IASPM-US 2013 David Sanjek Memorial Graduate Student Paper Prize Winner: Elliott H. Powell

by justindburton on March 27, 2013

The winner of the 2013 David Sanjek Memorial Graduate Student Paper Prize is Elliott H. Powell (American Studies, NYU) for his paper “Hip Hop’s South Asian Disembodied Voice: Sampling, Temporality, and the Career of Raje Shwari.”

Powell’s study of Raje Shwari, the human who was a sample, folds temporal analysis into commodity theory in a manner that raises fascinating questions about human-technological interfaces, queering moments in Jay-Z’s work, and how one’s voice can exist in the present and past simultaneously. Powell’s essay is theoretically sure-footed and well-framed, both in its own terms and as a contribution to a broader field beyond its specific concerns. The Sanjek Prize committee is proud to offer the 2013 award to Elliott Powell in recognition of his exemplary work.

The 2013 committee included Charles McGovern, Michelle Habbell-Pallan, and Justin D Burton. The committee reviewed 28 submissions, and each member commented that it was a particularly strong field. Many thanks to all who submitted for the prize.


Hip Hop’s South Asian Disembodied Voice: Sampling, Temporality, and the Career of Raje Shwari

Elliott H. Powell
Ph.D. Candidate, American Studies, New York University
Pre-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Music, University of Rochester
IASPM-US Conference, Austin, TX 2013
(Please Do Not Circulate or Cite Without Permission)

Between 2002 and 2003, South Asian American hip hop vocalist, Rajeshwari Parmar (better known as Raje Shwari), was a dominant force in music, film, and television. A protégé of hip hop super-producers Timbaland and The Neptunes, Raje’s voice appeared in commercials for K-Mart and Joe Boxer, television shows like Queer as Folk, blockbuster films like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and songs with hip hop heavyweights Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, Nas, and Jay-Z. Yet, despite Raje’s vocal ubiquity in popular culture during the early twenty-first century, most mainstream audiences never knew her name, and even more striking, they never knew that she was a real person singing in real time. Instead, these audiences assumed that Raje’s vocals were actually vocal phrasings sampled from a South Asian musical recording. Rather than a completely erroneous and nonsensical assumption, this misrecognition primarily emerged from Raje’s propensity to digitally manipulate her voice to resemble that of a sample. As she explained to the New York Times, “I was making my demo in July of 2002…I was hearing Indian samples in hip-hop, so I sang some background vocals and made them sound like samples.”[1. Sasha Frere-Jones, “Hip-Hop is a Guest at the Indian Wedding,” New York Times, August 3, 2003, 2.23.] By making her vocals “sound like samples,” Raje utilized studio recording software that filtered her voice to emphasize high and mid-range frequencies, producing a phone receiver like sound that mimicked the timbral, temporal, and spatial characteristics commensurate with digital sampling.[2. Raje also sang in Hindi, Punjabi, and Gujarati on her demo as well, further emphasizing her mimicry of hip hop’s South Asian samples.] To give everyone an example of how such an effect is achieved, I am going to play a clip of Raje singing in her natural/“human” voice and follow that clip with her singing as a sample.

Raje Shwari Unaltered
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Raje Shwari Sounding Like a Sample
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As her statement to the New York Times intimates, hip hop’s prominent sampling of South Asian music at the time, evidenced by songs like Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak on” and Truth Hurts’ “Addictive,” influenced Raje’s decision to emulate a sample; it provided a space from which Raje could enter mainstream music. This decision proved fruitful as her demo landed in the hands of Bill Pettaway, Timbaland’s main studio musician and head of A&R of Timbaland’s production label, Timbaland Productions. Pettaway informed Timbaland about Raje, who quickly signed her to Timbaland Productions and introduced her to The Neptunes. Ironically, as Pettaway later informed me, Timbaland and the Neptunes were invested in shifting the direction of hip hop’s engagement with South Asian music. [3. Bill Pettaway, telephone interview with author. We might also understand Timbaland’s desire to move away from digital sampling, but still achieve similar aural effects as a desire to adhere to the sampling tradition in hip hop. U.S.-based hip hop had faced a series of copyright infringement lawsuits that threatened to eradicate sampling. Yet, as Wayne Marshall (2006) has illustrated, these lawsuits forced many hip hop producers to develop creative ways to maintain their ties to the sampling tradition, but doing so in a different way. We might read as Timbaland’s decision to sign Raje as another example of this creative process.] They wanted to move away from sampling South Asian music while still achieving similar aural effects. Thus, they saw Raje as the perfect artist to explore such creative musical endeavors, and featured her as a sample on many of their projects.

