[Before you read this interview, I strongly suggest you go listen to Vishal Bakshi’s music (put out under the name VBAK). I advise starting with “Breathe.” Here is the link where you can find him on SoundCloud.]
Okla Elliott: Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing and background? Where are you from, what kind of family were you raised in, and so forth?
Vishal Bakshi: I was born in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington D.C. but was raised in the small town of Fairfield, Iowa from the age of four. I grew up in a traditional Gujarati-Hindu family with parents who were concerned about the preservation of our culture while living in a rural Midwestern town. I am the youngest of three children and have thus witnessed a variety of different life experiences just by observing my older brother and sister. We owned a family restaurant so from a very young age my natural habitat was the kitchen. As a result, the emphasis on a disciplined work ethic was part of our daily lifestyle. Both my mother and my father have masters degrees so the expectations of a professional education were very strongly enforced throughout my childhood.
OE: You mentioned professional education. You’re about to complete your degree in structural engineering at the University of Illinois (generally considered one of the two best schools for the field on the planet). How did you get interested in the subject? What excites you about it? And, to begin tying this into your music, what inspiration do draw from it?
VBAK: I was always interested in science, mathematics and physics in high school. Originally I aspired to be a high school physics teacher but was shepherded into the field of engineering as a more financially secure alternative. My journey with engineering has gone through an odd path. I started out as an undeclared engineering student after which I chose Mechanical Engineering as my focus. A couple semesters into it I started to lose my initial passion and was considering a switch to Architecture, being inspired by both my father and brother, who were architects. Instead I remained on the technical side of building design and thus added on a second major of Civil Engineering and that led me to pursue the current Masters degree. My excitement for Structural Engineering comes from the fact that it is the act of creating something that has both functionality and aesthetic. I saw it as form of art derived from the laws of physics.
I have written and recorded some form of poetry and rap since I was in 7th grade. Some of the pieces were used as literary academic assignments and others for recreation. In my junior year at Iowa State I took an honors elective focusing on Slam Poetry where my passion for writing was rekindled. The first poem I wrote with a serious intent was titled “New York City Structural Engineer”, written after I had job shadowed at three of my dream firms in NYC. During the winter break before starting my graduate degree I wrote a few raps and recorded them using a basic computer microphone. From that point on I saw potential in my art and continued writing and recording, having accumulated about fifty songs over this past year.
OE: Why did you gravitate toward hip-hop as your choice of musical production? Do other genres interest you? Some of your recent work involves traditional Indian songs. Do you see yourself doing more blending of musical traditions in the future?
VBAK: My interest in hip-hop was birthed from an identity crisis. My family followed strict Hindu-Indian traditions and paradigms but my school day was filled with mainstream American culture. As a result, music become a third party escape that did not judge my lifestyle or habits. I grew up listening to a heavy dose of hip-hop and conscious rap as well as a steady interest in heavy metal, alternative rock and devotional Indian music. I fell in love with rap due to the ability of lyricism to deliver emotions and experiences with an attractive rhythm and attitude. My lyrics and my music are the artistic form of my life, and since my experiences have many cultural influences I seek to blend many musical traditions in my work. The further I develop the understanding of my own morals and principles, the more seamless that blend of traditions will become.
OE: You mentioned morals and principles. Your songs often have a moral element or are lyric depictions of your own convictions. Would you share with us some of your principles — be they work principles or ways to live your life day to day or whatever. And one thread in your recent work is religion and atheism, or as you phrase it “becoming your own god” instead of following one promoted by any of the established religions. How does this intersect with your thoughts on morality?
VBAK: In terms of choosing a direction in life, in the form of a profession, the most uncomfortable question I asked myself during my undergraduate career was “what is my purpose?” My parents rose from poverty in their childhood to achieve a strong middle class lifestyle so I always felt a sort of debt to them for giving me a healthier and more stable upbringing than they had. It is of course impossible to repay them so I intended to use my professional career to pay it forward and help those in need. The application of this purpose to make life decisions was not as clear. The fundamental core of any education system that is built to make someone successful in a capitalist industry is to train them to instrumentalize their skills to fulfill the clients needs and make a profit for themselves and their employer. The principle of humanitarianism is not a central component of any commonly taught engineering academic curriculum. So while my interests in math and physics were being fulfilled by engineering, the purpose that I lived for was being neglected.
