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Anders Kapur: Redefining the Americana Image





By Nikki Celis
Illustration by Isabella Kapur
Photos by Anders Kapur
December 17th, 2020














When you think about what shapes the visual canon of Americana, folk and songwriter music, what do you see?

Bob Dylan. Willie Nelson. Todd Snider. Johnny Cash. A quick Google search for “classic Americana songwriters” results in many of today’s musical legends—archetypes that have shaped how we subconsciously perceive what it means to be part of the musical canon.

Anders Kapur, in most cases, is certainly not that. Take away the supposed hardened country gruffness—and the whiteness—and you’ll get an ambiguous-looking brown-skinned man doing a decidedly amateurish line dance around New York City.

As if he’s clueing you in on the joke, the first shot of “Viscera, Pt. II” opens with an eagle’s caw. Distinctly American. Distinctly liberating.

What follows is the crack of a whip and playful traipsing arpeggios on an acoustic guitar that, if you were to ignore the rest of the music video, would signify the mythology of the Americana singer-songwriter: a strong white male sporting the classic tropes of American frontier chic.

But it isn’t. And that’s the point.

“We’re just city millennials that made this thing,” Kapur laughs over Zoom. “We think it’s funny to dress as cowboys and mime that aesthetic to the ‘Rama Gu’ end.” Funny enough, many of today’s predominantly white Americana songwriters don’t fit the bill either.

This sort of tongue and cheek goes hand in hand with much of what Kapur’s project, Rama Gu, stands for: on a whim rather than intention.

Close your eyes and juxtapose the names Rama Gu with Bob Dylan (or a random set of Eurocentric first names, like “Bill Anderson” or “Ted Mosby”), and nine times out of ten you’ll picture something wildly different.

It’s not your fault to think so, as these preconceptions were built on generations of conditioning that defined what it means to be and look (North) American.

“My mom’s maiden name is Gustafson. Ram is my middle name,” remarks Kapur in a conversation we had months back. “I just took those and smashed them together. I could go by Anders Kapur, but I don’t think that it’s really good—I like my name a lot but it’s not a songwriting name.”








Another exercise: type in “artists that changed their name” and the second result on Google leads you to a 2017 post from everythingzoomer.com. Laura Grande lists the icons you probably know first-hand, or from your parent’s discography: Elton John, formerly known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight; Tina Turner, formerly known as Anna Mae Bullock, the list goes on.

While Kapur’s choice in project name was decidedly apolitical, it wasn’t for the sake of broad accessibility either. “I didn’t choose the name to be kind of cool,” he says.

He puts it bluntly: “It’s obviously a Hindu name—but it’s my name. I’m not interested in code-switching, to be honest. I don’t need to code-switch…I have a really good sense of who I am.

“Most of my friends—all of my closest friends—are also from similar backgrounds and they’re all third culture kids.

“When you’re in a community like that, you’ve got this tacet understanding that these people understand me—which is really cool cause I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve worked through a lot of fishing for other people’s approval.”

###

In this I feel an almost familial understanding with Kapur. Despite our difference in heritage—him being half-white/half-Indian and myself, a first-generation Filipinx-Canadian far removed from my own culture—for much of our lives (going well into our late 20s) we’ve both longed for acceptance.

“Desire appears as a feeling,” opens Siri Husdvet in her 2007 essay “Variations On Desire,” “a flicker or a bomb in the body but it’s always a hunger for something, and it always propels us somewhere else, towards the thing that is missing.”

Being a third culture kid—or formally speaking, living in the cultural third space—is an experience many multi-generational BIPOC people know full well. It’s a diasporic identity that bears its own set of hang-ups and fishing for approval is one of them.

The optimistic definition of the concept? It’s the harmonious balance between your “ethnic” (Kapur hates that word) culture and that of the wider majority. I would go so far as to say it’s a luxury to be able to afford that sense of balance. In most cases, the desire for acceptance teeters towards assimilating into white culture—but what does that really mean?

“[D]esire can be aimless, too,” Husdvet continues. “A vague desire makes itself felt before I can name the object—a restlessness in my body…a push in me toward a satisfaction I can’t identify.”

At surface level, which is most things, really, it boils down to the color of skin (“They found my skin tone threatening,” croons Kapur in “The Cost of Living”). Then, it branches out into food, social differences and so on.

