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Being a Socially Conscious Musician

Nobel laureate Amartya Sens son Kabir is famous in his own right as a hip hop star. While writing his senior-year thesis on revolutionary lyrics at Wesleyan, Kabir found he was starting to incorporate some of that into his own sound.
Hip hop star, Kabir Sen, works elements of jazz,  rock, funk, soul, R&B and Indian music into his sound. Photo by: Lolita Parker Jr.

Kabir Sen has released four albums featuring his eloquent words straddling an edgy hip-hop beat.He studied Carnatic and jazz music at liberal arts institution, Wesleyan University, where he wrote his senior-year thesis on the revolutionary lyrics of hip-hop artists throughout history.

“I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to write about socially conscious music as much as I wanted to actually create it,” said Kabir Sen, who works elements of jazz, rock, funk, soul, R&B and Indian music into his sound.

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

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

Not surprisingly, Kabir who is the son of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Italian economist Eva Colorni, talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about the importance of developing a passion for learning.

What is the formal music training you have had?

“I look at music as a universal language that enables people to communicate ideas. Your experiences drive who you are as a musician.”

I first started playing piano when I was four and I actually began taking lessons because a close friend of my father and mother in London was a music teacher, and she lived right around the corner. I started taking music lessons with her and then received some more formal training at the Longy School of Music, in Cambridge, when I moved to the U.S. I continued to develop my interest in music, both as a student and as a teacher at Shady Hill School - where I work now  a music taseacher - and it is at this school that I have had a lot of experiences in music that have been very formative.

After high school I went on to become a music major at Wesleyan University. I graduated with an honors degree in Music.

A lot of musicians have winged it without going to music school; so how important is it for musicians to get formal music training?

It really depends on what you want to do. There is no one right answer to what you are asking. If you want to be a classical violinist in a philharmonic orchestra, you obviously need immense amounts of training to even be considered; you need to jump through those hoops. If you are going to be a musician in a band, sight-reading and ear-training certainly help develop your ability to communicate with other musicians, learn music quickly, write your own music, etc.

At the same time, there have been a lot of great musicians who have never been to school and have a great ear for music. They can’t necessarily write or read music, but they have great ideas and an ear for music. I certainly try not to be too much of a purist about it. I look at music as a universal language that enables people to communicate ideas. Your experiences drive who you are as a musician.

I presume that your formal training helps you in your current role as a teacher?

“…a lot of my experiences as a performer and a hip hop artist have also helped me develop skills as a teacher.”

Absolutely, it does. I was a member of Shady Hill School's TTC —a teacher training program from which I received a Masters degree in elementary education. But my bachelor's degree was in music. Having my BA in Music certainly helped me in terms of getting a music teaching job. And, then also a lot of my experiences as a performer and a hip hop artist have also helped me develop skills as a teacher.

I bet being a hip hop star makes you a cool teacher.

I think the kids definitely see me as an artist as well as a teacher. They see that I have a musical life outside of being a teacher. They see that I am a musician that is a recording and performing artist. They can see that I have passion, and that I have got something out of music beyond what I am just teaching children.

Can you talk a little about your BA in music?

It was a combination of work on jazz instruments and a study of South Indian vocal music. I actually studied Carnatic music with the late T. Viswanathan who was a very famous flute player. I also studied some South Indian vocal music with him. That was a great experience and a tremendous honor. I studied a lot of jazz music at Wesleyan University, and also wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of hip hop.

In writing about hip hop and socially conscious music I found that I was starting to integrate some message-oriented lyrics into my own sound. I realized I didn’t necessarily want to write about socially conscious music as much as I wanted to actually create it myself.

You have released four albums, you are working on your fifth and you have also done some producing.

“Being a learner beyond the academic world and continuing to learn and self-improve is important.”

After putting out my first two albums independently, I released my third album with a label. I then released my fourth album on my own. Nowadays the standards of technology have changed in such a way that the power of the actual album is less important than making your albums widely available as individual MP3s. On a number of levels, putting your album out is now easier without a label.

For example, I have spent a lot of time, effort and money on my fifth album. I have hired musicians and hip hop artists who I admire immensely, and I have learned a lot along the way. To then hand over the album to a label would feel a little like an anti-climatic finish to this project. However, if a label offered me opportunities that would not otherwise be available to me, I would have to consider it.

Everyone loves the idea of being a rock star, but making it big as a recording artist has always been the longest of career long shots. What would you tell a young person looking at a musical career?

I would definitely tell them to get an education - whether it is going to music school - or just going to school. Despite any number of breaks of good luck that you may or may not receive along the way, having an education is something no one can take away from you once you have gone through it. I think it is important to be a life-long learner. Being a learner beyond the academic world and continuing to learn and self-improve is important. I recommend that kids go to school and develop a life-long passion for learning.

Podcast : Just Me by Kabir Sen

 

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