VJDAMUSICMAN by Kaley Bryson

VJDAMUSICMAN / Vybhav Jagannath Q&A

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All photos below from the VJDAMUSICMAN “UGLIES” video. Photos courtesy of VJDAMUSICMAN.

What is “UGLIES” about? 

Uglies is a song about my experience with dating apps as well as being a queer Indian-American. I spent quite some time getting to know a few potential prospects only to find out they were catfishing me on our first in person dates. Out of the 10-15 dates I’ve been on since coming out two years ago, at least half have been with catfish. It’s been exhausting, truly. I get all dressed and ready and mentally prepare just to be abruptly and jarringly disappointed. 

In “UGLIES,” I am reclaiming what I was made to feel–ugly for–being too Indian or too queer. I am flipping that idea on its head and trying to make what I felt ugly for be beautiful instead. I am mimicking the people who bullied me but also simultaneously bullying the men who have catfished me. 

You appear in three distinct looks in the video. What’s going on?

The “UGLIES” music video and new album, “Chaos on Canvas,” represent a battle between my queerness, my ethnicity, and my mental health. I address the internal chaos I’ve experienced by having to play multiple identities simultaneously. Each concept is so powerful that its manifested as an entire persona of its own. It all stems from my tendency to people please. 

Vybhav Jagannath (me in the red bomber jacket at the coffee shop) regularly changes his personality to make the people around him feel comfortable with his existence as a queer Indian-American. 

Mad Hatter (me in the velvet coat, long nails, nose ring and chai earrings) developed as an alter ego when I started to explore my queerness. He is aggressively unique and secure even almost to the point of intentionally making people around him uncomfortable. 

VJDAMUSICMAN is the artistic persona (me the black outfit and the pink jacket). He is the elevated version of Vybhav Jagannath in that he is an artist who aims to make people comfortable and dip his toe in representing Indian culture while not fully committing to the act, out of fear of being too niche. 

I am self-actualizing by learning to love each part of myself enough to incorporate them into my one being. VJDAMUSICMAN and Mad Hatter live inside me, Vybhav Jagannath no longer have to live as separate personas or alter egos, they can all calmly exist and thrive in one being, Vybhav Jagannath. 

Why the alter ego name Mad Hatter? 

Because he’s fantastically queer and ignites surrounding chaos. He loves spilling tea and gossiping and being messy. Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland is cemented in helping Alice see her inner purpose and truth all under the guise of being absolutely insane. Maybe we have to get a little insane to step outside ourselves and find our inner truth?

And what drew you to the “Alice in Wonderland” references? 

I have always loved the idea of Alice in Wonderland being an extensive drug trip down to the initial “eat me” and “drink me” that allows Alice to experience Wonderland. Wonderland seemed like a place where you could be weird and an outcast and be rewarded for it rather than bullied. My alter ego Mad Hatter was created out of aggression from people pleasing tendencies that had built up for over two decades. 

What’s going on with the elaborate manicures? 

The elaborate nails are meant to be a loud statement. They are worn by my alter ego “Mad Hatter,” who is introduced visually to audiences for the first time in the music video for “UGLIES.” Each nail has certain allusions to the “Alice In Wonderland” character such as the phrase “We’re All Mad Here,” or the clock, or the queen of hearts. Mad Hatter to me allows me to express my queerness in its most honest form, not edited by societal constructs. 

Explain the coconut oil reference at the beginning of the video.

In Indian culture, coconut oil is frequently used to calm the scalp and assist in hair growth. In many Indian homes, it is a tradition for a mother or father to apply coconut oil to their children’s heads prior to taking a shower. 

What’s the joke about chai (which is Indian) and whitewashing in the coffee shop scene?

Many non-Indian people misunderstand that “chai tea”–as it is listed on the menu–as a phrase is redundant. It literally means “tea tea.” Instead, just say “chai.” (Another common misunderstanding is “naan bread”– similar concept, it’s like saying “bread bread.”) When we are sitting in the coffee shop discussing how we have whitewashed ourselves, my friends clock me for giving my name as “Vee”–instead of my real name, Vybhav–for my chai order, another example whitewashing to make non-Indians feel comfortable with our identity.

What’s being stirred in the pot? 

Chai! We are going through the process of making chai, from the powder, to the elaichi (cardamon), to the water. 

You came out as gay, under the queer umbrella in April 2021. What prompted you to come out?

I realized that I was very passionate about LGBTQ+ advocacy and I knew that as a future parent, I would never make my children feel the need to come out or treat them differently based off an assumption I made about their sexuality at birth. As I was arguing and educating my parents about this, they turned around and asked me if I was part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, and it became clear to me I needed to come out. 

Who was the first person you came out to?

My mother.

Where your parents supportive?

My parents were not initially supportive. They had to do a lot of unlearning as the Indian community is rooted in judgment and homophobia. We have a need to expect perfection out of our children and thanks to what I like to think is a bad game of telephone, homosexuality is seen as a weakness rather than something to be celebrated or normalized in the same capacity as being straight. They joined an Indian LGBTQ+ support group, Desi Rainbow, which provided them with resources and contacts to learn how to be better parents to me and in a few months’ time, they became much more supportive and understanding. I am happy to say they have taught me unconditional love and they are so proud of me. 

Though you now live in the New York City area, you were born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. What was growing up there like for you as a first generation Indian-American? 

I grew up in a predominantly Black and Hispanic community. I was totally removed from the immense amount of Indian culture I was surrounded with at home being the son of an Indian classical dancer and the grandson of an Indian classical singer. I would go to school and participate in chorus, eat lunch in a cafeteria where people would call me “Aladdin” and ask “where my magic carpet was.” My food was “smelly and weird.” I would go home and be wrapped in my culture and it felt like whiplash. 

Did the election of Trump have any impact on your life?

I think it was a huge slap in the face to a lot of immigrant communities within the United States. It didn’t have any significant impact on my personal life, but definitely made me mad to see how he made people feel welcome to mistreat my community. The Indian community, as with many other minority communities, was subject to an increased amount of robberies, killings, and chain snatching with the election of Trump. 

What do you want American audiences to learn from this video? 

I want to be able to poke fun at the online dating scene by making fun of the catfishes in the lyrics by demeaning the men who do it! And I would love for them to get a deeper understanding of Indian-American culture and how beautiful and colorful it can be, especially through the queer lens. 

How does the video accomplish this? 

The video accomplishes this through its use of vibrant colors in the costuming. We start off with black and blue clothes that are slightly muted, transition into the bold eyeliner and nose ring and exuberant nails of Mad Hatter, and then come back to an elevated version of MusicMan in vibrant pinks and yellows. Simply through color we have elevated VJDAMUSICMAN’s queer and ethnic identities. 

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