Much of what I shared with Anders I’ll share here: I grew up in predominantly blue-collar white communities in Calgary, Alberta. Well into my late teens (and embarrassingly my early 20s), I had desperately wanted to be white, despite not knowing entirely what that meant. Food. Clothing. Speech. Everything was a deliberate choice in being closer to my aspirational whiteness. I wasn’t encouraged to learn Tagalog or Bicolano, my dialect. Even in my own family it was a hidden desire to date outside of our race—all part of this generational conditioning to cement our colonial mentality. I wanted to be the only Asian kid in my exceedingly small friend group. It’s a sentiment Kapur knows full well.

“I wasn’t really friends with non-white people,” he says.

Kapur grew up in a small New Jersey town, an hour outside of the city. “It was an upper-middle-class white town,” he recalls. “Extremely segregated—part of this unspoken segregation in this country that no one wants to talk about.”
“I’m not interested in code-switching, to be honest. I don’t need to code-switch…I have a really good sense of who I am.”
Kapur was one of a handful of non-white kids in his school district. Being young, Kapur wasn’t entirely cognizant of his own othering—or of other people. It was an “internalized thing” when it came to his own social circle.

“Since I’m half white, I can pass for a lot of things I guess,” he remarks on his own ambiguity. “People can see what they want to see but it was apparent that there were a lot of differences there.

“I spent a lot of time trying to fit in.”

Kapur remembers staring at a mirror, looking at himself. His complexion. His arms. “This was fucking crazy dude—I don’t look like my friend Nick? That’s weird,” he says, describing the moment when he first realized his own othering.

Self-realization comes with the desire to want to fit in even more. Anders and I come from different times and different lives, but I remember the exact same experience happening to myself. Realizing the similarities, we both laugh.

The need to be closer to whiteness is a colonial mentality that’s not only conditioned through our social interactions, public spaces and though media, but also one that’s colored through past experiences. It’s like an heirloom, passed from parent to child as they navigate through their own third identity.

“My experience of being Asian is colored by my dad’s experiences,” he explains. His father bore the brunt of the explicit racism when it came to being a third culture in this country, particularly during a less progressive time—a factor Kapur describes shaping much his behavior to this day.

“He’s 100 percent Indian and really dark-skinned,” he says. “He can’t pass as a white dude, or even Italian—people think I’m Italian all the time.

“A lot of people who came from India—from my parent’s generation—they had this kind of, like, assimilationist mindset.

“If you have the means you either go to the UK, the US and to a good university,” he continues. “You’re only going to speak English and you’re going to educate yourself and live the American dream and make your mark.

“That’s not really conducive to carrying across your traditions. There’s a sort of shame. A need to hide them.”

###

There’s  a long history of artists of Asian heritage hiding that aspect about themselves, Kapur tells me. Freddy Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara to Farsi-Indian parents. Norah Jones, born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar are two examples that came to mind.

“And she has a legitimately famous musician father from India but adopting this white-passing stage name and you never hear about that in relation to her!,” Kapur raises his hands, growing more agitated.

“I was shocked to find out that Eddie Van Halen died, and he’s quarter-Indonesian. I didn’t know that!”

“Van Halen,” he remarks. “That’s the most Dutch thing ever—but you take a closer look and that guy is for sure [part] Indonesian, which is crazy.”

And yet, despite the distinctly eurocentric name—in both the Netherlands and in America—Van Halen was othered for being mixed race. White children would bully him, tearing up his homework and force him to eat playground sand, according to a 2017 interview.

Kapur points out the duality of being an Asian-American playing singer-songwriter music, a genre that’s conceived to be predominantly populated by white artists. The mythos of the songwriter persona are the “extremely white” archetypes laid out throughout contemporary music history.

The mythos paints “a white dude with a guitar—or a white dude with a big hat playing a guitar. And that can be hard, he notes, when you don’t fit into what people perceive a songwriter should be.

But the racial bench exists everywhere. Before Rama Gu, Kapur was neck-deep into the “indie-rock” world. Like the small, jersey community that he grew up in, the people who hold the conversations are largely white.

“Nobody wants to talk about how white the gatekeepers are,” he says. “ The few non-white people succeeding in indie-rock are forced to take on something that plays on their identity.

“I don’t necessarily think they change themselves—but it’s what the indie-rock world values from non-white artists.”

Broad strokes. But with artists like SASAMI, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, Beabadoobee, Mitski and others shaping the current indie-rock landscape, you have to wonder how much of what their artist personas are shaped by white gatekeeping.

“All these white boys wearing beanies and dickies playing Jazzmasters—you want to fit into that.”

###





Kapur with the h2t crew for the recording of his album. Clockwise from the top left, they are: Theo Munger, Anders Kapur, Marika Galea, Charlotte Wang, Shae Brossard, Emma Munger, and Josh Chang.




