We had the good fortune of connecting with Nina Shekhar and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nina, let’s start by talking about what inspires you?
Fear of the unknown inspires me. We are each experiencing our current unprecedented health, economic, political, and social climate wildly differently, a fact that requires us to engage with our communities more deeply than ever before. My identity is inherently limited – there’s no way I can automatically know another person’s experience and the factors that shape who they are. But I can constantly learn and better understand the intersections between my identity and theirs. And that’s what makes identity such an exciting creative challenge.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
As a first-generation Indian American, I grew up in two worlds. During meals, my family would enjoy eating my mom’s spicy chicken curry and my dad’s palak paneer, alongside macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. I grew up not realizing that this hybridized experience was unique, and I was very proud of our immigrant identity, especially the sacrifices that my parents made when first coming to the U.S. But in a society that tries so hard to suppress brown joy and limit the voices of brown and black people, it wasn’t always easy for me to be my whole self unapologetically. I felt a lot of pressure to conform to institutional (and often white) systems of artmaking, always being either pigeonholed or exoticized, and others kept trying to define me and my work based on their own limited needs and perceptions. No one asked me what brownness meant to me or wanted to know about the multidimensional array of experiences that shaped who I was. As I’ve grown as an artist, I’ve realized how important it is for me to define my music on my own terms. My work is centered around identity, allowing me to reclaim my brownness, womanhood, immigrant identity, and neurodiversity for myself. But more importantly, my work focuses on identity exchange – the unique overlaps between collaborators, other artists, audiences, communities, and myself and how to deepen our understanding of one another. My piece “rockabye-bye” (commissioned by the Lyris Quartet and LA’s HEAR NOW Music Festival) warps the lullaby “Rockabye Baby” to represent how parenthood has changed dramatically during the pandemic and is dedicated to my friends who recently became new parents. Another piece, “hush” (commissioned by the Ray-Kallay Duo), nostalgically plays with music box sounds and alternate tunings to resonate within your core and give you a musical hug.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The most special aspect of LA is its people, and how its people support one another. Once the world opens back up, I would first have them visit a public performance by Street Symphony, an organization that supports and provides free music workshops for Los Angeles communities too-often relegated to the margins of society. I would also take them to Donut Friend in downtown and split a Fudgegazi donut – a true chocolate miracle.
When I lived in LA, Echo Park Lake was a special place to unwind under a calm breeze, listen to the ducks, and munch on some treats sold by the local food vendors. Since the pandemic, it has also seen growth of a large unhoused community, and city officials have reacted by arresting those living in the park and deploying militarized action to break up protests supporting the community. As I mentioned earlier, my favorite aspect of LA is how its people support each other. Echo Park Lake is such a beautiful and important site, and what made it special was its diverse community of people. I think the current situation at Echo Park Lake is an important reminder of how we need to do more to support those whose voices are often left unheard, rather than take away their human right to a physical space to live.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’m so grateful to all of the people, environments, and experiences that continue to shape who I am. I wouldn’t be the person that I am (or even exist!) if it weren’t for my family. I love them so much, and my parents sacrificed so much to give my brother and I the best life and home they could. Seeing how brave and strong they constantly are, they’ve taught me to be proud of who I am, no matter the societal challenges we face. And my brother will always be my very best friend, and he was the first person that encouraged me to compose. I’ve also been immensely lucky to have the very best mentors that a young artist can ask for. All of my LA mentors – my professors during my time at USC, the leadership at the Young Musicians Foundation who supported my fellowship with the organization – they have each made me become a better human, taught me to think more deeply, and helped me define my values as an artist. I love them all dearly, and I’m beyond grateful for their constant support.
Other: Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/ninashekhar
Nina Shekhar, Recording dot LA, Eighth Blackbird, Third Angle New Music, National Sawdust, Malathy Shekhar