Many children of immigrants run into complications when trying to blend their two cultures, but an alumna makes it work – with millions of people watching her.
Vidya Iyer first came to the United States at 9 years old and began a music career making YouTube videos with Bollywood dance numbers, pop melodies and bilingual lyrics. Since she put out her first video three years ago, her YouTube channel has garnered almost 5 million subscribers and just under 500 million views.
Her videos, under the name Vidya Vox, include covers of Bollywood songs remixed with English songs, combining tracks by artists like Major Lazer and Ellie Goulding with both traditional and new Indian tunes.
“Growing up here in the U.S., no one took Indian music seriously, and it has such beautiful heritage and tradition that spans thousands of years,” Iyer said. “Growing up, I always felt like I wanted to show that to people.”
Iyer graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but after a year of working as a cardiology clinic assistant, she pivoted to pursue singing full time. She quit her job and started working with her current producer and composer Shankar Tucker, creator of the YouTube music channel “The ShrutiBox.”
Iyer and her sister started performing with Tucker in 2013, including performances in D.C. When Tucker left for India, Iyer followed soon after to Mumbai, India and immersed herself in the nation’s culture for two years.
“Music brought me to India, back to my roots,” she said in a video. “It helped me blend my two worlds together.”
When her mashups began making waves on the web, Iyer continued to write original songs on the side like her electronic song “Be Free,” which has resulted in more than 90 million clicks.
Iyer said she was unsure how her original work would be received, but when the videos were finally released last year, they became some of her most popular videos yet. She has since released her first extended play record of original songs and mashups, “Kuthu Fire” in 2017.
The artist has collaborated with Indian singers, like Devender Pal, and fellow YouTubers Sam Tsui and Casey Breves help switch up her content. To make the songs more dynamic, she occasionally incorporates percussive sounds native to India, like the “dhol” and “tabla,” and combines them with English electronic-pop songs.
“A lot of my friends don’t know what a tabla is and they’re like, ‘what is that sound?’” Iyer said, “And even if I can teach one or two people and expose them to the culture and the richness of those arrangements and sounds, then I consider it a job done.”
Iyer was featured in Google’s 360 virtual reality video “The Female Planet” last month, a series telling the stories of successful women from an aerospace engineer to “Jane the Virgin” actress Gina Rodriguez. The less than seven-minute video was shot panoramically across Mumbai and focuses on the arts of India, Iyer’s music and how she learned to accept her heritage – despite being bullied by students and abused by her father.
“Originally, I was so scared to tell my story,” Iyer said, “Doing this project, I felt vulnerable, but the responses were so kind and I just thought, maybe the internet isn’t so bad after all.”
While coming off the project and continuing to publish videos on her channel, Iyer will perform a fully original set at a Los Angeles outdoor music festival, Twilight on the Pier, in October. She finished her most recent tour in February, performing shows in India and across the United States, and will embark again in the spring.
She said hopes to keep creating mashups, but eventually increase the number of original songs in her set.
“I feel like now my story and my life are out in the open,” Iyer said. ”The people now understand where my music comes from and why I do things a certain way.”