The Small Town South Indian Boys Of New York
Through their guerrilla-esque caustically funny act, the Kondabolu brothers are adding layers of complexity to the image of the South Asian in the American consciousness
Their relatives in India think hip-hop group Das Racist’s Ashok Kondabolu is a singer and his comedian-writer brother Hari is a lawyer. But through their guerrilla-esque, caustically funny and thought-provoking take on everything from neo-colonialism to racial politics and the immigrant experience, the siblings are adding layers of complexity to the image of the South Asian in the American consciousness. It’s another matter that their parents still don’t get what they do.
Ashok Kondabolu aka Dapwell of off-kilter hip-hop act Das Racist and Hari Kondabolu, one of New York’s promising stand-ups, are not in their element at the Dub Pie Shop in Brooklyn, New York. For two (officially) funny men, they sit straight-faced for the most part and I am unable to coax any strong comedic charge out of these purveyors of humour. The brothers are unique, novelty figures on America’s pop culture or even alternative scene. They don’t smoothly blend into today’s more shaded tapestry of Indian representation manifest in the likes of, say, Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), Mindy Kaling (The Office) and Maulik Pancholi (30 Rock, Whitney) on American television.
They are still chipping away at the oriental mould, adding layers of complexity to the South Asian in the American consciousness.
“Me and my brother have had to create our personas and thoughts completely from scratch because there was not that much carried over. ‘Alright, I am just going to make up how to live this life, figuring out how to deal with girls and other things, smoking, drinking, sex,’” says Ashok about “inventing personas” and not being “reiterations of their parents.”
Ashok has just finished recording and producing his first solo album, Winky Taterz, which will be out this month. “It’s a short concept EP that I am doing with my childhood friend Mike Finito. There is rapping and a lot of weird chanting and stuff, it’s just a very weird rap album. I guess you could call it old school in terms of rap style, it’s much more straightforward, it’s apolitical. There are no songs about Guantanamo Bay in it,” he says. Ashok defines the scope of the album as being very personalised and niche in some sense. “The album is provincial in the sense that if you’re a fan of East Coast rap music over the last 20 years, it is a part of a larger tradition of more hard core rap music that is also very insular and just by the nature of it being strange it’s already appealing to such a limited segment of the population. It’s complicated in the sense that it is a weird sort of personal document is some ways. It is very based on being like this Indian kid from Queens, New York who grew up listening to a certain type of music. So it’s not going to make very much sense to people in other parts of the country.”
Ashok, the leaner and taller of the two brothers, looks nondescript when pitted against his hype persona, press images, and TV appearances for Das Racist. He’s dressed in a long military green jacket (with white, toothpaste-like stains on the right breast,) a black skull cap folded at the rim, beige trousers and dark burgundy brogues.
He speaks at length in this monotonic drone, his eyes rest on the recorder which sits under his nose on the table. Das Racist’s hype man is surprisingly sedate; I could have mistaken this for shy reserve but it could also be crude disregard. His wry cynicism is not of the Prozac-popping depressive brand or what he calls the “defeatist” kind, it is redemptive, an excuse for frivolity, goofy abandon and creative license. Ashok is, in some aspects of his disposition, New York’s stock Joe Gould-like character injected with the creative adrenaline of gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson and the uncouth coarseness of writer Charles Bukowski. He uses the word “insane” quite frequently when describing himself.
During our chat, the anticipated comedic dialogue has been traded for a discourse on race politics, American imperialism, linguistics and the South Asian immigrant experience. “My parents raised a small town South Indian boy in New York,” says Hari.