In celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Bridgette Kontner, A&R, sat down with Renao to chat about their mutual South Asian heritage and how it influences his music, from the musical inspirations he draws from to the collaborators he works with.
Bridgette: I’d love for you to talk about your story, growing up in India and moving to the UK.
Renao: I grew up in Bangalore — it’s like the San Francisco of India. I was always around people who spoke English, people who listened to English music; my parents listened to English music. So I was always around Western culture and then with the internet it became so much more accessible. That was probably only 20-30% of the population of the city but I was just around those people so to me it just felt like I was so into Western culture already, so it kind of felt like I was growing up in two different places at the same time. But I almost felt like there were certain aspects to my identity at home that I couldn’t truly express, like dying my hair. So I never really fully reached my true self-expression at the time, which I guess most people who live in small cities feel across the world.
It wasn’t until I moved to England that I finally had that moment to be like “Okay, this is what I really enjoy, there are the kinds of people I really enjoy hanging out with” — a full identity explosion of what I wanted to be. I don’t think it was the country so much as it was the people I met within that country. But also while I was in England at the time, I didn’t want to be the Indian kid, because as much as I was watching Western cinema and culture, Brown people weren’t portrayed in the best way so it’s a weird position to be in where you love Western cinema and love Western music, but the attitude towards Brown people had never been the greatest in that space. So as soon as I got there I was like “I’m going to be one of those people” so that’s why I changed my accent. I had loads of friends in India that had American accents people they went to international schools, so it was easy for me to put an accent on. I just didn’t want to be that kid, I didn’t want to be a stereotype in any way. Not that the people I did meet that are now my friends would have felt any different about me, it was just the assumption that they would. So I completely changed who I was almost, at least for my whole first year.
I felt like I was one of them, like I had everything nailed down, and I spent a couple of years in that phase of “I’m just fitting in right now, this is perfect” …or so I thought. It wasn’t until I started making this project that I realized that all of those parts of my story, those 19 years of existence in a different country that I never really told people about — I’ve just floated into this space and not expressed how much I am proud of that and how much I want people to know about it. That was why this project needed to be made. I called it the “space between orange and blue” because that gives you brown. That’s why the artwork is brown, as well. It’s the idea of how me as a Brown person exists in a Western space. I didn’t want to just be a guy who is just fitting in, I want to be a guy who has a story to tell. It’s not just a story for Brown people in Brown countries moving to the Western world — I’m trying to make something for Brown people everywhere, period. It’s about having confidence in your identity.
Representation and things like that are what can change and mold future generations to be like “cool, I can do that too.” I always used to listen to John Mayer but I never thought that I could be John Mayer. Not at one moment did that cross my mind, because I didn’t have someone to look at and think “that is going to be me.” And it’s weird because there are so many Brown people in the world — it’s kind of obvious that it has to happen at some point. Almost 2.5 or 3 billion people — it’s bound to happen at some point. I think that’s when I finally realized that even if it doesn’t initially connect and people don’t get it, I know that at least the Brown kids will.
I remember telling someone that I didn’t want to play too much into it because what if I just have one target audience — I want to be accessible to everyone. And that person’s response to me was just: “do you think white people listen to grime?” So it really doesn’t matter, people eventually are going to come around and listen to it, but you have to be honest about your story and tell people what it is that excites you and what it is that you are proud of. I think Brown people in general are always taught by their parents to not be too arrogant or confident, to never be the loudest in the room. You always want to come off as a nice, sweet person. I think now is the time for Brown people to not be arrogant, but be confident that that is who they are and they can be in a room full of white people and still be who they are.
So that is kind of the story. It’s taken 25 years to get to this point, but I’m glad it’s happened.
“I didn’t want to just be a guy who is just fitting in, I want to be a guy who has a story to tell.”
Bridgette: Did you ever feel pressured to make a certain kind of music or approach your career differently because of your identity? Did you ever feel like people expected something specific from you?
Renao: Initially, I didn’t want to think of my race at all, I just wanted to be like those other artists I loved. But I think what comes with that is — you know, there’s never been a Brown Frank Ocean. People don’t know what that looks like, so you have to educate people a little bit. They may think that there are things you should be doing, like as a Brown person you should have Hindi in your music or you should put xyz in your music. But because people haven’t seen that Brown version of those artists, they have no point of reference. Every person would give me a different idea or opinion of what they think I should be doing, but the truth of it is that because they have no reference point, they don’t really know. Now, I feel like clay that I can mold any way I want to. But the only way to do that is for me to put everyone’s opinion out of the way and just do what is true to me.
Bridgette: You also mentioned that a producer you worked with is part Indian, as well. Have you been able to collaborate with other South Asian creatives, in general?
Renao: Yeah, my whole press kit was done by this guy Amir Blacksocks — he’s shot everyone. He’s one of the most up-and-coming Brown photographers. It’s so interesting because so many Brown creatives exist, especially across fashion. There are so many people behind the scenes that are doing so well, but those stories obviously aren’t going to be at the forefront because they are going on behind the scenes. But there are some great people that do really, really good work and my main focus now is to build that network.
I want that to extend beyond everything I do. Fashion is such a big part of what I do, so I want to figure out who those people are. In women’s fashion there are so many, I could name them left and right, all the Brown creators doing well. There aren’t as many in menswear. That’s kind of where I’d start. But there is so much more great Brown music coming. There’s not enough, though. I think there’s still a lot to do. I worked with Dost, an online platform whose whole thing is that they basically started as a TikTok account just promoting Brown artists and it’s a really great platform.
There’s a lot more of that coming out of here but I think labels in general don’t understand yet how to market that, which is very interesting to navigate. Again, it’s never really been done before so it’s just so hard. But I feel like it’s time. I’d love an Indian girl band. That’d be so cool.
Bridgette: Yeah, like a BLACKPINK. And they’re also really breaking a lot of boundaries.
Renao: Yeah, and K-Pop is huge in India. My mum’s friend’s daughters have their bedrooms covered in K-Pop posters. It’s so intense, they’re buying all the merch. So it makes sense for there to be an Indian version of that now. There is probably 20-30% of the population that’s listening to English music, and that’s 400 million people. That’s bigger than America. I find that really interesting. So I’m just trying to connect with as many Brown people as possible. It’s nice to have people around that understand the daily vision of how life goes, because it’s harder to explain that sometimes.
“I was so programmed by a white lens, but now I’ll go back and I find so many things more fascinating than I ever did as a kid.”
Bridgette: In a lot of your lyrics there’s American imagery and references. Are there ways that your South Asian heritage has crept in? Perhaps even in less overt ways.
Renao: For me it’s always been about if it feels completely like me and authentic. A lot of what I love about India is more visual, and less sonic. The interlude on the project is so interesting because that’s my grandmother singing on it, and the reception that people have given me from that song makes me want to do more of that. It feels so great that people are connecting with that. It’s so interesting because that was the one where I didn’t want to go too on-the-nose with it — more people are actually connecting with me being more authentic. If you break that song down with the drums, it actually has a tabla feel to it which we didn’t even think of at the time. I’ve been sampling old Tamil songs and stuff like that from ages ago.
Now I find so many more things beautiful and fascinating because I’ve had this newfound sense of self-identity — I look at India in a completely different light. I was so programmed by a white lens, but now I’ll go back and I find so many things more fascinating than I ever did as a kid. As a kid I just wanted to get out and move somewhere else, but now I want to incorporate those things into what I do. Especially with the fashion side of things — India has probably one of the best textile industries in the world. It’s really nice to go back and have a much deeper connection with all of that. That’s really, really helped how I see the future of what I’m doing.