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Hip Hop Artist Kabir Sen Breaks the Mould

A strand of modern American music has gained tremendous momentum from its humble beginnings in the Bronx to its transformation into an urban cultural phenomenon. It has spawned a thriving industry, hip-hop inspired literature, young political activists and the movement's own intelligentsia. Kabir Sen is one of hip hop’s finest wordsmiths.

NEW YORK – Hip hop,a culture that began in the late '70s now has an almost universal influence on global youth. Beneath the glitz of mainstream commercial hip-hop, there's an underground movement of "conscious rap." Critically-acclaimed musician Kabir Sen sells thousands of albums by using the rhythms and wordplay of hip hop to address social issues.

Kabir Sen has released four albums and is one of hip-hop’s finest wordsmiths. Photo by: Rebecca Foy 

Kabir, a devoted husband and dad to two young girls, focuses on message-heavy lyrics away from sex and violence. A Boston area native, Kabir has released four albums featuring his eloquent lyricism.

Kabir, a devoted husband and dad to two young girls, focuses on message-heavy lyrics away from sex and violence. A Boston area native, Kabir has released four albums featuring his eloquent lyricism.

“I'm currently hard at work on my fifth album which has the working title 'Olympic Gold' at this point. I have recorded a number of songs with some amazing hip hop artists whom I have been influenced by over the years — Mr. Lif, Akrobatik and Ed O.G. who are all Boston hip hop legends, and California-based rappers, Lyrics Born and Gift of Gab from the group Blackalicious,” says Kabir.

Nothing could have prepared Nobel laureate Amartya Sen for a son who is famous in his own right, in a world much removed from the rarified groves of academia. However, Kabir, says his father played a whimsical role in his musical destiny.

“I started playing the piano when I was four and I considered quitting by the time I was 12 because I was tired of practicing the scales. He talked me out of it and told me that if I stuck with it, I would not regret it — he was right of course!” laughs Kabir, who graduated from liberal arts institution Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, U.S., with an Honors degree in music.

Kabir now has a frenetic life as a recording and performing artist, producer, hip hop educator, and music teacher, at his alma mater Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“He does not know much about hip hop per se, but I think that my father appreciates the lyrical and message-oriented content of my music,” he says. 

Kabir now has a frenetic life as a recording and performing artist, producer, hip hop educator and music teacher at his alma mater Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As an eight-year-old growing up in London, Kabir suddenly lost his Italian- Jewish mother, Eva Colorni, who was a brilliant economist, to cancer. Sen wanted to take his young children — Indrani and Kabir to another country, where they would not miss their mother constantly. So he started teaching Economics at Harvard and Kabir soon picked up the university town’s musical vibe.

“Both my themes come together in ‘Peaceful Solutions’. It is also about re-channeling negative energy and the power of respect, kindness and positive thinking”

"Kabir has been playing music since he was walking. He has always been certain about what he wants. When he was a kid he played all sorts of instruments — piano, guitar and briefly the violin which was not a very great phase for us," says elder sister Indrani Sen,  who is a New York based journalist.

"When he was 11, he used to take his band to Harvard Square where he would busk for coins," recalls Indrani. "I am his biggest fan, and my father is also very proud of Kabir for the music he is making and the message he is trying to get out."

All four of Kabir’s albums — 'Cultural Confusion' (2001), 'Fuel for the Fire' (2003), 'Peaceful Solutions' (2006) and 'The Time is Now' (2010) — have a distinctive sound and identity.

When his first album, 'Cultural Confusion' was released, in 2002, it was featured on the cover of Billboard. Not surprisingly, 'Cultural Confusion' was a journey of self-discovery and drew on his earl, rapid exposure to several cultures — Indian, Italian, British and American. The second album 'Fuel for the Fire' has a more universal theme with tracks on love, hate and jealousy.

“The main departure Kabir brings to hip hop and rap is to be constructive and integrative without losing the force of subversion which gives this type of music its power,” says Amartya Sen, the Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University.

“Both my themes come together in ‘Peaceful Solutions’. It is also about re-channeling negative energy and the power of respect, kindness and positive thinking," says Kabir, "There are different musical styles on the album: funk, soul, blues and Indian music are all prevalent and hip hop is the sound that sort of ties it all together."

“I grew up listening to Indian music, particularly the music of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussein. My grandmother bought me a tabla when I was in high school which opened up a whole new world of rhythmic interests. I also studied South Indian vocal music at Wesleyan, with the late T. Viswanathan.” 

Kabir, who was featured in Raeshem Nijhon’s hip hop film 'Brown Like Dat' with artists including Chee Malabar from Himalayan Project, D'Lo, Jugular, and Karmacy, has come to represent a breakout generation of South Asian hip hop artists with a growing fan base.

“The main departure Kabir brings to hip hop and rap is to be constructive and integrative without losing the force of subversion which gives this type of music its power," says Amartya Sen, "rather than using that subversion for violence and conflict, he goes for peace and construction. It is not smug music about the world — it seeks change,” he says  - words of a father who is proud of his son. 

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