At the same time I was reevaluating my own morals in life, more prevalently in the last couple of years. I am raised as a Hindu but my fundamental disagreement with the belief in God is the lack of ownership for one’s actions. If a positive event occured in my life, I was trained to thank God for creating that occurrence. If a negative event occurred, I was trained to defer its cause to the the theory of Karma. I began to see that the result of this type of thinking was that good people were not being credited for their good deeds, and evil individuals were not being held responsible for the harm they caused. So I was using two arbitrary ideas, God and past life Karma, which were outside of the realm of action that I could control, to justify my life experiences.
There are practical explanations to most events that happen in our life which can be traced back to specific decisions we took in the past. In order for me to progress I have to accept responsibility for my mistakes, analyze them, and learn from them. In order to improve my mental health I have to appreciate and celebrate the positive things that I do which bring me success. Instead of appreciating an imagined God for its prowess and admirable characteristics I want to reflect on my own flaws and pursue the necessary improvements needed for me to become a better human being. Instead of worshipping an external God I want to focus on becoming a highly efficient and productive human being who uses a diverse set of skills to improve the wellbeing of other humans.
OE: Tell me about the inspiration of the new mixtape. Tell me about the goals of your work.
VBAK: The inspiration for the mixtape came from the fact that my morals have changed significantly over the last year and I wanted a set of songs to act as a sort of biography or introduction to who I am and what my fundamental principles are at this point in time. I am in the middle of an ongoing effort to lose my dependency on other people’s validation and realize that there are no ultimatums in life other than death.
The goal of my work is to use my lyrical and musical abilities to inspire my generation to view themselves as great forces of change and apply themselves in life to reach their maximum potential. My goal is to spread truths about the state of society through analyzing social and political phenomena in my songs. I want my listeners to think more and believe less. The more attractive I can make that message sound, the better I can reach young minds like mine. In order to solve societal problems we must first reveal them. Societal issues will be revealed only through analysis and not with faith or belief, since they don’t use reasoning based on evidence. My goal is to analyze life and pass on my observations in lyrical form so that we can start thinking on how to resolve the issues we reveal.
OE: Last question. Where are you heading now and why?
VBAK: I am fortunate enough to have been accepted by Teach For America and will be teaching secondary mathematics in Detroit starting this August. I have always sought to find a career where I can make a positive difference in the lives of those who are under-privileged, and this is the first milestone towards that goal. My initial dream of becoming a teacher took a path that traversed through six years of engineering, and as with all life experiences that challenge us, I’ve become a better human being because of it.
Musically I’m starting to gain a feel for my style and I plan to release another mixtape sometime this summer. My focus is to dive into the trenches and thoroughly analyze the social issues that are of great importance to me and the people I love. I want to discuss the uncomfortable realities of sexism, classism, and racism that inconspicuously find their way into our everyday lives. I want to use reason and logic to cut through the fog of religion and faith that have blurred the decision making capabilities of the human race. I also feel a great amount of responsibility and obligation to my parents, grandparents, and ancestors to share my Gujarati heritage by incorporating its cultural music into my tracks.
Intellectually I am starting to build a framework of philosophical thought by studying the works of Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, and other beautiful minds. My formal education lacked a sufficient training in the liberal arts, so I do as much as I can by reading on my own time. Why am I doing all of this? I think it’s crucial to understand how to interpret the world around me before I can make any significant contribution to improving it. I need to learn how to identify morals that help human well being, and those that harm, since they are often veiled by those with ill intentions. There is no destination of intellectual competence that I seek to obtain, I simply want to improve my ability to analyze the world around me every day so that I can help those who suffer from injustice, and prevent those who spread it.