You’ve heard of Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, Lilly Singh, and recently Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, but who else have you heard of? There are not many South Asian creatives and influencers who have been able to reach mainstream Western media.
Often within South Asian communities, there is a significant emphasis on finding a stable 9 to 5 job. This is common in Asian countries; due to large population sizes, there is always competition for positions. Fields such as medicine, engineering, and law are valued for their stability. The idea is that even if you are mediocre in these fields, you will receive a decent salary.
This concept, paired with the fact that Asians make up less than one percent of the entertainment and art industry, has resulted in a limited number of South Asian creators in Western media. However, there are still South Asian origin creators who are making significant strides and changes within the community.
Here is a list of South Asian creators and influencers, each in different types of creative fields, who are breaking the barriers of Western mainstream media and pushing societal norms through their work.
Raveena is a singer-songwriter whose songs mesmerize listeners with their warbling synths, soft piano, delicate harps, and hypnotic, honey-like vocals. Influenced by the Sikh practices and North Indian parents that she grew up with, Raveena’s music marries the experience of the South Asian diaspora with contemporary R&B and soul.
Raveena has released several EPs and a long album, each portraying a different aspect of her life. The title track of her first EP, If Only, discusses a broken, toxic relationship, but pairs it with a magical, whimsical sound.
Lucid, her 2019 debut album, tells the story of her healing process after an abusive relationship, as well as the intergenerational trauma experienced while growing up as a child of Indian immigrant parents, all while incorporating themes of sexual liberation and spiritual self-healing.
“It can definitely be challenging being a South Asian artist and not having a lot to go off of in Western music culture,” Raveena described in an interview with the website, them. “It’s easy to feel super displaced and confused, like ‘Where do I fit into all this?’ But that’s also the most exciting part about it; there isn’t a framework, so you can invent your own.”
Raveena is heavily involved not only in the music production aspect of her work, but also in her video production. In the music video for her song “Temptations,” Raveena created a dream-like garden sequence, a style often used in Bollywood, to come out to her family and friends as bisexual.
“Growing up, South Asian culture and queer culture felt like oil and water. Something that just simply couldn’t mix,” Raveena said via Instagram when the video dropped.
“I’m pretty sure I liked girls before I liked boys, but it took me until this year, in my 20s, to be able to verbalize and know in my heart that this is one of my truths. I hope that for lil brown girls in the future, their queerness will feel nothing short of completely, 100% mundane and normal,” Raveena said.
2. Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok (they/them) is an Indian-American gender nonconforming writer and performer. Alok is known for challenging the gender binary through fashion, performance, poetry, and prose. Alok’s mission is to create a new beauty paradigm based on self-acceptance and self-actualization rather than conformity.
According to their official website, Alok is “the author of Femme in Public (2017) and Beyond the Gender Binary (2020). In 2019, they were honored as one of NBC’s Pride 50 and Out Magazine’s OUT 100.” In an interview with CNN, Alok discussed the challenges they have faced in their quest to create a new beauty paradigm.
They described how a stranger told them they would be more “convincing” if they shaved their beard. Alok described this experience as realizing the “danger” of beauty.
“Marginalized people learn from an early age that beauty is often about power,” Alok stated. “We see the fair, thin, and gender-conforming among us called ‘beautiful,’ while the rest of us are meant to spend our entire lives aspiring to be like them.”
Alok also has a large presence on Instagram, where they advocate for the recognition of Black, Indigenous, and people of color(BIPOC) non-binary individuals. One of their most bold and groundbreaking posts addresses the concept of “white feminism,” a form of feminism that focuses solely on the struggles of straight, cis-gendered white women. It does not include BIPOC women and LGBTQIA+ women.
The post depicts an image of Alok wearing a dress, surrounded by hate comments including “You don’t need feminism to wear that ridiculous outfit” and “Feminism is about women, Alok. Make up your own movement.” Alok took to their caption to further discuss the severity and detrimental effects of these comments.
“Womanhood is far more expansive than reproductive function. There are plenty of men and non-binary people who can give birth and plenty of women who cannot,” said Alok.
“But this has never been about facts or even cognition. This has always been about a deep, ingrained hatred and distrust for us. In order for patriarchy to work, we must be demeaned and disappeared.”
3. Maria Qamar
Maria Qamar is a Pakistani-Canadian artist best known for her South Asian art, which she posts on her Instagram, @hatecopy. “Hatecopy” is a name that Qamar coined during her college years out of distaste for copy-writing, the career she was forced to pursue instead of the arts.
Her art gives her 196K followers a peek into the trials of the young South Asian woman’s 21st-century experience. Her comic-like desi pop art displays humorous, relatable situations for those who have grown up in Western countries. Qamar’s artwork encourages female empowerment through witty Hinglish responses to taboo topics within the desi community.
Not only has Qamar’s art been hugely successful on social media, but it has also been successful in the physical world. Qamar has decorated the sets of The Mindy Project, painted a large mural on New York City’s Bombay Bread, and even graced the cover of Elle Canada.