However, in signing Raje to his production label, and not his record label, Beat Club Records, Timbaland subsequently signed Raje as a sample. This is to say, if record labels are usually spaces for the development of artists, and his production label predominantly served as a space for studio musicians (e.g., if Timbaland needs a guitar riff for a track he has a guitarist signed to the production label), then because Raje shopped a demo as a sample, and Timbaland signed her to Timbaland Productions, then he effectively signed Raje as a sample and rendered her solely to the sonic sphere. Thus, what does it mean to be a human and signed as a sound, a disembodied voice of sorts? Moreover, because samples are sounds that are digitally extracted from old recordings and then reorganized into new patterns, how can we account for a human who is signed as a sound from the past but also lives in the present? What does it mean to be someone who simultaneously sings in real time and a time of the past, someone who is a living sonic anachronism?

In what follows, I would like to briefly sketch out some possible answers to these questions, as well as pose others, by examining key sonic moments in the brief career of Raje Shwari. I argue that Raje’s position as a sample allowed her to not only radically disrupt the temporal boundaries of past and present, but also redefine approaches to and understandings of U.S.-based hip hop’s mainstream engagements with South Asian and South Asian diasporic sound during the twenty-first century. Indeed, most rap scholars have critiqued hip hop’s sampling of South Asian music for the ways it perpetuates Orientalist fantasies and aligns with broader U.S.-centered practices of cultural consumption that commodify South Asia as a feminine spectacle available to the heterosexual gaze. As a corrective, these scholars point to intercultural musical collaborations like the 2003 hit song “Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys),” by Jay-Z and the Panjabi MC, as politically progressive models for future cross-cultural exchanges.[4. See, for example: Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and Global Race Consciousness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).] Yet, this binary—one that focuses on representational constructs, on the one side, and social actors on the other—fails to account for an artist like Raje Shwari who not only precedes the Jay-Z/Panjabi MC collaboration, but also, and more importantly for the purposes of this paper, whose work as a human sample blurs the line between these two constructed divides. Further, while this hip hop literature deems songs like “Mundian to Bach Ke” as progressive, these songs  routinely take place between male artists and deploy heteronormative (if not heterosexist) narratives. In this paper, I want to draw on the recent turn toward temporality in queer studies to posit that Raje’s status as a sample constitutes a queer positionality. I use queer to mark not only nonnormative sexual and gendered practices, bodies, desires, and pleasures, but also challenges to the normative and normalizing structures that actively attempt to elide these nonnormative ways of being. Thus, as an artist who simultaneously sings in real time and a time of the past, Raje explodes normative logics of time that demand discrete temporal boundaries between past, present, and future, as well as living and dead—literally placing time and organizations of life out of joint. Moreover, if, as queer scholar Elizabeth Freeman argues, “temporal misalignments can be the means of opening up other possible worlds,” then I aim to illustrate in this paper how Raje’s queer temporal positionaility also produces a space for articulating queer desires and subjectivities, a welcomed relief and intervention in the field of hip hop that is routinely scrutinized as queerphobic. In order to illustrate this point, I want to focus on Raje’s most memorable hit, a 2002 song that she recorded with Jay-Z entitled “The Bounce.” I hope that this song will illuminate the multiple and multi-directional ways that female queerness manifests within her career as a sample, ways that unsettle the gendered and heterosexualized lenses through which scholars and listeners commonly interpret South Asian music’s and musicians’ place in U.S.-based hip hop.

Pointing out the Choli

After completing a few minor records with Timbaland and his artists, Timbaland called upon Raje to assist him on a song entitled “The Bounce” produced for Jay-Z for his upcoming album. Although a B-side single, the song became a hit among both African American and South Asian diasporic radio stations and audiences.

