Amir Kelly reclaims his Black and Indian heritage through music

Amir Kelly was inspired to blend Indian music into his beats after listening to Beyoncé’s song “Baby Boy.” (Photo courtesy of Caleb Griffin)

When Amir Kelly first heard Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy,” it resonated with him. The track was the first time he’d heard traditional R&B and Indian musical stylings in a song representative of his Black and Indian identity. 

“I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now that I look back on it, it was the first song that I heard that literally captured both sides of my sound,” said Kelly, a senior majoring in popular music and music industry. For Kelly, the R&B track featured Indian melodic influences, reflecting both his Black and Indian racial identity. 

Now, more than 16 years after its release, the sound Beyoncé and Scott Storch created isn’t an anomaly to Kelly but definitive of the music he’s creating. His latest single, “Eden,” which was released mid-November, is a pop and R&B track with “Indian classical influences sprinkled throughout,” including the use of the tabla, a percussion instrument, in the song’s intro.

Born to an Indian American mother and Black American father, Kelly hasn’t always successfully reckoned with his Indian heritage and Blackness as he does in his music. 

“It was really hard for me to claim my Indian side because Indians are really anti-Black,” Kelly said. 

In fact, his Indian family initially disowned his mother because of her relationship with his father, a rift that reflected the way Kelly first experienced his identity. 

“I was never Indian enough; I never had ownership of it,” Kelly said. “But I was at all the temples and I learned all the songs and I spoke the language and I ate the food and I was there for my whole life.”

Over the past seven months, Kelly’s been on a quest to “[reclaim his] culture purposefully every day” through weekly visits and Hindu lessons with his grandfather, who immigrated to Los Angeles from India in the late 1960s. Kelly said the time spent with his grandpa, along with therapy and a year-long break from releasing new material, produced “Eden” and a slew of singles to come that focused on taking ownership of what’s his. 

Members of Kelly’s creative team also played a part in crafting the theme central to his sound. 

Outside of his own knowledge and study of Black and Indian music, he’s called upon peers from USC to inform his artistry. Classically trained Indian singer and 2019 Thornton School of Music graduate Shilpa Sadagopan co-wrote his debut single “MAUI,” tapping into her classical Carnatic background, which Kelly said “influenced the verses’ melodies.”

“Eden” co-writer, USC alumna and friend Ashley Brooks, who Kelly calls “the love child between Timbaland and Brandy,” is responsible for tackling the R&B side of his music. 

“It’s been beautiful to watch and I feel so humbled and grateful,” Brooks said of Kelly’s artistic reclamation. “Not only has he learned an experience, but he’s also brought his team along with him.”

Brooks also got to sit down with Kelly’s grandfather in an experience she called “enlightening.” 

Melodically, “Eden” allows Kelly to reclaim his racial identity, but the meaning and origin of the song are of a completely different leaf. The artist takes his listeners to the birthplace of sin. 

“I want the song to be about my virginity,” Kelly told Brooks during the song’s genesis. At the time, he was still a virgin but was ready to shed the descriptor. 

“We like to capture an experience,” Kelly said. And that’s exactly what the two did on “Eden.” Through lyrics like “If I share my secrets with you / Will you stay all night? / If I let you in my garden will you take a bite?” listeners become part of Kelly’s premier sexual encounter.

A year later, the track is no longer his pleading desire to lose his virginity but addresses male sexuality and sexual ownership in a new light. 

“I feel like just as a man, people don’t really think about male virginity at all,” Kelly said. 

To him, “Eden” is a reminder to be “very empowered sexually but still feel like [he has] ownership over [his] own quote-unquote garden.” 

Despite receiving a nod from music publication Earmilk, “MAUI” was just a test run. 

“Back then, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” Kelly said. 

The track was Kelly “trying to create something that everyone else liked.” Between the release of the two singles, Kelly noticed a shift in not only his messaging but also how he worked with his creative team. 

“It’s a lot harder to be vulnerable,” he said on his relationship with fellow creatives. “The more I open up to them, the more that they are able to support me and my vision.” 

And now he’s no longer making music for likability but for authenticity. 

“Who am I? and What am I tryna say?” are the questions he’s asking and answering through his upcoming EP and the video for “Eden.”

Kelly and his team hosted an immersive experience Nov. 22 ahead of the video’s release where they created the visual world of “Eden.” 

“I really love this idea of creating different worlds and all my songs are a little fantastical in that sense,” the artist said. “I don’t want my listeners to listen to my music without imagining the video.”

In conversations with Kelly, his photographer and creative director Caleb Griffin discussed using creative direction as a tool to “amp it up” when it comes to driving home his music’s dual cultural elements.

“We’re both much more mature in how we think about things and how we execute things,” said Griffin, a senior majoring in art, of his collaboration with Kelly.

As for Kelly’s close family who shares his “Blindian” identity — they already get it. 

“They get it the most because they lived it with me,” he said. “They feel that it represents themselves in the fullest light.”

And mainstream outlets are starting to get it, too. 

PopSugar named Kelly as one of 17 “up-and-coming music artists” last month along with fellow Thornton student Ayoni Thompson. And the video for “Eden” premiered in Rolling Stone India

But the biggest challenge for Kelly might not be racking up streaming numbers or nods from music’s most impactful publications — it’ll likely be gaining the trust of his Indian family. 

“It’s hard to see their fears and their experience that they projected on my mom personified into marketable art,” he said of his family’s relationship with his music and racial identity. 

With “Eden” and “MAUI” under his belt and a continued effort to put his Blackness in conversation with his Indian heritage, Kelly is doing more than standing out amid new R&B acts. As he puts it, he’s “reclaiming things that were taken from me.”