Qamar’s most notable work, however, was her exhibition titled “Fraaaandship!” in Richard Taittinger Gallery in New York City. The term “fraaaandship” is a euphemism of sex used by many South Asian men towards women. Qamar’s artwork counters the patriarchal undertones of this phrase by depicting strong, freethinking, sex-positive South Asian women.
While her work may portray Bollywood-esque beauties, Qamar also aims to direct her work towards other women of color.
“These are specifically the things that I have gone through that have been obstacles in my life,” Qamar stated in an interview with Art News.
“But don’t we all get bullied or picked on for being different? We’re not that different—we’re fighting for basic human rights for women and women of color.”
4. Deepica Mutyala
Deepica Mutyala is a South Indian American beauty YouTuber and social media influencer. Mutyala is best known for a viral video that took the beauty world by storm when she used red lipstick as a color corrector to cover dark undereye circles. Dark circles and hyper-pigmentation are skin conditions that South Asians and other BIPOC face.
Since that viral video, which now has over 10 million views, the 31-year-old beauty influencer has worked with The Today Show, collaborated with several makeup brands as an influencer, and starred in commercials for Samsung and L’Oreal.
Last year, Mutyala launched the Huestick, a product inspired by the Instagram community she built called “Live Tinted.” The Huestick is the first of its kind; it is a color corrector and multi-stick product. It can be used as a lipstick, eye-shadow, blush, or color corrector that can be dabbed on dark circles, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots.
In an interview with Forbes, Mutyala described how she built a “community first” product. She mentioned how it all began with her asking for product recommendations for dark circles. Mutayla even went a step beyond simply digital engagement and had members of the Live Tinted community try the products.
“We want to continue to ethically and responsibly reach the heights of financial success so that we can feed this process of social listening, product development, and continuous improvement,” Mutyala said.
“Above all, we want to disrupt the beauty industry and normalize diversity and representation.”
5. Sandhya Menon
Sandhya Menon is a New York Times bestselling young adult fiction and romance author whose novels tell wholesome, heartwarming, romantic tales of Indian-American teenagers. Menon’s books contain stories of growing up in the South Asian culture that do not succumb to the stereotypes of an oppressed and depressed Brown community.
Each of Menon’s characters represents a diverse range of the Brown experience. However, what is unique about her characters is that being Indian is not the driving factor of their stories.
Her debut novel, When Dimple Met Rishi, is a love story between two college freshmen: Dimple, who is driven to prove herself as a coder, and Rishi, who is afraid to take the leap to pursue his passion as a comic artist.
From Twinkle, With Love is an epistolary novel about a 16-year-old who wants to be a filmmaker but is afraid that there is no room for her voice.
There’s Something About Sweetie tells the story of Sweetie, a confident, plus-size track star, and Ashish, a heartbroken basketball player, and how the two hide their relationship from Sweetie’s fat-shaming but well-meaning mother.
“I really just wanted to tell more fluffy, rom-com stories about all different kinds of people,” Menon said in an interview with YouTube channel xreadingsolacex.
“I feel like we don’t have enough of that, especially with marginalized communities, and so I just wanted to tell a story that wasn’t an issue book. And those are so important, but I wanted to tell a different kind of story.”
6. Hari Kondabolu
In Hari Kondabolu’s Twitter bio, he describes himself as a “Comic from Queens living in Brooklyn.” The 37-year-old stand-up comedian uses his platform to tell jokes about the racism and the divide that American politics has created among his people.
However, he is best known for the documentary The Problem with Apu. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a character on the Simpsons that is meant to be a caricature of the South Asian immigrant community in the United States. It is meant to represent the “white man’s perception of Indian immigrants.”
In the documentary, Kondabolu talks about how the stereotypes Apu perpetuated hung over the heads of many South Asian Americans in his generation. Kondabolu does not argue for the removal of Apu, but rather for a discussion as to how stereotypes in the media can be harmful.
In an interview on Emily Todd VanDerWerff’s podcast I Think You’re Interesting, Kondabolu said, “I feel like the story isn’t ‘What do we do with this Apu character?’ The point of the whole story was really to do what Whoopi Goldberg did. She’s not saying ‘go and destroy all the blackface artifacts from the past.’ She’s saying ‘let’s talk about it and put it up out front. Let’s recontextualize these things and put it in front of you and talk about them.’ This was my ‘Minstrel Black Americana’ collection. She calls it her ‘Negrobilia.’ This is what it was for me.”
Kondabolu received severe backlash from many people for his work. He often received death threats and hate mail for “bad-mouthing the Simpsons.” The Simpsons even alluded to the documentary in the episode in one of their own episodes.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” said Simpson character Lisa after glancing at a frame of Apu, with the phrase “Don’t have a cow!” written on the photo.
While this might not have been the response many South Asians wanted, this scene proved that Kondabolu’s message had been heard by the creators.
“In The Problem with Apu, I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups and why this is important,” the comedian tweeted in response to the episode. “The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”
These are only a few of the brilliant South Asian creators who are paving their paths into Western media. There are plenty of other fantastic South Asian creators who are making their marks and initiating changes in their own ways.
As the South Asian diaspora continues to grow, it is becoming even more pivotal for the community to share their experiences and their work. It is our time to shine and show the world the change that we are capable of creating.