Hip-hop artist Kaly, 29, is committed to speaking on topics that matter, like diversity—and will stop at nothing to make sure his music is heard by the right people.
Like many South Asian immigrant families, Kaly and his family struggled to overcome obstacles in order to taste the American dream.
“We struggled, as most people do when they first come here [United States] and overcame a lot of hardships in the pursuit of the American dream,” the New Jersey resident, said. “I had what I think was a normal upbringing as a South Asian kid–my parents were incredibly strict with me; I saw and heard a lot of things I shouldn’t have at that age.”
In spite of his home life, growing up, the rap culture and the unending inspiration he found in great rappers spoke to him with conviction and struck a lasting chord with the soon-to-be artist. Kaly said he appreciates other hip-hop artists like DMX, Killer Mike, Big Krit and 2Pac.
Kaly said there was not a single, significant moment when he realized rap was his career. Instead, it felt as if rap had chosen him, not to mention his ability to recite lyrics deemed him a rapper in others’ eyes.
While Kaly doesn’t necessarily remember the first time he penned lyrics, he does remember the common theme behind them: women.
“I can 100 percent tell you it had to do with a girl,” Kaly said. “I used to write poetry and decided to set it to music eventually, to impress a girl, and the rest is history.”
On the outside, everything seemed to fall into place, but it wasn’t much of a surprise to him that his parents resisted indulging him in his dream of becoming a professional rapper. Kaly said his parents had the same assumptions many have about rap—that it merely preaches violence.
“It wasn’t even a phase to them, it was just something ridiculous,” he continued. “They had the same preconceptions that everyone else does, I guess, that it’s just violent, nonsensical music. I definitely kept it a secret for as long as I could, but I think they always knew. Things were a mess between them and I for a long time, and saying ‘I rapped’ didn’t make it any easier.”
Though he kept it a secret, working on his craft over time, Kaly said he noticed the evolution of the rap industry and how the stereotype of what it means to be a rapper has blurred.
“You have so many different types of rappers out there, and you don’t necessarily have to be the biggest tough guy in order to make it,” he said. “Conversely, you really don’t need to be authentic in any way at all nowadays, so it’s a gift and a curse.”
Not a newcomer to the music business, Kaly has put out a few albums to date, all with different themes.
“I want to give people a whole world every time I give them something,” the rapper said. “I want to give them a movie. I want them to be able to see the entire vision. The only important way in which I hope each album differs is, I hope that I grow each time I put something out.”
His most recent album, “Letters of Agrabah,” is something that Kaly is very pleased with he said, but still finds it challenging to get his music into the right hands.
“I’m at the point now where I can say I do good work,” Kaly said. “The problem is getting that work heard by the most people you can.”
Because of his diverse and innovative style, Kaly said he knows criticism is also part of the deal. He knows that alongside people who don’t like his music, there will always be avid supporters.
“All I can do is create the most honest and organic music I can,” Kaly said. ” As long as I know I didn’t bow to some trend or sell out in some way, I’m happy with what I put out. I’ve come to learn that I’m my own toughest critic, so trust and believe that whenever I put something out, I stand 100 percent behind it.”
He added: “For the most part, I try to just be natural. Everyone isn’t going to understand me and where I come from, and I’ve come to terms with that. We’re all human, we all judge the book by its cover, no matter how much we say we don’t.”
While he focuses on his own path, Kaly has strong opinions on the lack of South Asians in the music industry and raises questions as to why so many remain behind the scenes.
“I think diversity is still lacking, and I speak on that from a personal viewpoint,” he said. “I look around and I almost never see a brown face as a legitimate artist. It’s crazy to me because there are a lot of South Asians behind the scenes, and I’m not sure if it’s our culture or the nature of fame, but we don’t help one another unless someone else cosigns it.”
This is disappointing, Kaly elaborates, precisely because South Asians have so much creative energy to offer.
“As far as I know, our background is rife with hardship and setbacks, all of the subject matter that creates incredible art,” he continued. “On top of that, our culture is one of the most beautiful on the planet–companies and individuals constantly use our culture as a means of inspiration.”
Kaly notes that he feels there isn’t enough openness for diversity within the South Asian community because of the narrow acceptance of career choices that are imposed early and often.
“It’s almost like we as a culture have deemed it impossible for there to ever be a South Asian rapper,” Kaly said. “Because, you know, with more than a billion South Asians on this planet, it’s rational to think none of them would be good at rap.”
Even though Kaly is pushing the envelope within the South Asian community and fights for more diversification all around, music still remains his prime focus.
“I have no illusions of grandeur, I don’t care to be a star or make tons of money,” he said. “Those things would, of course, be nice.”
“I just want people, everyone, to know that we [South Asians] can be successful at this as well.” Kaly continued, “There are no limits to our power and it’s about time we take back our own culture and showcase our stories.”