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As Kohinoorgasm, Josephine Shetty Blends Pop Music and South Asian Identity

Singer Josephine Shetty, who performs under the name Kohinoorgasm, often writes Hindi lyrics for her songs. Jasdeep Kang

Traveling across the country by train has been a longtime dream of performer and singer Josephine Shetty. This month she finally had the chance to make that dream a reality.

“I love traveling alone,” Shetty told NBC News from Chicago, where she arrived after taking the train from a conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. “The view from the train hasn’t always been the most exciting, but It’s empowering to do this on my own.”

Shetty’s trip across the country is similar to her music, as they are both casual and, in her own words, “very DIY.” Performing under the stage name Kohinoorgasm, Shetty said it's an instant conversation starter.

“Kohinoorgasm is of course the combination of the words ‘Kohinoor’ and ‘orgasm,’ and it’s really mostly playful,” Shetty explained. “The Kohinoor diamond is super symbolic. It passed through many hands throughout South Asia and it’s now of course the crown jewel of England. There has been some talk of repatriation, but because of changing borders it’s unclear who its true nation is. I relate with that unbelonging.”

As she began writing her own music, Shetty said she knew she wanted to incorporate lyrics in Hindi into her work. “My Hindi is really not good,” she said, adding that she runs them by others to make sure they are grammatically correct. In her song “Azaadi Is Freedom Is Fate,” Shetty’s lyrics center on the Hindi word for freedom. She produced the song herself using GarageBand and other programs.

Growing up the child of an Indian father and Irish-American mother, Shetty said she had to discover most of the things she learned about Indian culture on her own. “You receive a lot of culture from your mother, I think,” she said, noting that her father spoke to her in Hindi and the South Indian language Tulu while she was growing up but that she stopped hearing it regularly after her parents divorced. “I had to do a lot of self learning.”

Josephine Shetty
Josephine Shetty, a.k.a. Kohinoorgasm Jasdeep Kang

When she arrived at college, Shetty said she initially enrolled in some Hindi classes but eventually stopped taking them when she began to feel out of place among the South Asian American community on campus. “I was so alternative, that I was called whitewashed and my experiences were invalidated,” Shetty said. “As a mixed person, I had to say ‘this is who I am, this is how I grew up.’ And then I stopped going.”

It wasn’t until she began meeting more South Asians with what she calls “alternative” perspectives that she was able to find a diasporic community she was comfortable with. It was through programs like Bay Area Solidarity Summer, an intensive program for young South Asian activists, that she was able to do so. Shetty has performed at benefits for the organization.

“I attended BASS a couple of years ago and we talked about black and brown solidarity and the Black Lives Movement,” she said. “We also talked a lot about South Asian history.”

It’s that sense of community that Shetty said she’s also trying to create at her shows.

“My shows are pretty DIY and underground. There’s usually a lot of dancing. Sometimes being on stage alone can be lonely,” she said. “I like having brown and black women on stage enjoying themselves and their bodies.”

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