The Bounce
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While the chorus of “The Bounce” features Jay-Z rapping about strategies of obtaining and maximizing one’s economic capital—“Ima show you how to get this dough in large amounts ‘til it’s hard to count”—Raje’s words overlap Jay-Z’s boasting, as she constantly repeats lyrics , “Choli ke peeche kya hai.” This phrase is not only considered notorious within South Asia and its diaspora, but words that also exude queerness. Translated as “What’s beneath the blouse,” Raje’s use of the phrase operates as an allusion to and cover of a 1993 Bollywood film song of the same name. As scholar Monika Mehta has argued, the song engendered enormous national debate for its purported obscene and vulgar discussion of Indian female sexuality and bodies.[5. Monika Mehta, “What’s Behind Film Censorship: The Khalnayak Debates,” Jouvert 5 (2001).] Moreover, queer scholar Gayatri Gopinath, drawing on Eve Sedgwick, has also pointed to the queer moments in the song and dance sequence of “choli ke peeche” featured in the film Khalnayak, as it sets up a “structure of female homosocilaity,” where female homoerotic desire between two of the films heroines is articulated via the “triangulated relation to the male character.” While both female characters presumably appear as spectacles for the male hero’s gaze, Gopinath astutely notes that once the scene begins, the male figure “becomes peripheral to the scene of desire as it takes shape between the two women, who are clearly more engaged with each other than with him.”[6. Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 111.] For the remainder of this paper, I would like to use this queer visual moment articulated by Gopinath to mine the queer sonic moments in “The Bounce.” That is, to shift her analysis from a reading practice of visual culture to an interpretive frame of aurality.

If we take seriously Raje’s status as a living sample, then she must constantly attempt to reach across time and tap into the past. That is to say, because samples constitute sonic phrases from the past, then Raje, as someone signed as a sample, must in some degree inhabit the past. By inhabiting the past, Raje acts as a sonic medium, as one who connects with the past. Thus, as a sonic medium, Raje’s repetition of “choli ke peeche kya hai” intimates a calling for the latent female homoerotism within the song’s eponymous song and dance sequence. Her repetitive words operate as a summoning of the queer memories and ghosts of these voices into “The Bounce,” a move which inevitably produces a queer female sonic space and an alternative imagining of the ostensible male heteronormative soundscape that commonly associates with Jay-Z in general and “The Bounce” in particular. In other words, through her status as a medium and using the queer female memories of Khalnayak to produce, in an allusion to Josh Kun, a queer audiotopia in “The Bounce,” Raje consequently queers “The Bounce” as well as hip hop; she conjures “Choli ke peeche’s” queer female memories within a genre and song whose continued reliance upon masculinist and heteronormative narratives and actions renders such queer, female, and queer female articulations invisible and inaudible.[7. We can trace hip hop’s origins back to many queer and female individuals and practices , such as queer of color dance music, black female youth handclapping games and double dutch, Sylvia Robinson (the president and main music producers of the first commercial rap record label, Sugar Hill Records), and Cindy Campbell (who organized the block party on August 11, 1973 that is widely believed to be the start of hip hop). For information on audiotopias, see: Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).]

Moreover, Raje’s invocation of “choli ke peeche kya hai” not only queers hip hop and engenders a queer sonic space on “The Bounce,” but also potentially queers Jay-Z as well. By creating a South Asian diasporic queer audiotopia on “The Bounce,” Raje  interpellates Jay-Z within this South Asian queer narrative, history, and imagining. Rather than perpetuating the rapper-as-active speaker to the passive sample narrative that marked much of U.S.-based hip hop’s sampling of South Asian music before Raje, Raje’s position as a sample allows her to reverse the (aural) gaze. Indeed, Raje gives the sample agency and allows the sample to control the way the record and its corresponding meaning play out. Quite literally, and in an allusion to Fred Moten (who was drawing on Marx), Raje, as a sonic medium, provides a space where the commodity speaks (back).[8. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990), Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).]

