Identity, Awareness & Representation: An AAPI Heritage Month Conversation With Young the Giant’s Sameer Gadhia

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Billboard is highlighting Asian-American voices within the music industry through a series of conversations on identity, representation, and raising awareness. In our third installment, Sameer Gadhia -- frontman of longtime alt-rock fixtures Young the Giant -- shares his experience of navigating the alternative rock genre as an Indian-American in a traditionally white male dominated space. 

Irvine, Calif. is often hailed as the safest city in America. Locally known as “The Bubble,” the Orange County suburb is known for its pristinely planned communities and high population of Asian-American immigrants. In many ways, the city is the opposite of rock star glamour, but it’s against this backdrop that Young The Giant wrote their 2011 hit single “Cough Syrup” -- a track about wanting to escape suburbia. 

But 11 years after the hit song hit the airwaves, lead singer Sameer Gadhia’s feelings about his band's hometown have shifted. “[Irvine] was almost like a place of refuge, where immigrants came for free and [were able to get] really good public education,” he says now

As one of the very few Indian-American singers in this space, Gadhia hopes to challenge the narrative of the genre belonging to white men. After seeing how diverse the crowds at his shows have been over the years, he strongly believes that "there’s more to this than just being white boy music.”   

In his latest project, Gadhia reshapes the traditional depiction of alt/indie artists in his new radio show Point of OriginIn a series of playlists and interviews, the singer spotlights various artists of color and delves into their backgrounds -- ultimately showcasing how “there are so many more angles that can be drawn from this genre. A recent episode features Filipino-British indie darling Beabadoobee, as Gadhia guides listeners through the music that inspired her along with stories about her hometown.  

Below, the lead singer shares with Billboard his own origin story – from living the Asian-American dream of getting into Stanford to ultimately following his own dream of becoming a rock star -- while also revisiting where he grew up, and reflecting on how the city’s diversity served as a stark contrast to whiteness of the alt rock sphere.   

Who were your musical influences growing up?   

A lot of Michael Jackson. Freddie Mercury was huge for me -- especially when I found out he was Indian. The Beatles were a huge deal. I grew up with a mishmash of popular songs as well as Bollywood songs. Later, I got into The Strokes. Because I was an immigrant's son, I didn't have a full lay of the music historical land, so I worked backwards. I started with the popular stuff, and then explored the artists who influenced those artists. 

In high school, did you consider music as a viable career option? 

I honestly didn't. In this cultural lens, I didn't think it was a possibility. I knew I had talent with music and played local shows, but I didn't see anyone else who looked like me on stage. When I started seeing artists I was passionate about, I began to see music as a real career. In high school, I managed to get tickets to see Coldplay at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in 2006. Playing shows of that size and amplitude seemed crazy to me. That's when I realized that people do this for a living. Besides that, I hadn't seen that representation, so I didn't think it was in the cards. 

How do you think growing up in Irvine informed your music?  

Especially in the music world, a lot of people think Orange County is really white and really rich. I've only started to appreciate how amazing the diversity is in Irvine. In high school, we weren't segregated by skin color, but instead, we were segregated by what we liked and what our interests were. It was a really open place and a breeding ground for so much cross pollination and cultural influence. People don't realize that at first. When they think of Irvine, they think of it as this planned, safe, boring city. In a lot of ways, it is, but there's still something really exciting about that level of diversity.  

When I went to Stanford, I thought it would be more liberal, but it was more segregated by color. It was a lot more conservative in some ways, and I had never seen that before in my whole life. For the first time, I met people who wouldn't like me just because of how I looked. That experience really informed so much for me. As a band, our cultural makeup and different backgrounds really informed our music. That cross pollination of sound and culture bled into our music. 

What was your experience like when you transitioned from the diversity of Irvine to the homogeneity of the alt rock space?  

It was crazy. It's something I'm still coping with and trying to figure out. White proximity is a huge thing for Asian people. The transition slowly led to me realizing that as a lead singer playing amphitheaters and in a genre perceived to be white, people started considering me as white -- which is a weird feeling. Our fan base has never been homogenously white, which is really exciting overall.

More than anything, I've realized that the construct of alternative music being white is just a construct. The people who actually love it and listen it come from everywhere. I see that everyday. I see that every time we play a show. That’s what I’m trying to share with Point of Origin -- there are so many more angles that can be drawn from this genre.   

When you mention how people perceived you as white due to your proximity to whiteness -- how does the normalization of whiteness affect you? I would have so much anxiety with that.  

It's something that I've gotten used to in a weird way. There aren't many Indian kids in this space. I slowly started getting used to being The Only One. That anxiety felt normal. This white proximity -- especially on tour -- was becoming a big part of my existence. It’s still something I’m trying to unpack because it’s a lot. 

The model minority myth feels like such a real thing for second generation Asian kids. How do you think that affected as a musician?  

Most definitely it affected me. It's so entrenched within the South Asian and larger Asian community. The way to be accepted and the way to fit in is to be successful and non-threatening. By definition, to be a rock star is to be anti-establishment, to be an anti-role model, to not be quiet.  

