Meet the Artist Who Came to India to Become a Hit in America

Zoya Mohan opens up about the Indian music industry, privilege and how to make the system work for you.
June 18, 2018, 10:30am
Image: Krunk

The biggest barometer of change in Zoya’s (whose full name is Zoya Mohan) tonal shift can be seen in the way reviews describe her new album The Kingdom. There are no allusions to Fiona Apple or Susheela Raman, no mention of folksy or quaint and little carping about her Indian heritage. Instead there’s influences of Charlie XCX and Halsey, quaint acoustic gives way to electronic rhythms and spoken word.

Her label calls her India's first electronic pop artist. Born in India and raised in California, Zoya moved to Mumbai in October 2015 to explore the city’s independent music scene where she was signed by Mumbai-based indie outfit Krunk.

VICE caught up to the 25-year-old Berklee graduate on the day of her penultimate India gig in March to talk about the indie scene, identity, and how two years in India prepared her for Los Angeles.

VICE: First things first. You straight up bullied me into this interview.
Zoya: Because VICE is the fucking shit.

That remains to be seen.
VICE has always been the shit, I feel like the other publications are like, either beat around the bush or make it look all shiny, for no reason, they don't tell the real story.

Let’s talk about how your identity informs your music. Someone called you a Brown Fiona Apple?
So, it’s always been like “oh she’s the Indian-American singer-songwriter,” and I've been: I'm a singer-songwriter. You don't say “this is the white girl singer-songwriter.”

Zoya prepares for her show in Delhi. Image: Vivek Gopal

Right, so, how much “India-ness”, actually informs your music?
It doesn't anymore. I think when I was in the States… basically you're trying to rise above the clutter—there are a million singer-songwriters. The thing that did differentiate me when articles started coming out were “she's Indian-American”, “she's getting in touch with her heritage, na na na…” I did kinda use that.

We would add a bunch of different instruments, like tabla and flutes. It was a shtick for a while, I'll be honest, because it wasn't who I really was and it wasn't until I came to India that I realised, like, I'm not Indian.

I'm on stage in the States and I'm wearing a bindi—immediately attention. And If I come here and I'm wearing a bindi it’s like…

Just another girl at Coachella?
[Laughs] Yeah. But here as well, a lot of people have asked me why don't I try to do one Hindi song. People in the industry say that if [I] did one Bollywood song, everyone would know who I was. “And then you could go back to what you do.”

You’re not about it?
No, because what would happen is, every fucking show, I'm gonna have to play that dumbshit song. I'd do it if I believed in the song, but…

When you sign one of those big major music label in India, immediately they're going to ask you to Indianise yourself. So you have Nucleya and Divine and even Raja Kumari adding all these Indian elements to their stuff. Take Raja, She wears the bindi and does all these dances.

Let’s talk about privilege. You arrive in Mumbai and immediately find work.
I fucking hustled, but yeah it was there. I went to Berklee so I know what the business is, I know that. I was always ahead of the business thing. When I came to India, one thing that separated me from everyone else, which got me work a lot quicker than other people was that I was American.

You admit that was there?
Straight up, Just because I was from America, I talk like how I talk, I was different. Doors didn't open because of that—I fucking pushed them open. I'm not saying that the American-ness is blasting open doors, the American-ness is pointing out the doors, right?

I'll tell you in America, I did a lot of Indian-American stuff. I opened Salman Rushdie's book signing. All these Indian-American things [were] really cool, because it did open me up to the Indian market. That's how India found out about me.

So America made you known to India, but India cut your teeth to really make it in America?
Brown people supporting brown people.

Image: Krunk

How would you sum up your two years and change here?
It was training wheels. I will never underplay the amount of experience and things that I learnt from being in India.

A really cool thing about India has been, because you're a big fish in this small little pond, when international acts do come to tour here, we get to hang out with them. You're now on the same scale as far as promoters are concerned, hanging out with Anderson.Paak. It has been the craziest learning curve—so fast. From tiny gigs [in the US] to playing these huge festivals here.