When Zeshan Bagewadi was working on his debut album, “Vetted,” which was released in April, the Chicago soul singer wanted to do more than revive tunes from the ‘60s and ’70s. He also wanted to play with the idea of what soul music sounded like as exemplified on “Ki Jana ?,” a track whose Punjabi lyrics are taken from a poem by Bulleh Shah, a Punjabi Muslim poet and philosopher from the 18th century.
“[‘Ki Jana ?’] is an exposition of an existential crisis,” Bagewadi, 30, told NBC News. “‘Who am I? What am I? ... He doesn’t say this in the song, but ‘Am I good or am I bad?’ And there’s no answers in it either.”
Bagewadi said the track also explores a question that many Indian Muslims tend to struggle with: “Am I Indian or Am I Pakistani?”
The fissure is due to the separation of India and Pakistan 70 years ago, Bagewadi said. In 1947, India and Pakistan split into two countries as they gained independence from the United Kingdom in a process called the “Partition.” Many Muslims in India migrated to Pakistan, but many — including Bagewadi’s family — remained.
“Being Muslim in India is a very complex identity,” Bagewadi said. “You’re the ones who stayed. It’s a narrative that’s not monolithic in any way, but it is a complex narrative that often involves violence and often involves persecution and poverty and lack of access to jobs and healthcare and a ghettoization, too.”
“You take these threads off me. …. I look like an indigenous Indian. So no matter how American I’ve become, I still have that Indian in me whether I like it or not. And in my case, I want it. I’m proud of it.”
His father — a former journalist — and mother —a social worker — tried to adapt to their home country’s new climate after the partition, but tensions between Hindus and Muslims escalated in the 1980s. “In 1983, there were these riots that hit their neighborhood in Mumbai. So their neighborhood was hit by anti-Muslim riots, and people were killed,” Bagewadi said. “They had to take refuge in my dad’s village. And at that point, there was no future for them there. It was a matter of their own well-being.”
Bagewadi’s family moved to the U.S. in 1985 with his older sister. Two years later, he was born in Chicago. Growing up, Bagewadi listened to classical Indian and Pakistani music as well as his father’s collection of blues, soul, and R&B. He turned that love into a passion by joining a gospel choir in high school amd studying music in college.
Aside from putting music to “Ki Jana ?” on “Vetted,” Bagewadi also penned an original song in Urdu called “Meri Jaan.” But regardless of what language he sings in, Bagewadi said he wants his music to make the listener feel something.
“For me, there’s nothing contrived about [my music] because this is how I was growing up,” he said. “I don’t need to make it cool or whatever. I’ve lived it. I have the access to the Indian-ness with language and my [family]. But at the same time, I’m American. I’m a Chicagoan, a proud one, too.”
At its heart, the music on “Vetted” is soul music, Bagewadi said. The album features a selection of classic songs, including a version of George Perkins’ 1970s hit song, “Cryin’ in the Streets.” While Perkins was thinking of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral when he composed the song, Bagewadi said its message is still relevant today, especially concerning “indigenous minorities” like African Americans and Latinos.
“I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude towards the sacrifices they’ve made because upon that we thrive,” he said. “They’ve laid the path for us. So we owe it to them. We owe it to them to take up their causes and support what’s good for them and internalize their pain.”