Richmond Rapper Embraces Indo-Fijian Identity and ‘Men With Money’

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Over punchy-uptempo beats with stupid-heavy bass lines, Pallaví AKA Fijiana turns social tropes on their heads. Her evocative visuals mix sexuality with tradition, while her lyrics address appropriation and the Indian diaspora.

Fijiana says her Indo-Fijian heritage, her Richmond upbringing and rap influences like Lil' Kim and Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets, helped create the artist and person she is today.

In making music that pushes social norms, she's encountered backlash with a heavy dose of sexism. Fijiana says a guiding light has been conversations with her father and his acceptance of her work.

This week Fijiana talks to us about all of that, and her latest album Thirst.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Pallaví AKA Fijiana.

Fijiana: I'm Indo-Fijian. And what happened was when African slavery became illegal, they started taking Indian people as indentured servants. Indentured like coolie people they didn't really have a choice. Like people try to make it seem like it! They were literally kidnaped! They were tricked. They were being told ‘we have work for you in the next city.’ Indian people were taken to a lot of different colonies all over the Caribbean and South Africa. And Fiji was one of them. They’d work in the most brutal conditions, I feel like “indentured servant” is just not a really good term for the system that we went through. But I we also don't want to mix it in with the Atlantic slave trade because that is also very different.

Pen (narration): As she says, after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the British empire set up a system of indentured servitude. It led to over 1 million people from India working in extremely harsh conditions around the world. Between 1879 to 1919 over 60 thousand Indians were shipped to British sugarcane plantations in Fiji. While some were kidnapped, others signed contracts they couldn't read that stripped them of their freedom. Many didn’t realize they were crossing an ocean, and some jumped ship when they saw India receding. In Fiji they were met with inadequate food and poor living conditions. This exploitation generated revenue for the ruling class and further established a social hierarchy. 

Fijiana: Indo-Fijians are still not accepted as Fijian people. I wasn’t actually too aware of that until I released the song Identity and I got a lot of pushback from my own community that did not like the fact that I claimed I was Fijian.

Pen: You said a term that I wanted to make sure we addressed early on in this conversation.

Fijiana: The “coolie” term was a derogatory term that the British would use for Indian people. It had a negative connotation, like, “oh, you're coolie, so you must be less than.” And it's a term that a lot of “coolie” people don't even like saying. But just like bitch is a term women reclaim… like, I don’t want a man to call me a bitch, but I’ll call myself a bitch and I’ll call my friend a bitch. “Coolie” is like that to me. I feel like you tried to suppress me with this term, but I am reclaiming it.

Pen: This reclamation of taking terms, taking ideas and flipping them on their head, it's something you've done recently as well through a song Sanskari Hoe… it's a hell of a title. What does sanskari mean?

Fijiana: Sanskari means traditional, it translates to someone that's traditional, someone who is very innocent and sweet and docile. The idea of this really perfect Indian woman, this South Asian woman, the one that you want to take home to your family. Taking a term like that and then adding hoe. It was it was meant to kind of say, like, I'm all of it!

Fijiana: If you look at Identity, Direction, and Sanskari Hoe, they're so different, they talk about such different things. And I think that's important to me as an artist that people see me as human and know that like I'm sexual, I'm spiritual, I'm political.

Pen: Tell me about the reaction that Sanskari Hoe has been getting, specifically on TikTok.

Fijiana: As of right now on TikTok, a lot of people are not liking it. It's interesting because I'm seeing them say they don't like the song, which I think is a valid critique because no one needs to actually like music, that's your opinion. But it feels like there’s a lot of misogyny wrapped into ‘oh, this is trash,’ but not being able to really articulate ‘I'm feeling very uncomfortable that someone like you is using such profanity centered lyrics.’ I had a comment on my video ‘you're going to reap the consequences, karma will get you.’ And I'm like, Karma is gonna get me for being sexual? I don't understand! All of these men's mothers do it… If you're here, that's what's happening!

Fijiana: I just feel like the internet doesn't leave a lot of space for nuance. On the internet, people don't really process the reasoning behind their discomfort. It just comes out as ‘I don't like things and that's it.’

Fijiana: … I'm Fijian, but I do come from the South Asian diaspora. And India in particular they have some of the highest rape cases. The way they treat women is insane! They have all these goddesses. But they don't respect the women walking down the street.

Pen: One of the issues that you're taking by the reins and flip it on its head is this issue of the male gaze. How are you flipping that?

