on South Asia, can you loan some of your material?” And they said, “You know what? Instead of a primarily white space exhibiting our work, let’s do it on our own.” That’s brown power.

They reached out to me and asked me to come out and I went and saw the space [and] I was just so floored. There was obviously a very strong nexus between what they were doing and what I was doing. I’m just really excited for them to make this debut this Saturday and for the world to see and for Chicago to see the unveiling of a really, really awesome brown space.

Listen to the full interview here:


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