For example, let’s explore the chorus of “The Bounce” that centers on the interplay between Jay-Z, who raps “point out the Bounce! Ima show you how to get this dough in large amounts till it’s hard to count,” and Raje’s repetitious reply of “choli ke peeche kya hai.” Here, Jay-Z refers to “the bounce” as a tactic or strategy to earn more money. If we read the chorus as a dialogue between Raje and Jay-Z, a queer situation seemingly emerges. While Jay-Z informs Raje that he will show her how to increase her wealth, Raje’s response “choli ke peeche kya hai” is directed toward Jay-Z, and thus points to, or perhaps queries, Jay-Z’s supposed blouse and what lies beneath it. The juxtaposition of Raje’s lyrics with the presence of Jay-Z on the track produces a reading of “The Bounce” that renders Jay-Z queer. Raje’s response to Jay-Z in the chorus of “The Bounce” not only marks him as genderqueer, but also a sex worker (he uses what’s “beneath the blouse” to earn money). Thus, Jay-Z in “The Bounce” emerges as someone whose gender identity and wage earning practices, within the dominant logics and articulations of labor and black male masculinity, are trans(gressive) and nonnormative.[9. For a deeper history into the ways in which fashion and gender intersect within black male masculinity, see: Monica Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009). Moreover, this queer way of reading/listening to “The Bounce” is particularly apt for the ways in which male rappers routinely utilize queer and transphobic language toward other male rappers (mostly using the language of “lifting/pulling up/down skirts”) to shore up masculinity and patriarchal norms. See, for example, Audio Two’s classic 1987 hip hop record “Top Billin’.”]

While these queer readings of “The Bounce” highlight male queerness and provide useful ways to imagine queerness within hip hop, I propose that specifically analyzing Raje’s lyrics in relation to the song and dance sequence of “Choli ke peeche” allow us to glean the ways in which Raje’s queer positionality articulates queer female South Asian diasporic desire. If, as historian Molly McGarry argues, mediums channel “the voices of the dead as a means of connecting with the past…imagining both worldly and other worldly figures,” then the consistent and incessant repetition of the words “choli ke peeche kya hai,” act as a chant, a calling for another female voice to enter the song and successfully re-enact the song and dance sequence of “Choli ke peeche.” [10. Molly McGarry. Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 2.] To put it another way, because the visual scene of “choli ke peeche kya hai” featured two women and a man, and because only Jay-Z and Raje occupy the space of the chorus in “The Bounce,” “The Bounce” subsequently fails to restage this scene—another female voice is required. Thus, Raje’s repetition of the phrase “choli ke peeche kya hai” serves as an invitation for and interpellation of a second female presence. This ghostly call not only aims to replicate the scene in general, but more importantly the latent female queer desire imbued in the scene as well. Indeed, it is this attempt to sonically recreate the visual queer female desire that forced the Bollywood film’s director, Subhash Ghai, to threaten a lawsuit against Jay-Z and Timbaland, stating: “[it’s] more than just a line, it is an entire concept they’ve taken.” As the director of the film, Ghai’s statement, particularly his contention that the song’s concept had been appropriated, points to a recognition of “The Bounce,” via Raje’s status as a living sample, as a song indexing and potentially reopening the queer memories, voices, desires, pleasures, and possibilities inherent in “choli ke peeche.”

As Raje’s status as a sample allows for a reopening of the queer memories of “Choli ke peeche,” her positionality within popular music also recalls what musicologist Elizabeth Wood theorizes as “sapphonics.” Analyzing 19th century operas as illustrative case studies, Wood defines sapphonics as “a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of lesbian possibility, for a range of erotic and emotional relationships among women who sing and women who listen.”[11. Elizabeth Wood, “Sapphonics,” in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, Gary C. Thomas, (New York: Routledge 1994): 27.] My use of sapphonics is in no way an attempt to impose a Euro-American lesbian identity upon the queer female sonic space of “the Bounce” or queerness within Raje’s vocal performance. Indeed, this paper has hopefully illustrated how the desires and pleasures of “Choli ke peeche” refuse an easy lining up with such an identity. Using sapphonics on “The Bounce,” however, we can see how Raje Shwari, as a living sound of the past, functions as the queer female singer calling upon past queer female desires and subjects. Yet, because sapphonics is predicated on the female singer and female listener tied by the erotic bonds of desire, we must then ask who constitutes the female listener? Although in Wood the listener is the queer female audience member attending the opera, in “The Bounce,” however, it seems as if the listener is the sonically absent female whose presence completes the sonic restaging and translation of “Choli ke peeche.” As a result, through sapphonics, I argue that multiple desires emerge from Raje’s use of “Choli ke peeche.” This is to say, Raje’s repetition of “choli ke peeche kya hai” is not only an attempt to sonically recreate, via the absent listener, those queer desires and pleasures found in the visual rendition of “choli ke peeche;” it is also a desire for the listener to hear and share Raje’s queer calling. She articulates an affective longing for such a queer listener, a sexual politics centered on a desire for such a queer desire to take place, a desire that Wood powerfully notes is “the desire for desire itself.”[12. Ibid, 33.]