Fijiana: I have a song called “Men With Money”... I like men who provide, I don't want to be the ride or die and wait for you to get your life together. I'm OK with liking men with money. [I’m] normalizing things that women tend to be demonized for that men seem to get away with…

Pen: During a previous conversation you mentioned you don't look at yourself necessarily as a trailblazer. Who do you see as doing the work before you?

Fijiana: Black women have been doing this work for years, particularly in the space of hip hop. Artists like Lil' Kim would just be like, ‘I'm a bad bitch, I'm really sexual and I'm OK with that.’ And that's been a way to take autonomy back in like a lot of male-dominated spaces. I'm still trying to learn how to navigate the space with as much integrity as I can, because appropriation is very real.

Pen: I can appreciate that acknowledgment of the history and also understanding of who you are and where you stand in the midst of everything. Beyond Bollywood, what other musical influences have you taken into your artistry?

Fijiana: I started getting into rap when my friend in high school told me I should start rapping Ladybug Mecca raps. Her lines in “Cool Like That.” And I would just do that all of the time!

Fijiana: I think music - and rap in particular - has helped me so much because I feel like I used to have a lot of mental health issues and rapping and writing have made me very aware of my emotions. Now there's a certain level of awareness where I can objectively look at them and write it down.

Pen: I'm wondering how has the Bay Area assisted you on your path to becoming an artist?

Fijiana: I don't think I'd be who I was without growing up in Richmond. It's interesting because it’s problematic as well because growing up in a predominantly Black and Latino community, I think Black culture was actually the dominant culture growing up... You kind of see yourself putting on caricatures and trying to act and emulate the people in your community. And then growing up and realizing there's anti-Blackness in acting that way. It's interesting being brown in a very black and white country. I think about this a lot because there's a certain level of code-switching you have to do. People label it as talking white or talking Black, but I think it's almost talking into whatever environment you're in. But yes, there is a way where we can take it way too far and start emulating things that aren't even us.

Fijiana: When I started really understanding my Fijian heritage is when I started unpacking anti-Blackness that a lot of non-Black people have growing up in predominantly Black communities.

Pen: So in your music videos I've seen that you incorporate Bollywood influence. For people who can't see your work right now, could you paint a picture of how you incorporated that into your visuals?

Fijiana: Personally, as Fijians, we might be more called to Bollywood because it's one of our biggest connections to India, because we don't know where we're from in India. Particularly like 90s/80s actresses... in the in the rain, in the saris, being so sexual... I really embraced it. And as I got older, I was like, this is what sensuality looks like to me. This is what sexuality looks like to me, and how can I take that and make it modern and make it my own? I love incorporating dance the way Bollywood does a lot! A girl like me, you wouldn't really see in Bollywood. I'm not the darkest skin, but I am still a little too brown for Bollywood. Bollywood usually chooses very particular, very pale women. Maybe I'll never be in Bollywood, but I'll make my own films and I'll make my own productions, and I will make my dreams come true. Fijiana, my music is a place for my little girl to just go all out.

Pen: And you've shared with me that you play every song for your father, except for one. How did your father take to your music ?

Fijiana: He's the most supportive person in my life. He accepts me for all that I am. When I'm upset, like I'm getting trolled about, like a song like Sanskari Hoe, he was like Pooja, 'If you put Picasso in front of a regular person, they're just going to think it's like some scratches on like a surface... The same thing with you! Like your worth needs to be valued by people who see you.'

Fijiana: You know, I actually did a podcast specifically on sexuality, and I listened to the whole thing with my dad. And after we had a really great conversation about sexuality.

Pen: To have that conversation…I imagine it's got to be ammo under your belt. Like, I've talked to my father about this. So what? What can the internet troll do to me, right? Is that the attitude that you have?

Fijiana: Yeah, I completely feel like that. Like, even when I played my dad the podcast, he looked at me, you just like, I see you as a person. I understand you better as a person now like I get it like, I get it You put your art before anything. And I respect that! I think it's amazing like he… ‘cuz I've seen him shift as a person, you know, like I've seen him change a lot of ideas and things because I am so vocal about everything I do. I really thought to myself like, ‘Wow, to be a brown man who's grown up in this culture that actively suppresses these kinds of thoughts. You sit there not with just any woman, but your daughter. You listen to this and you not only accept it and accept me, but you admire me.’

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