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Singer Vidya Vox talks music, #metoo and being a brown girl in a white world

From being bullied as an Indian child living in the US for ‘smelling like curry’, to using her Tamil roots to become a YouTube sensation, singer Vidya Vox bares her soul

brunch Updated: Jun 30, 2018 22:40 IST
Samreen Tungekar
Samreen Tungekar
Hindustan Times
vidya vox,shankar tucker,india
Even though her claim to fame was YouTube, Vidya has 835K followers and fans on Instagram(Photo: Jermaine Saunders)

When 27-year-old Vidya Iyer, popularly known as social media sensation Vidya Vox, answers the phone in Los Angeles, she sounds even more delightful than she does in her blends of Indian songs with Western music.

A psychology graduate, Vidya didn’t tell anyone about her super singing skills when she was in school. “I loved science. I still love it; I’m a nerd in that sense,” she says. “I grew up singing as well, but it wasn’t until college when I met clarinettist and composer Shankar Tucker that I realised the power of YouTube. I started touring with Shankar and his band during my college and university days. So on weekdays, I would work at a cardiology office, and on the weekends, I’d sing. I loved how music made me feel, so I decided to give it a serious shot. My mom gave me two years to figure out my singing plans and if they did not work out, I was to go back to medical school.”

So Vidya moved to Mumbai for two years, to learn Hindustani music. On her return to LA, she uploaded her first video, and a singing sensation was born.

“Indian kids have great examples to look up to now.... Now if anyone asks where you’re from, you say, ‘The same country as Priyanka Chopra!’”

Little India

Vidya was born in Chennai, but grew up in Virginia. Still, she claims she’s a true blue Tamilian. “My mom would make us speak Tamil at home, I’ve grown up eating dosa,” she says. “It was always two worlds that I grew up in. My bus driver would be playing Backstreet Boys and the kids would be eating peanut butter jelly sandwiches, and I’d be here with my idli sambhar… I used to fight with my mom to give me a ‘regular’ lunch – basically what American kids ate.”

The ‘curry’ jokes at school hit Vidya hard. “Puberty and adolescence was tough as it is, plus I was from a different country altogether,” she says. “Kids are mean! Everyone’s like ‘aw you smell like curry! Why do you have such weird lunch?’”

Lunch was not the only way that Vidya was different from her school mates. Dating wasn’t permitted, neither were video games, and TV time was limited. “Growing up, I had such a Tamil household that a part of India never really left me,” she says. “My mash-ups felt so organic because I felt so connected to India. Indian kids in the US who are going through the same things as me can feel proud about being Indian.”

Vidya connected with her fans on a six-city tour in India last year. She performed in Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru ( Photo: Story Maker’s Photography )

With South Asian actors like Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Kumail Nanjiani and the like on screen, Indian kids in the US have amazing examples to look up to, adds Vidya. “I didn’t have anyone like this when I was growing up. Now if someone asks where you are from, you just say, ‘Umm the same country as Priyanka Chopra!’”

Bullying in middle school was so scarring that Vidya started hiding her Indian identity, never mentioning anything about her homeland, and buying lunch at school. “But by the end of high school, I realised this was ridiculous,” she says. “I started participating in bhangra groups, dancing to songs like Kangana Tera Ni etc. By the time I went to college, I had totally embraced my Indianness, but I still didn’t tell anyone I could sing.”

Shyness was the culprit behind Vidya’s secret talent. “I find it difficult to talk about myself. I’m just shy,” she confesses. “When my sister joined my university, she told everyone that we can sing. And then guess who was singing all the national anthems at all events!”

The ‘mash’ of it all

Vidya currently croons to all the songs from Padmaavat ( Photos: Love Bug Robin Photography )

Learning Hindustani music in India, perfecting the accent and then blending it with Western songs… did Vidya always know this would get an audience? “I grew up on Queen, ABBA and at the same time, Nityasree,” she points out. “So I thought, how can I marry the two worlds? People have been doing mash-ups for generations, and I realised that when I went to concerts. This was the best way to show that I can sing both styles in the same song and be from both cultures.”

The meld did not come easy. “Initially, Shankar and I spent weeks on the songs. It also depends on how Shankar produces the song, with its many layers,” she says. “It was a challenge, but now I’ve been doing it so much that I can tell within a verse if the song is working or not.”

Shankar Tucker is a talent in himself, but his collaboration with Vidya has taken them both to bigger heights. At a concert in India last year, Vidya declared, ‘There’s no Vidya Vox without Shankar Tucker!’ And she sticks to that statement.

“Shankar adapted Indian music to the clarinet and he was producing a lot of different things with different people on his channel. He wanted to try his hand at pop, and he was really good at it. I wanted to try mash-ups, and well, it just worked,” says Vidya. “We have been doing videos every week ever since. He directs all our videos, and he also does cinematography. When we started out, I was so broke! We couldn’t afford to hire a crew so Shankar would direct and shoot the videos, and then we’d edit it together. It was a growing experience. And our creative differences just make our work better.”

Vidya currently croons to all the songs from Padmaavat, she’s well aware of the raps Badshah brings to the music scene in India, and is all praises for Jonita Gandhi, Shirly Sethia and other Indian YouTube stars. “Indian music, especially Bollywood music has so many influences! You can have a rap number and also have a song like Holi remade for Padmaavat. ” she says.

Social media onset

As a woke millennial, Vidya is supportive of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexism ( Photo: Aman’s Photography )

YouTube aside, Vidya has 835K followers on Instagram and 84K on Twitter. “I’m actually kind of bad at doing Instagram stories, but I try so I can connect with people who listen to my music,” she says. “I don’t really care about becoming famous or anything, I just really want people to listen to my music.”

“The amount of hate I get for wearing a bathing suit at a beach is insane. If a man does it, he’s praised!”

She ignores trolls, knowing that music is subjective and personal, and simply sticks to whatever she thinks matters. This applies to everything in her world, not just music. “The amount of hate I get for wearing a bathing suit at a beach is insane,” she says. “If a man does the same, he’s praised. And if a girl does it, it’s considered nudity. When things like these happen, I do speak up and counter the comment. Growing up, I saw people being shamed for wearing certain things, so I am quite passionate about the idea of letting women be free,” she says.

Being Indian with Vidya Vox
  • Favourite Indian dish: Pav bhaji
  • An Indian song you wish you could have sung: Ek Dil Ek Jaan from Padmaavat (2018) or Naane Varugiraen - OK Kanmani (2015)
  • An Indian city you love: Mumbai. It’s my favourite place in the world!
  • Indian actor you want to do playback for: Deepika Padukone
  • Indian actor you love: Hrithik Roshan
  • Indian musician you’d like to collaborate with: A. R. Rahman

As a woke millennial, Vidya is supportive of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexism. “I think it is a great time to be a woman because we can talk about these issues, and that’s happening because we’re lifting each other up,” she says, sharing her own experience with sexism. “We had a really rude director during a shoot. I was trying to give him suggestions, but he just didn’t listen to me! I had to tell Shankar to talk to him, and he listened to him. Thankfully, in my everyday life, I choose better people to work with. But it happens more than you know, with concert promoters and others.”

Follow @BeingFeline on Twitter

From HT Brunch, July 1, 2018

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First Published: Jun 30, 2018 21:59 IST