What I have attempted to do in this paper is briefly sketch out what happens if we take a more critical approach to U.S.-based hip hop’s engagements with South Asian and South Asian diasporic sounds and artists. Raje’s liminal space as a human sample (one who exists simultaneously as a human and a sound, as living in the present and embodying the past), operated as a bridge that connected the ostensible divide between sampling South Asian music and physically working with South Asian (diasporic) musicians. Moreover, her positionality as a living sonic anachronism and disembodied voice allowed us to reimagine these intercultural engagements as queer exchanges. Indeed, if, as Kaja Silverman argues, the disembodied voice will “liberate the female subject from the interrogation about her place, her time, and her desires which constantly resecures her” to the heterosexual male gaze in film, then this paper has illustrated the ways in which Raje’s status as a sample constitutes an aural dimension to such feminist and queer liberation.[13. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 164.]

Perhaps due to the cult following of “The Bounce,” Timbaland and The Neptunes worked with Raje, as a sample, on a number of musical projects, most notably Timbaland’s song “Indian Flute,” but they all failed to reach the same level of success as “The Bounce.” Eventually, Raje split from Timbaland and The Neptunes and has worked primarily as an independent artist. Ironically, following the success of “The Bounce,” mainstream music witnessed an increase in collaborations between African American hip hop artists and producers and South Asian and South Asian diasporic artists like Panjabi MC and Jay-Z, Jay Sean and Lil’ Wayne, and Amar and Timbaland. I am not suggesting that these musical partnerships are necessarily due to Raje Shwari. Rather, I want to suggest that Raje Shwari must be a part of, if not central to, this Afro-Asian collaborative narrative.

Indeed, close to the ten-year anniversary of the release of “The Bounce,” Jay-Z hosted a release party for the highly anticipated video game, NBA2K13, at his New York City lounge, the 40/40 Club. Jay-Z not only helped produce the video game, but also served as the executive producer of the game’s soundtrack, handpicking each song that would appear throughout video game-play as well as accompany NBA2K13’s attendant television commercial advertisements. Strikingly, “The Bounce” was not only used in online advertisements and television commercials to promote the video game, it also has a strong presence on the game’s soundtrack as well. While Jay-Z invited a who’s who company of A-list celebrities to NBA2K13’s launch party like model Tyson Beckford, NBA all-stars Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, and legendary rapper Nas, Jay-Z also invited Raje Shwari to the party. “The Bounce’s” significant presence on the game and in advertisements speaks to its indelible mark on intercultural musical works in U.S. mainstream hip hop. Moreover, given its queer content, the song also extends its queer soundscape to the homosocial, and at times queerphobic, space of professional male basketball.

Although I only examined one song within this moment, I see this paper as more of a thought piece that I hope will start a conversation around this intercultural music in general and its queer and boundary crossing moments in particular. We, as scholars and fans of popular music, must continue to explore the work of artists and producers who are radically using music and sound as a means to produce  new imaginings and alternatives that disrupt the normative and conventional logics of being and feeling in the world.

Elliott H. Powell is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at New York University. He is currently a Visiting Dissertation Fellow at the University of Rochester in Department of Music, where he is completing his dissertation, “Kindred Sounds: Afro-South Asian Musical Intersections in Jazz and Hip Hop.” The project investigates African American and South Asian diasporic sonic bonds in postwar jazz and post-9/11 hip hop as sites of comparative racialization, transformative gender and queer politics, and anti-imperial political alliances. Other research interests include: African American and Asian American Studies, Queer Studies, World Music, and the Politics and Aesthetics of Sampling.

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