I still have elements of the model minority, but some of that is tied to this hope of the American Dream. I always think about how the American Dream lives on in the hearts and minds of America's immigrants. While there is this cultural and racial aspect to the model minority myth, there's also this element of wanting to succeed at all costs to make it. We, as immigrants, don't have a safety net. There have definitely been moments in my career when I did wanna be the best and excel in everything that I do. I don't know if that's the model minority myth, or this concept of the American Dream that doesn't exist anymore.  

We can have representation and acceptance in all sorts of art forms. We can be many more things. All we need are those examples of success. In Point of Origin, I talk about Freddie Mercury: No one -- including a lot of Indian people -- knew he was Indian. That was a conscious decision. He knew that he wouldn't be as famous if people saw him as that. That held us back for three generations. If people had known who Freddie Mercury was and where he came from, I think you’d see a lot more Indian musicians out there right now because they could see that example of success. That’s all we want. We want a place in society and a place to belong.   

What was your parents’ reaction when you told them that you were quitting school to become a rock star?

It was the most insane and bravest decision I've ever made in my life. My parents were like, "Really? What makes you think you can be one of the first Indian guys to do this? It doesn't make sense." They still ask about it -- sometimes just to piss me off. They know the answer to the question, but my dad is like, "You probably lost your spot at Stanford by now." And I'm like, "No, it's still there." [Laughs.] 

They’re really starting to understand the value and the work that I do. They always have been very proud and supportive. But the really, really huge burden that Asian kids feel from their parents needs to be addressed. That's gonna happen over the course of our generation. We're gonna be the generation that changes that, so our children don't have to feel like this is all they can do otherwise they're failures. I felt that. That was real for me.  

And then, I was like, "You know what? I’m a grownup and I need to make an adult decision. This is my life. This is not your life." Things were rough for a second, but I literally hadn’t done anything in my life to ever disappoint them. That was the first time. Ironically, having this disagreement and huge fundamental shift in our relationship made our relationship better. They actually started to respect me as an adult and as a man -- and not just their son who did whatever the hell they wanted me to do. I’m happy I made that decision. 

Telling your parents you want to leave Stanford sounds like a very rockstar thing -- especially for an Asian kid. That's not something that other white, alt rock front men experience.   

Yeah, it would’ve been much harder if it was just me and if I wanted to break out and do a solo career. In some ways, I leaned on white families a little bit. Being in a band is a group effort, and all the white families were like, 'Sure go ahead. We’ll be proud of you no matter what.'   

You don't hear that a lot in Asian families. 

Yes, so I kinda used that in my favor to normalize the absolute batsh--t craziness of the decision. So in fairness, I did have a little bit of support there. That’s a great way to put it -- that’s the most rockstar thing I’ve ever done, because I’m not that crazy of a person.   

How did Point of Origin come together? 

There has been this interest in exploring the idea of me being a radio DJ for Alt Nation. It started to take shape when we came up with the idea of bringing things back to the beginning of each artist -- Point of Origin. That felt more universal than always having to tokenize an artist. I didn't want this to be a clear diversity play. I wanted this to be about normalizing these narratives and not just leaning into the fact that they're artists of color. Instead, I wanted to highlight these amazing artists that have unique stories. These narratives are universal narratives that people should understand.  

I’m trying to share their stories and not just always dilute the quality of their work by just calling them artists of color – even though I have to – to normalize it. There’s a paradox there. I’m trying my best to walk that tightrope and do it in an authentic way.    

Do you know if Point of Origin has influenced the music programming at Alt Nation?

It's actually starting to make a difference with their playlisting. Some of the artists I've featured on the show have crossed over into their actual rotation. Seoul-based Korean artist Su Lee -- who I featured before Beabadoobee -- has this song titled "I'll Just Dance," which became No. 8 on their charts last week. It's exciting to see how the show has been making a difference already and how it's been trickling into the rest of their radio and playlisting.

How do you think the alt rock genre can be more welcoming of non-white musicians?

It's already changing. I'm an old guard [member] now at this point, which is funny because I've been around this genre for a decade. I've seen sweeping change in general. A lot of the change starts with the irreverence of youth and young people not caring about the old outlets that people used to care about, like Pitchfork and stuff like that. The way we enforce things in media and what's being played is a whole other topic.

Just like anything else, it's about getting other people in there. Getting good research to really understand that there's more than this genre being white boy music. That will have a huge benefit, and bring the genre back to relevance. When we started doing this, Kings of Leon was not only the biggest band in the world, but they were also the biggest artist in the world. I think the genre isn't as relevant anymore because people think that only white men do this.

I'm a light-skinned brown guy who has white people in my band, so I've been more welcomed in. I acknowledge that privilege. It's about slowly doing the work of changing people's minds, and showing America that there are these great artists who aren't all just white men.

Is there any new music on the horizon for Young The Giant?

Yeah, we're currently working on stuff. I just had a son, and our bassist Payam [Doostzadeh] has a little daughter now, too. We're dealing with this transition and getting ourselves out of this pandemic, but we have been writing. We're taking our time, but we'll get you something soon.