In Conversation With: Kaly
South Asian Songwriter
This New Jersey native is a lawyer by day and a rapper by night. His name is Kaly (a.k.a Kunal Patel) and he proudly describes himself as a South Asian rapper who creates “intelligent rebel music.”
Kaly is gracious, well-spoken and thoughtful. But the moment he starts rapping he takes on this aggressive gritty persona. Kaly often conveys a message of empowerment and pride through his music. This is evident in his new single “Brown Boy Lost.”
Although he’s proud of his South Asian identity, Kaly has had a tough time winning South Asian audiences. The response to Kaly’s performance at Times Square for Diwali 2014 was mixed. He told me he was faced with quite a few boos even though pockets of the Desi audience were vibing with his performance. Instead of taking the negative reactions personally, the experience inspired Kaly for his upcoming album Letters from Agrabah.
Letters from Agrabah is Kaly’s attempt to win over “his people” (i.e., South Asian audiences). The album will make use of a wide range of Indian samples—everything from music from the Bollywood movie Taal to traditional Carnatic music. Even though he enjoys listening to Indian music, using Indian samples in this album was a big step outside of Kaly’s comfort zone.
Kaly noted that he was very careful in how he integrated the Indian samples into his Letters from Agrabah tracks. He wanted to maintain the integrity of the Indian sound in his music. At the same time, he wanted to make sure his songs didn’t sound like “corny fusion hip-hop.”
Throughout our conversation, Kaly emphasized the importance of collaborating with fellow South Asian artists. He also voiced his concern over the fact that many South Asian artists in the United States are so concerned with being the best that they aren’t interested in working together with others. Kaly explained, “I think everyone is so concerned with being number one that they forget you can’t be that without a two, three, four, five, or six.” He hopes to develop a culture of collaboration to the South Asian hip-hop scene in the United States.
Kaly raps because of passion—not because he’s concerned about competing with others or because he’s focused on becoming famous. With an attitude like that, he’s bound to go far. Read on to learn more about Kaly’s upcoming album Letters from Agrabah, his countless tattoos, and his experiences working in the United Kingdom.
You have talked about how you lead a double life—you’re a lawyer by day and a rapper by night. Do you feel like this makes you more dynamic? Or do you wish you could just focus on one of the two careers?
“Being a lawyer supports my rap habit. But I’ve been [rapping] since I was in sixth grade. The lawyering is just ’cause you need a steady check…Because I’m such a studio rat and around people who are in the studio [I realized] the first people who don’t know their rights are artists. So I thought that because I’m a decent speaker, writer, and reader that I could meld the two of them and do entertainment law. And that’s what I do…and even if I don’t make it as an artist I would like to help people [in music as a lawyer].
I definitely wish I could focus on one or the other. Especially lately. Now I feel like I’ve burned both ends of the candle. If I could I would ideally just stick to one. And it would be music…all the time. But it does make me multifaceted. But you will find that a lot of lawyers are like that…they are artistic types.”
Tell me about your tattoos.
“I have too many…I need someone to count them for me because they are all over my body. I have the Gayatri Mantra [on my arm]. Each tattoo is a story…I am not one of those people who gets B.S. things on me. I remember why I got them. They tend to happen during periods of my life when some crazy sh*t is happening. I’m always kicking the ideas around in my head.
I wouldn’t say that I am religious—I am spiritual…but I do know the Gayatri Mantra. And people are always like, ‘Yeah right—say it!’ and I can say it flawlessly and I know what it means. And the only reason I know is because my mom used to say it when I was little and from then I have retained it in my memory. So whenever I do pray, I do know that.
My mom likes the lion tattoo [I have] because it’s in front of these roses. The lion is me because I’m a Leo. The roses represent my mom, my dad, and my brother [those three roses are shaded]. And then the last [rose] isn’t colored because when I find my wife I will get it colored. So when my mom found that out she liked it.”
Do you want to be known as a hip-hop artist or a South Asian hip-hop artist?
“No, I think that it is absolutely important to be known as a South Asian hip-hop artist. I think too many people try to be like ‘No, I’m a universal hip hop artist.’ But no, you need to know who you are. The end goal is to connect to a universal audience, but I know that in the beginning you have to have your own people behind you…But Indian people hate me. They don’t want to work with me. They don’t see the vision. At this point I should hate them back but I don’t. Because I know that you have to have your own people.”
How would you describe your style of rap music?
“It’s always been hard for me…The words that instantly come up are ‘rebel’ and ‘intelligent.’ I’m not an idiot who is making ignorant stuff. So I make intelligent music.
I’ve been told that I sound like Eminem when I rap…That’s the one that I am told the most. I know my voice takes on a raspiness when I rap that isn’t there when I am talking. I am not actually forcing that…It’s literally when I rap something else is there. It’s also cool because people don’t expect that I can be good. I just do my own thing…I don’t worry about trying to sound like anybody else. In this business they often tell you to be arrogant…In my case, I don’t think I have any of that.”
On making Indian fusion hip-hop:
“I’ve always said the people who do that fusion thing are corny as hell. Especially the rappers who do that are the corniest ever. It has annoyed me for forever. I very consciously—I don’t utilize Indian samples. I will put on Indian artists. I will completely champion Indian artists but as far as using the culture to be corny…I don’t do that. But it is funny I will say I do sample from A.R. Rahman a lot because I think he’s the best.
The Agrabah project came about because I performed at Times Square for Diwali. There were like 10,000 people and it was on TV. But there were boos. There were definitely boos. And that’s because Indian people don’t understand what the hell is going on. But there were pockets of people who were just rockin’ and [there were] people who came up to me who said it was amazing. I felt more sad about the people who booed. They only know Bollywood music but they don’t realize that I also know it and love it… Agrabah is that bridge. I want to win those people.”
Compare the U.K. South Asian hip-hop scene with the U.S. South Asia hip-hop scene.
“I think quite simply we don’t have one [here in the U.S.]. I don’t see any semblance of it happening here. I am trying to… It’s a horror story—the amount of artists I have reached out to [for collaborating on projects]. You have to hit them [up] five, six, seven times before they say their managers said they can’t work with you. The artists here in the U.S.—I hate to generalize— are just ridiculous. As far as rapping, I think everyone is so concerned with being number one that they forget you can’t be that without a two, three, four, five, and six. But everyone is so convinced that they are so pressed to be that [number] one. They don’t want to work together. In the UK, they all work together. Here we don’t have that.”
Who would like to collaborate with?
What can we expect from Letters from Agrabah?
“Every track changes…There’s a lot of hope on there, there’s aggression, I do try to get a little melodic. It’s cool. It’s authentic fusion. It’s still that intelligent rebel stuff. Everything is sampled from Indian vinyls. I went crate-digging and if I thought the cover looked cool I took it.”
“It doesn’t go into that corny realm. It’ll be a voice that you can be proud of. I want you to be proud.”
Do you have a message for your fans?
“I appreciate everyone that listens. I operate thinking that nobody is listening. So anyone who has reached out to me or does say that they like [my music]— I appreciate every single person that does that. This [industry] can break your spirit. You are dealing with people who are in your community and outside of it who don’t get it.”
Look out for Kaly’s Letters from Agrabah on his website kalymusic.com!
Nisha Choksi is the Managing Editor of Universal Mirror. She is working on completing her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) from Northwestern University, focusing on issues related to education and economic development. Nisha is an active dancer who enjoys traveling and is obsessed with all things beauty.