Crossposted from MTV Iggy
Born in India and raised in Norway, Samsaya is a powerhouse of talent. She went from spitting verse to neighborhood kids in an Oslo youth center, to taking over as a VJ on Norway’s Topp 10, to penning pop songs featured in Levi’s ads and the 2008 Oscar-nominated film The Wrestler. Slated for release summer 2014, her upcoming album Bombay Calling! was produced by Roc Nation-producer Fred Ball. And just before our meeting with the Desi diva, international label BMG Chrysalis welcomed her into the family.
Much like her music, her real life presence is profoundly electric. Decked out in fantastic colors, she arrives at the MTV Iggy office wearing a green monster-print blouse, a bright red coat, and shredded jeans. Over her left eye is an expertly-drawn heart, filled in with a warm crimson. She swears she’s been jet lagged and sleep-deprived all week from traveling, but it’s impossible to tell from her bubbly disposition. “You know I asked a man today if this place had WiFi?” She says. “But I had no idea that Americans pronounced it ‘why-fy,’ so I said, ‘Do you have wifey?’ And he gave me this really bold look and said, ‘Ooh yeah, I see you’ and I thought ‘Omigosh, what did I say wrong here?’”
Samsaya is arguably no stranger to the Wild Wild West; schooled by Public Enemy and the ’90s television series Yo! MTV Raps as a kid, she’s got the flow of a Brooklyn-bred freestyle champ. And yet surprisingly, she has remained one of Norway’s best-kept secrets for over a decade, dominating Norwegian radio and television, yet never having played the United States until her performance at SXSW last month. “People told me I’d be lucky if I even got decent sound on stage,” she says, “But it was really magical. I was scheduled for only two to three shows, but it became ten shows. And at my last show, I noticed people in the audience from [previous shows] who brought their friends! It felt weird but, the US suddenly started to feel like my home.”
Home is a running theme in Samsaya’s work, and in her life. As a child, she often struggled with fitting in as an Indian girl in a sea of blond children, speaking to what many immigrants undergo in the process of adapting to their new surroundings. “I always felt like an alien growing up in Oslo,” she says, “It was so important for me to look like the other kids, but I was obviously so different. I would even call my hair dark blond. I didn’t even want to be Indian. I told everyone to call me Sam.”
This cultural discomfort was only exacerbated by her relationship with her parents, who were much more strict than her friends’ parents. “They never let me go anywhere with my Norwegian friends,” she says, “I was mad and frustrated, but [instead of] going out, I made my own world in my bedroom, where I’d listen to music and record my own stuff on tape. I think I really related to rap music because I could connect to the outsider feeling of it. It made me feel tough. I want my music to feel like that– like something you can wear as protection.”
At the age of 16, she finally gained her parents’ trust and started performing with a hip-hop group at her local youth center. But she nearly lost it entirely after inviting her mother to what turned out to be a catastrophic, hot MESS of a performance. “Everybody started fighting,” she says, “Somebody almost got stabbed. Then someone set off fireworks inside the hall and the cops came. My mother brought her friends, all kindergarten teachers. They all told her, ‘I’m so sorry about your daughter.’ My auntie even called me and said, ‘If you wanted money, you could’ve told us. But this… Cabaret dancing!’ I didn’t even know what cabaret dancing was, I had to ask a friend.”
Today, it’s hard to tell that Samsaya ever felt a sense of discord with her identity or her heritage. Influenced by the consciousness-raising hip hop she grew up with and jolted by the deep booming thumps of Indian drums, her latest single “Stereotype,” is a rallying cry for cultural pride that cannot be contained by any boxes or labels. “I don’t need to be black or white,” she sings, “I’m not down with the stereotype.” In the video, she seems to well with pride as she sashays down a dirt road in Goa, about 1400 miles south of her original birthplace of Hamirpur.
With a small film crew and her husband in tow, Samsaya says that the final product of the video deviated from its original concept. “I [had] a long discussion with the American producer of the video. He wanted to shoot it at a fancy hotel, but that would be wrong for me. I just wanted to take the camera and go for a drive. We found this old truck stop with a big parking lot and all these colorful trucks, and I said, ‘This is perfect!’ [The director] was nervous though, he was worried somebody would come at us.”
Being the only Hindi speaker of the bunch, Samsaya found she’d both quell her director’s anxiety and feel more comfortable if she got the locals involved. They initially thought she was filming a Bollywood movie. “I explained to them that we were filming a music video and that they could join in,” she says. “I told them, ‘balle balle!’ Or, ‘come join me in a dance!’ Most people stood around and didn’t know what to do until this one old guy smiled and said, ‘Eyyy!’ And suddenly people loosened up and joined in! It was like a wave, one came in, then two, and then everyone was dancing!”
The experience was a turning point for her, personally and politically. “It’s not good to stay in your head and judge people. It’s better to just try and talk to them first. And I’m not just talking about others; I’m talking about myself too. That song, my music, is all about seeing with your heart.”