Chandan Shetty is embarking on a musical tour of North America, but he’s doing it a little differently than a lot of pop artists. That’s in part because his persona is a bit unusual: an Indian composer, lyricist, and singer whose biggest hits are rap songs in the Kannada language. Most of the tour’s stops across America were organized and supported by a loyal fan-base, many of whom are Kannada-speaking. His massive fan base at home in India and abroad love hearing Kannada (one of the world’s oldest living languages) used in a contemporary fashion.
Of course, he also has a lot of raw musical talent. Shetty entered the music industry in 2012 as lyricist and assistant music director for the movie Alemari, under the music director, Arjun Janya, before composing for other hit films, such as Varadanayaka, Power, Chakravyuha, and Bhajarangi. But his solo project has been something quite different, and his genuine love of the Kannada language and culture has been the inspiration and one of the keys to his success.
Vanguard Seattle spoke with Shetty, just before his debut performance in America, here in Seattle.
Tell us where you are from?
Originally from Sakleshpur, a Malnad town in Karnataka, but settled in Bangalore
What are some of the distinctive qualities of Kannada culture and language?
Kannada is one of the oldest languages in the world, with a history of 2500 years. It’s the state language of Karnataka and one of the classical languages of India. Karnataka has an invaluable contribution to India’s literature, music, dance, and architecture. The most prestigious literary award in India is the Jnanapeeta Award, and eight recipients were from Karnataka. The 16th-century composer Purandaradasa was also from Karnataka. He is the father of Carnatic music, one of the two classical music systems in India, along with Hindustani.
In dance, Karnataka is home to Yakshagana and numerous folk dance styles like dollu kunitha and pooja kunitha. I should add that Kannada is not the only language in Karnataka. It has many sister languages like Tulu, Kodava, Byari, and Badaga which are spoken by thousands of people. There are, architectural marvels like Badami, Aihole, Pattadkal, Hampi, Belur, Halebeedu, Shravanabelagula, and the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora were constructed by Kannada kingdoms. So many things to speak about, but these are just on top of my mind.
How does your heritage reflect in your music?
I believe Kannadigas have more pride in their language, and love for Kannada is the biggest motivator for me to pursue music. Our language and heritage have evolved over time with many changes. I wanted to contribute to our music with a modern touch, and hence I chose Rap. Because we can use more colloquial words in Rap, we can touch and involve more and more people, especially youth. I’m proud to be part of Kannada community and have immeasurable satisfaction with tiny contribution I’m making. I’m always up for an opportunity to serve my language, state, and people.
What were your first experiences and perceptions of rap and hip-hop?
I started my Rap journey by listening to Eminem and observed how he expressed humor, frustration in his songs. Then I began to study more of Rap culture and saw how artists were expressing rivalry and teasing each other. I only cared about the positive things that can be re-adopted for Kannada, mainly the flow of music, different beats and so on. I began experimenting with my own music for party songs, and gradually improved with adaptations for different scenarios and themes. I only took the musical and sonic aspects of western Rap culture to Kannada. The cultural differences would make it difficult to make western Rap in Kannada.
When and how did you first start writing and performing hip-hop for yourself?
I think it was in 2010. I came up with a concept from personal experience and made “Halagode.”
What are the perceptions of hip-hop in Karnataka and India more broadly?
We have Hip-Hop culture throughout India, but it’s totally different from the west. We have a few artists who copied the western culture in India, but due to the cultural differences the general public doesn’t like it or promote it. The Indian adaptation of Hip-Hop is gaining momentum in Karnataka and India, and many new artists are coming up and we’re seeing them in many movies.
More specifically, what has the response been to your solo work in India? And what of American audiences?
This is an interesting question. I never knew that my first song would become such a hit and that is a life-changing moment for me. With the YouTube usage growth in Karnataka, my first song became viral, and many celebrities in the region started sharing it. With technological advancements, more and more people were listening to my song on mobile devices. A similar trend continued for my second song “3 peg.” With these 2 songs becoming viral in Karnataka, usage from the USA started seeing a significant increase, mainly on the west coast. So I guess people liked my songs and I’m truly thankful to everyone around the world for giving such love and encouraging me to continue.
One more interesting thing I observed is that people like changes in music. For about 5-10 years, the same music was being made and remade in Karnataka. People were in need of change, and my songs were released at the right time. So I guess the timing was good and the response has been amazing from all the Kannadigas across the globe
There was the controversy regarding the song “Ganja” and the CCB authorities’ response. Why were you singled out in that inquiry?
I made this song for a movie three years ago. It was required by the storyline. I honestly don’t know why they issued notice now, but here is what I believe happened.
CCB was trying to control the drug trade in Bangalore. They made a lot of headway and to reach more people with their message, they issued a notice to all famous songs which used the word “Ganja” in it. I think it was done with a good intention of showing the public that Bangalore Police are monitoring each and everything involved with drugs, even songs, and movies.
This made headlines everywhere and became viral and many people were reached which would have been difficult without such actions. The only thing they wanted to ask was why did you sing this song and what was the intention. Things were settled smoothly with me and movie makers clarifying that we had no intention of promoting drug use.
What is your motivation for writing?
All the people who contributed to Kannada cinema and music, especially Dr. Rajkumar. [ed: For readers who are not familiar, Rajkumar was an actor and singer, legendary in Kannada cinema, who passed away in 2006.] He is my single biggest motivator. When it comes to music, Michael Jackson is my guru. The way Michael tried to promote peace with his music has influenced me a lot.
What other frontiers do you have in mind for your music?
I will still be experimenting and continue to work with movies. I’ll also be working closely with TV media to be part of their music programs.
What is the message you want to project to your audience?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m always grateful to my audience from bottom of my heart. With their love and support, I want to take Kannada to the next level. Kannadigas across the globe are listening to my songs, along with a few non-Kannada speakers. I’m here to perform in the U.S. now as a first step and would like to see more participation from non-Kannada speakers in the coming days.
I dream of bringing recognition of Kannada music to a broad audience of non-native speakers. For that to happen, we have to collaborate with artists from different countries and work with industry people. I’m very confident that I’ll achieve this dream with all your support. Especially to my fans, I request them to ignore those who spread negative energy and limit what people can do together by preventing them from reaching out to each other. We need to continue with optimism and keep doing the work.