On Tuesday (Feb. 28) night, President Donald Trump delivered a speech in front of a joint session of Congress that hinted at a revised immigration ban expected to be announced shortly. Trump has tweeted that “many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country” as a justification for instituting a blanket travel ban against multiple countries.
TOTEM, a rhythmic-pop recording artist with over 150,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, has had a strong reaction to this immigration ban. A first generation Indian-American whose parents traveled across the globe to make a home in North Carolina in the early ’80s, TOTEM graduated from UNC with a double major in political science and American studies, before committing to music full-time and earning raves from Complex, the Fader and Time, among others.
Ahead of his third EP, which follows 2016’s Echoes, TOTEM offers his thoughts on the dangers of the ban from the perspective of a proud American and the son of immigrants. Read his words below:
Maybe it was last week— when two 30-something Indian engineers were shot in a Kansas City bar, one of them fatally. Or last August, when an imam and his assistant were gunned down in the street a short train ride away from my apartment in New York. It’s possible that the turning point was when brown people started getting kicked off planes for speaking different languages. I can’t tell you the exact moment Donald Trump’s America became real for me, but here we are.
A personal preoccupation these days is picturing someone in my native North Carolina reading that last sentence and cheering the chaos—so angered by the colors around him or her that they would reduce our country to a battleground. Did my dad take that person’s job in an IT department? I doubt it. Does my beard scare that person? Maybe a little. What it really is, and what it’s always been, is a fear of ‘otherness’. It’s something no one can help, including us brown people. Whether we’re Indian or Syrian, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor, it’s the thing that binds us together, and the thing that we can’t escape.
Growing up in a red state wasn’t hard for me. I never knew anything else. It was almost definitely harder for my parents, who immigrated to the United States from South Africa and India to escape apartheid and poverty, respectively. While I was off being a normal American kid, they were on guard against being taken advantage of by those who viewed them as clueless ‘others.’ Waitresses at restaurants shot them side-eyes because of their accents. Neighbors tried to swindle them out of money once, and told my father he didn’t “understand” the law when he rebuffed the attempt. My folks, who uprooted their lives to move thousands of miles away from everything they knew, did it so I could have the chance to be anything. It boggles my mind just to think about it. I don’t have the steel of immigrant bones in my body. I’m soft. I’m American.
I grew up being able to sing songs and perform improv in my public school. I never wanted for food or clean water—in that, I was extremely lucky, but not special. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how I would survive in my ancestral country today. The gift of my Indian heritage is something that I cherish, but the man I am is a cultural being of my place and time. To imagine a world where I didn’t grow up listening to Boyz II Men, Oasis and Michael Jackson is to imagine a fundamentally different me. Who would I be if, instead of basketball and football, I was watching cricket? Would my friends know me if I preferred naan to biscuits? These things may seem trivial, but they are the building blocks of who we are and what we’re made of. It would ruin my life not to be a North Carolinian, or an American. To think that our President is now taking away that possibility from millions of people—starving, war-weary people that look like me—is sickening. We can get automatic weapons without a background check, but these people can’t find peace even after a background check?
My only thought as to how our government can get away with a program of such bigoted lunacy is that a large portion of the American public doesn’t truly understand or care what it is to be an ‘other.’ I understand that if everyone used to look like you and now only the majority of people look like you, it could be scary. ‘Otherness’ is inherently unknown. But they think, in a turn of events I never saw coming, that they are the ones being oppressed. By whom?
I need these people to know that the immigrant’s goals are the same as theirs, and even complementary in a capitalist society: to take care of ourselves and our families, make a little money for the next generation, and have some fun when we can. A “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” kind of vibe. You’ve heard of it. Those of us who are citizens demand our rights as such. A little more political representation would be nice. All of us, including those who are visa and green card holders, demand to be treated like human beings instead of walking bombs.
We come from different places, and that’s okay. Our otherness doesn’t mean that we can’t write your favorite song or invent something paradigm-shifting or even save your life. But this generation has to be allowed to try. That, in reality, is the only way to save ourselves from the perils you fear. America only exists because we are constantly making new Americans. Our manifest destiny changed long ago; it is now to be a bright ideal in hearts and minds across the world. We have to give these new dreamers a place to love and be loved.
We’re not out to get you. We kind of want to be like you a little. So stop trying to get rid of us. Stand with us.