Mandeep Sethi aka SETI X is among a growing global community of Sikh emcees. The 23-year-old California-based rapper has spit his rhymes on stages across the US, Asia, and Europe. But the road for this rapper has not always been easy - Sethi has faced much criticism and judgment as a turbaned American-Sikh, especially post the tumultuous events of 9/11.
"I have definitely been judged for wearing a turban while emceeing. In the states, it's a totally different ball game for those of us with turbans and beards in a post 9/11 society," says the San Francisco resident who was recently in India for a performance. He's quick to add, "But yeah even in India, people are surprised when I rap, especially in my Californian accent. Some people expect me to deliver Punjabi songs, while others have no idea what to expect."
The emcee, who interestingly derived his stage name, SETI X, from NASA's abandoned space programme, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), started experimenting with the musical form at the age of 14. He progressed from playing the tabla and harmonium to the trumpet and electric bass and then found his musical calling in emceeing. He is a solo recording artiste and a member of the hip-hop group, SlumGods, which he not only performs with but also uses as a platform to conduct social work. The group utilises hip-hop as a tool to uplift society, organising street jams in India for underprivileged kids.Growing up in California, his style is rooted in West Coast boom bap hip-hop, and specifically, the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area styles. He says his freestyle skills come from the Los Angeles freestyle culture and its "aggressiveness and competitiveness". His musical style is also based on the sounds he grew up listening to - bhangra, jazz, reggae, R&B and hip-hop. The artistes that have inspired him include American jazz musician Miles Davis, American pianist and composer Herbie Hancock, Pakistani-American Desi punk rock band The Kominas, underground rapper Qwel, American guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix, American rap legend 2Pac and American rapper Rakim.
His LA upbringing also exposed him to the five elements of hip-hop: emceeing, DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, and in Sethi's words, 'knowledge'. "Being born and raised in Los Angeles offered me an insight into the highly developed LA underground scene and all of the gems it has to offer." He adds, "I use the microphone as a catalyst of change, rhyming about social consciousness as well as cultural awareness."
Coming back to his Sikh identity, the turbaned rapper shares that there is a growing community of Sikh emcees in the US and even in Punjab. "I think emceeing in the modern context is now getting recognition, but Punjab has had Sikh and Punjabi emcees for a long time, going back to the days of Ramta Tumbiwala, the original Punjabi rapper. But nowadays, in terms of the contemporary hip-hop form, Sikh emcees are growing in number."
In today's era of piracy, which has seen records become a dying commodity thanks to free download, artistes rely on live performances which are their primary source of income. SETI X is no exception, performing across the US, Asia, and Europe, along with a DJ or even a live band such as BlackMahal, a group which features dhol master Ustad Lal Singh Bhatti. He has also opened the show for reggae legend Bob Marley's son, Ziggy Marley (a talented and popular reggae artiste in his own right), at the Power to the Peaceful Festival at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, with Non Stop Bhangra, a group he was formerly a member of.
He has also rocked the stage with California-based hip-hop reggae artist Ras Ceylon while opening for popular American hip-hop duo Dead Prez. And, in collaboration with BlackMahal once again, he performed live at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
Sethi also frequently performs in the motherland. In India in April, he rapped alongside Asian underground music pioneer Karsh Kale for the latter's music album release parties at Blue Frog in Mumbai and Delhi. Sethi, who keeps shuttling back and forth from San Francisco to India, performed on April 24 along with SlumGods at a fundraiser for Tihar Jail in Delhi. And, the rapper will soon make his Indian television debut on an episode of India's Coke Studio season II (Indian music television series featuring live studio music performances by various artistes) with Karsh Kale, which will air on TV in July.
Besides keeping busy with live shows, Sethi also actively gives back to society in collaboration with SlumGods which includes breakdancers B-boy Aku of Dharavi and B-boy He Ra (Netarpal Singh). The group regularly engages local youth in Delhi and Mumbai through the hip-hop elements, breakdancing, emceeing, aerosol art (graffiti), DJing and 'knowledge'.
The SlumGods crew works hand-in-hand with the Delhi-based hip-hop community centre, Tiny Drops, to assist in uplifting society. The group also visited the Tihar Jail site, to perform for and work with the youth of the jail, and put together a SlumGods chapter there as well. They plan to follow up with workshops which help the youth through their issues, using hip-hop as the central tool in communication and education.
Recently, the crew collaborated with Tiny Drops Hip-Hop Community Center to put together a free jam in the streets of Khirki Village in Malviya Nagar, Delhi. "We are working to bridge gaps between different communities and crews that exist under the umbrella of hip-hop, so for this event, we invited Kru 172 and Desi Beam from Chandigarh to come and rap for the youth of Delhi and connect with them."