September 24, 2020 | Arts and Culture
the birth of the uncool
on jai paul and desirability politics
Growing up, it didn’t take me very long to realize that I was wholly and hopelessly uncool. From racist elementary school rejections of friendship to the “popular” girl in high school posting a photo of me on her finsta captioned “hello my name is Baljeet,” the first-generation Indian American mantra has been made clear to me: erase your culture or be erased. It’s not that I’ve been isolated because of this—I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family and countless close friends—but I quickly learned that within this white supremacist culture that loves claiming yoga, chai, and chicken tikka masala as its own, I am deemed undesirable. My lack of assigned social worth wasn’t something I mourned. By my senior year of high school, after normal adolescent spells of crippling insecurity, I felt comfortable in the unrelenting status placed on me: the uncool Indian guy. I no longer cared for popularity or social capital—or more truthfully, I gave up hoping for either.
My first semester at Brown, although overflowing with beautiful faces and liquid-gold laughter, was underpinned by the return of likability politics to my life. At the center of the hurricane of orientation and shopping period lay my fears of not making friends, not sticking out enough to fit in. I needed to be interesting, alluring, charming, and attractive—adjectives that, as an earnest Indian American kid, had never been associated with me. Brown constantly reminded me of this. On my first day of classes, I overheard a clerk at the bookstore telling her coworker that “only the nerdy Asian kids buy graph paper.” I blushed at the graph notebook in my hands and put it back on the shelf.
At that point, my understanding of American cool centered around carelessness, a too-cool-to-try, sad-white-skater-boy type of self-destructive ennui that felt perversely achievable. Before I knew it, the presentation of my identity shifted in the pursuit of cool. Authenticity took a backseat in my carnivorous search for likeability. I only later realized that what’s cool is whiteness and its voracious appetite for the destructive appropriation of marginalized cultures. Before I understood the impossibility of someone like me achieving this, I had already lost myself in the futile pursuit of hip anhedonia.
I first listened to British Indian singer, songwriter, and producer Jai Paul at the suggestion of a friend. I put on Paul’s 2007 demo, BTSTU, at the end of the first semester while cleaning in my room, as was my Friday tradition. The song starts with a bizarre metallic wind flitting from left to right, followed by a repeating, silky, layered vocal line that sneaks in. I listened attentively as Paul began to murmur over the layered vocals in a delicate falsetto, Don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me. That’s when I stopped sweeping. A thick bass drum and a cutting snare came in, and a few bars later, I thought my speakers had exploded. The beat dropped, and weaving in and out of a stunning, imploding metallic synth, Paul sang, I’m back and I want what is mine. I was floored. The sounds on BTSTU are the kind you can’t imagine exist until you hear them, and once you do, the limits of music change permanently. Safe to say, BTSTU – Demo is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and the next months were spent listening to the little else Paul had released, in furious search of the little known about the reclusive star.
I quickly found that following the official 2010 release of BTSTU on Soundcloud, Paul’s career took off. A trailblazer of internet hype, after just one song, he was signed by XL Recordings, BTSTU was sampled by Drake and Beyoncé, and an album was rumored to be in the works. Despite the excitement, Paul kept deep in the shadows: no interviews, no social media, no statement. He dropped another earth-shattering demo, jasmine, and the indie world realized that BTSTU wasn’t a fluke and Jai was an undeniable talent. After a year of radio silence, on April 13th of 2013, Paul’s debut album appeared unannounced on Bandcamp, only to be taken down just a few days later, accompanied by his first ever tweet: To confirm: demos on bandcamp were not uploaded by me, this is not my debut album. Please dont buy. Statement to follow later. Thanks, Jai. For people like me, Jai Paul’s story sounds too familiar. A brown-skinned artist has his creations, life, and narrative taken from him by a Western world that thinks he exists to serve their personal interests. Also, I think BTSTU makes a great postcolonial rally cry for reparations: Don’t fuck with me… I’m back and I want what is mine…
Exploitative, click-obsessed music media was quick to claim the leak was Jai’s own doing, a hype tactic like his reclusiveness, despite Paul’s communications. In response, Paul went silent for six years, reappearing in 2019, when he released a statement alongside a still unfinished version of the 2013 leak onto streaming services, as well as a brilliant double B-side of two new songs. Jai’s statement, sensitive and pained, outlines the emotional fallout after the leak. “I guess having that dream torn up in front of me hit pretty hard… I was in quite a bad place for some time,” he writes. He credits therapy and the founding of the Paul Institute, a studio where he develops talented artists, as helping him to think about returning to music. This past summer, the Paul Institute quietly released their Summer 2020 EP, filled with retrofuturistic pop and sultry R&B synth leads. Half of the artists on the EP are South Asian.
For many, even a decade after their releases, BTSTU and Bait Ones are a revelation about the limits of what music can sound like, an intimate and intergalactic sonic journey far away from this universe, complete with laser zaps and synths that sound three-dimensional. For me, however, Jai Paul takes me home, the sonic equivalent of that shrinking space between “Indian” and “Western” that defines so much of who I am. In a house with my Bollywood-loving parents and older sisters, I grew up on filmi, music written for Indian movies. Outside of the Vani Jairam sample on Str8 Outta Mumbai, the surface of Paul’s music—drawing on Prince, D’Angelo, and Michael Jackson—doesn’t sound anything like the filmi I grew up with, but Desi culture pulses at the core of every one of his songs. Paul’s layered, distorted, and expansive production are as colorful as Holi, as explosive as my dad’s chicken curry, and as bright as our annual Diwali fireworks, while his smooth falsetto and memorable melodies are as sweet as my aunt’s gulab jamun and as pretty as a young Kajol. His use of off-kilter rhythms and syncopated handclaps is often attributed to J Dilla, but to me, it sounds like the head-wobbling, shoulder-bobbing tablas that drive those ill-advised dance numbers at every crazy Indian wedding. But the success of Paul’s music is not a commercialization of ‘exotic’ Indian culture for Western ears—Jai takes the Western and Indian in stride, and in his case (as I hope in mine), the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Listening to Jai Paul’s music, I feel seen. Still, representation is about more than that: it’s about creating narrative freedom for those in society who are given the least. For me, Jai’s narrative is liberating. Sure, with his loyal Western fans, Jai proves that Indian people can be alluring even within this culture that worships whiteness. But more importantly, Jai says it simply doesn’t matter. As made clear by his tiny discography and allergy to attention, Jai is unconcerned with approval. Deep in Paul’s videogame-like website appears a compilation of online references to him: let’s talk about how Jai Paul missed his chance; Who’s a bigger dickhead, Jai Paul or Jay Electronica?; I’m 100% convinced that man leaked his own album. With or without his devoted audience, I think Jai would remain the same. Sure, he might still be publishing music, but his perfectionist, self-contained approach to songwriting seems to come from meditative and creative joy. Jai Paul shows me that as an Indian American, as a person, I can live well without being perceived well. This simple realization, that being well-liked isn’t a worthwhile pursuit, liberated me. Now, I’m far from free from insecurity, but in small moments, when the racist Skechers TikTok song comes on, I’m compared to Baljeet, or a clerk stereotypes my graph paper, I might just keep that graph paper in hand. More often now, I’m liking what I like because it brings me joy. Acting the way my intuition directs me to. I’m not there yet, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Thank you, Jai.