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Sandhya Chari’s Debut Single Stands for Representation. Are Tamil Artists Globally Sparking a Revolution?

The California-based Tamil-American musician discusses ‘My Roots’ which features 15 South Asian women in the music video

Jessica Xalxo Feb 07, 2022

Touching on themes of feminism, decolonization, representation and more, Sandhya Chari's 'My Roots' is a powerful reminder of the multiculturalism inherent and abundant in South Asia. Photo: Ranjith Kankanala

“Brown girl, rise up higher/ Show them what you’re made of,” Tamil-American artist Sandhya Chari invokes a subcontinent’s legacy in her debut single, “My Roots.” Touching on themes of feminism, decolonization, representation and more, the tri-lingual song (Tamil, Hindi and English) and its accompanying music video are a powerful reminder of the multiculturalism inherent and abundant in South Asia. “When thinking about the sound that I wanted to bring to this song, the words that came to my head were ‘powerful,’ ‘versatile’ and ‘no borders’,” says Chari about the track that melds Indian classical music with pop and folk elements. 

Showcasing 15 women from various Asian regions, Chari makes a memorable mark with her debut, championing the cause of representation while speaking to the power of individuality and unity. “50 shades of brown on a palette, we drippin’ in melanin/ North, south, east, west…tear up the barrier, united as one,” she declares on “My Roots.” About the core message of the single, Chari says, “All the South Asian women in the music video are celebrating their heritage with pride. All of us are coming together to celebrate our roots and show that we are powerful, and don’t need society’s misjudged labels to limit us from our endless strengths.” 

The musician’s first release is also empowered by the impact of Tamil artists such as M.I.A., Arivu, Dhee, Yung Raja, Shan Vincent De Paul and more. Speaking of its resonance, she says, “For several years, Tamil art has not been in the spotlight, and I am glad that we are finally able to get more recognition and appreciation. I am ready to be a part of the revolution.”

In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Sandhya Chari delves into the themes of “My Roots,” the power of representation, Tamil artists’ legacy of pride and more. Excerpts:

“My Roots” is a powerful single. What made you take on the themes of representation, feminism, decolonization and more in your debut offering?

I wanted to stray away from the norm and from the typical commercialized independent songs. I wanted to convey a message that was authentic and summed up my values and thoughts as an artist. These themes are not often portrayed properly in media, so I wanted to shine some light on these topics through my debut. 

Your first single is also an important call to action: to take pride and ownership in one’s heritage. On what level did you relate to this project and what does “My Roots” mean to you? Also, do you view yourself as a conscious musician – why or why not?

“Even though I grew up away from the motherland, I always took pride in celebrating my culture,” says Sandhya Chari. Photo: Ranjith Kankanala

As a first-generation Indian American, I grew up in a cross-cultural environment and tried to balance both to my best. I definitely relate to “My Roots” because even though I grew up away from the motherland, I always took pride in celebrating my culture. I definitely view myself as a conscious musician because I truly value having a voice in whatever project I take part in. I will only take on projects that I feel confident about and that seem authentic to my personality.  

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“My Roots” is a trilingual track (Tamil, Hindi and English) punctuated by Indian classical and western pop production. How did it first come together and what about its evolution surprised you the most during your creative process? Could you also tell us more about your creative collaborators on this project?

When thinking about the sound that I wanted to bring to this song, the words that came to my head were ‘powerful,’ ‘versatile’ and ‘no borders.’ I initially sent my music producer, Steve Cliff, some rough notes of sounds I wanted to implement in the song and voice recordings of verses and tunes. Steve is a genius; he somehow managed to incorporate all my ideas and delivered a track that I loved. I had already outlined a rough layout of the verses and what language they should be in. 

For certain portions, I wrote the lyrics in all three languages and then later decided which one flowed and sounded better. Nirmika Singh wrote the Hindi lyrics and I wrote the Tamil and English lyrics. Nirmika is someone who has the knack for writing meaningful and seamless lyrics, so I knew that I had to loop her in on this project. 

M.S Jones Rupert is a close friend and an amazingly talented musician. He helped with the mixing and mastering for this track, and knew how to work with my voice, beautifully merging all the layers to deliver the perfect sound. 

On the video and direction side, we had a strong team based out of California, U.S.A. The director was Swathi Reddy and the cinematographer was Raghav Ravi. I spent endless hours brainstorming with this team on ideas regarding shot lists and direction. All of this wouldn’t be possible without the combination of our strengths together because each person brought a different skill to the table. 

What significance does the Revathi ragam hold in this track??

The base structure of “My Roots” has a huge influence from the Revathi ragam. Revathi in Carnatic music is known to be a powerful ragam. Compositions like “Aigiri Nandini” and the “Shiv Tandav Stotram” are in Revathi. So naturally, when covering such a power-packed theme, I had to use elements from this ragam. 

You worked with a crew of about 50 people over 6 months on “My Roots.” What was it like to manage such a huge crew for your very first original release as an independent artist? Also, how did this experience impact your artistry?

“Having a crew of 50 people at times was overwhelming, but what helped was that every single person was equally enthusiastic about the music video and being a part of it,” says Sandhya Chari. Photo: Kishan Kumar

The experience was both exciting and hectic. Having a crew of 50 people at times was overwhelming, but what helped was that every single person was equally enthusiastic about the music video and being a part of it. Managing such a large crew was stressful at times, but with the help of my director, Swathi Reddy, we were able to stay in control and somehow managed all the different workstreams without any major roadblocks. This experience was a huge learning opportunity for me. I was involved in all the workstreams and had to have my involvement in multiple places at once. There is a lot that happens in the backend, and all of this improved the way I communicate with people, my organizational skills, and definitely my patience. 

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Tamil art has been taking over the world with artists like M.I.A., Arivu, Dhee, Yung Raja, Shan Vincent De Paul and more blazing a powerful trail. With authentic culture on the rise, how does it feel to be a part of the revolution and represent your roots in 2022?

I am super stoked for the future of Tamil music and art. There are so many talented artists on the rise, and I especially feel proud to step into this world while breaking all boundaries set by society’s perception. I feel like for several years, Tamil art has not been in the spotlight, and I am glad that we are finally able to get more recognition and appreciation. I am ready to be a part of the revolution and to continue to create more meaningful pieces of work that speak to a larger audience. 

The music video for “My Roots” features 15 women from South Asia – that’s a huge win for representation. What message do you hope people take away from your collective presence in “My Roots”?

I want people to take away the diversity, beauty and deep-rooted meaning that “My Roots” has showcased. All the 15 South Asian women in the music video are celebrating their heritage with pride. All of us are coming together to celebrate our roots and to show that we are powerful and don’t need society’s misjudged labels to limit us from our endless strengths. I hope that the younger generation is able to relate to “My Roots,” and to have hope that they too can have a voice and take the lead in whatever they set their minds to. 

From taking YouTube by storm with your mashups to winning A.R. Rahman’s #99SongsCoverStar contest and releasing your first independent single, you’ve come a long way. What’s next for you, Sandhya?

I am currently working on a few more singles and each one is completely different from the other. There are lots of surprises in store, and I am super excited to share my voice and vision with the world. You can expect to see me hopefully dropping some bars in my next song, collaborating with other artists, singing in new languages and blending modern-day beats with desi elements. 

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