For Rama Gu, the juxtaposition between the music and the artist is front and center. And while it’s not a deliberate choice to show or hide his own Asian-ness, Kapur isn’t afraid to show who he is.

Americana, at its core, is very honest of its presentation. Just the artist and the instrument, with all the vulnerabilities plain to see. 

“It’s a really human way of expressing yourself.

“There’s no pretension at its core to pick up a guitar or play a piano and write a song.”

Though Rama Gu is a play on his name, the project’s former identity as Shiso Miso is largely attributed to his two closest friends: pianist Joshua Chang and cellist Charlotte Wang (both of whom are featured prominently in the album).

“We’d get together all the time. We’d cook. We’d play folk songs—just the three of us and  naturally found things to love from the Americana canon.”

And with the genre’s rawness, that sort of honesty established a deep connection between the three—an understanding at the human level. And, while they’re all Asian Americans, racial identity isn’t the focal point of their day-to-day conversations.

“It’s not the MO [sic]. You don’t have to talk about it all the time.

“When you’re able to find some sort of genuine human connection with art—you’re not thinking as to how it relates to yourself at an identity angle.”
The fact that The Garden is largely an Americana album came to no surprise to Kapur.

“All these white boys wearing beanies and dickies playing Jazzmasters—you want to fit into that.”
“If you take [the idea of human connection] and filter it through your own experiences in a genuine way—it’s going to come across as a genuine article that’s not trying to make a statement.”

And it worked. The single “Good Egg” was featured in the Tiny Desk Topshelf 2020 contest and was playlisted on KEXP.

Kapur doesn’t think of it as a coincidence that his music is resonating with people more than before. People, he notes, are going to pick up on something that’s genuinely expressed.

From the day-to-day, literal financial woes expressed in the “The Cost of Living”; the realistic millennial desire of experiencing what the world offers in “I Wanna Grow Up”; to the reminiscent and touching ballad of the album’s eponymous track, “The Garden”, Kapur expresses realistic, universal desires and hangups that many of us express today.

It isn’t a surprise, then, that much what he writes about lyrically comes across as a little sad.

“Sadboy energy. I know they’re sad,” he laughs.

“When I write them, it’s kind of a bummer—my delivery enhances the effect.”

Much of what Kapur writes stems from songwriting sessions in his bedroom. A heady activity, he puts it.

“I wouldn’t say I set out to write sad depressing music. The emotions I tend to drag up, they’re the negative ones,” he says.

Kapur explains that there’s more to say when you’re able to capture a feeling so strongly. It’ll be expressed in a way that’s true—and uniquely yours.

“It’s easy to be in your head when it comes to creative pursuits—it forces you to get inside yourself.”

And that can largely be a takeaway for anyone seeking to express themselves creatively. Rather than play up your race, it’s the presentation of yourself as who you are that matters.

For the third-culture kids still searching for a way to express themselves, Kapur has some advice.

“Find those outlets that fulfill you.”

But that sort of fulfillment doesn’t solely exist in one space.  It’s a combination, he says, of multiple factors: materially, where you can be a place where you can live with yourself; stability, with the people that you’re surrounded by; and creatively, where you can creatively posit your identity.

“It takes a lot of work. And a lot of people don’t get to that point, sadly. But it is doable, he says.

He brings up Radha Blank’s interview with the New York Times in October, whose struggle as a filmmaker existed largely due to the gatekeeping from the industry’s white facilitators.

“I wouldn’t write the version of Black life that gatekeepers value,” Blank says in the interview.

“She’s a black woman who gets nothing for a long while and all of a sudden she’s on Netflix and interviewed on the New York Times,” Kapur explains. “A lot of what she says is what i’m trying to get at—you’re constantly trying to reinvent yourself so you can be taken seriously.

“Like Blank, I’m at a point in my life where I don’t really care,” he says. “If you care too much about your hangups, you’re setting yourself up to be miserable.

“It’s all about acceptance—and that goes for identity.”





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nikki Celis is a writer and multimedia creator based in Montreal, QC. His work has been published in Noisey, The Calgary Herald, The Georgia Straight and more. On the side, Nikki is part of the shoegaze duo cmfrtble. and likes to enjoy a good melona bar.


ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

Isabella Kapur is an illustrator and art historian based in Brooklyn. Her work reflects her life: immersed in color, pattern, and the joy of learning and creating something new. More of her illustrations can be seen at isabellakapur.com and at @isajkapart on Instagram.







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