Service, simplicity & songwriting – part 2
With an Ivy League education, this MTV rap/hip hop star was living the American dream and working on Wall Street when the events of 9/11 unfolded in front of his eyes. Giving up the corporate world, NIMO PATEL decided to pursue his passion for music in LA, but a chronic health issue led him to seek Ayurvedic treatment in India. He stayed back for 6 months to volunteer at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, and continues to this day working with the slum children of the city when he’s not working for his own non-profit organization, Empty Hands Music. In part 2, VANESSA PATEL continues to learn more about him and his mantra “Service, Simplicity & Songwriting.”
NP: I really appreciate this idea of “Who are we?” Gandhi is a humane figure we’re connected to in lineage, but there are also Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Mahavir, the prophet Mohammed – all these amazing souls have come and gone, and yet the same suffering exists. No major spiritual revolution has engulfed the planet. So, who are we to judge the small, itty-bitty work that we’re doing, the little song that you might put on YouTube, or the service project that you might have done?
Everything, in a sense, is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. But, do what you feel is right in your heart without any burden or weight, because it’s powerful, and so meaningful. And yet, so meaningless. In the honoring of humanity and the honoring of all beings, we do our karma work without holding on to it, without making it feel important or creating any maya around it. That is the spiritual process of a karma yogi, and that’s why spiritual practice is at the core of service. Even this lockdown, I feel, is a blessing, because it has allowed me to get back deeper into the realization of that, into the importance of the foundation for the work that we do.
To answer your question, it has been amazing to have my friends and family join this journey. My brother is in the U.S. army, and he had the biggest wall, he was non-emotional. To see the shift in him – he wants his kids to be involved in service and to do acts of kindness. During Thanksgiving in the U.S., our family gets together and organizes gift packages for refugee families. It’s a collective effort. It’s great to see the family embracing this spirit, and friends too. When my friend, Swapnil, visited India we were shooting the video for Ode to Women, and I finally got the chance to introduce him to this community that he hasn’t seen for quite a long time. Later on, he said, “I get it, I’m so happy for you.” He always used to worry about me – that I’m not married, I’m not making money – and wonder what am I doing with my life? So, finally he was happy and proud; he just enjoyed the fact that he finally got a chance to feel it too. If we deeply believe in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, everyone comes along, eventually.
Q: And that, of course, enhances your experience, feeling that you don’t need their approval but just the fact that they get it feels very life affirming, I’m sure.
NP: Currently, there is so much discord and pain in the world, not only with the suffering from the coronavirus, but also with people who are marginalized, people of color, women’s issues, especially the disparity in India. Much of this isn’t tackled or addressed properly, and then you get these platforms which everyone can use to air their grievances. Do you think social media is helping, or is it so fickle that when the next big issue comes along the old one is dropped? How effective is it to right a wrong?
Social media is helpful at some level. If I say to a person, “Hey, you’re amazing!” or “Hey, you idiot!” the person hears the communication in their ears, and that goes to their brain – but that’s not it. There’s a processing that’s happening in the heart and mind that triggers the brain, that shares with the muscles in the mouth, etc. to say and hear all those words. So, social media is giving us easier access to shout and connect, and spray whatever words and thoughts we want. Ultimately, as you said, they’re going to be good and bad, on and off, dark and light – this is going to be constantly flowing through it. Unfortunately, human nature leans towards the darker sharings; it takes on some sort of virality in the sharing.
I feel that this moment
is a blessing in time, a possibility,
because we very, very rarely have
these moments to press pause.
And we very rarely have moments to say,
“I’m grateful for what was, what is.
What I’m getting at is this: we need get to the root of the problem and allow the awakening of the magical heart and soul that we have, the understanding that we are all brothers and sisters. Yes, we have challenges, but we work through them, because until that expansion of what family means to our hearts grows, we’re going to see social media being used – it’s just an extension of human nature, what it does is magnify it 100%.
It moves everything much faster than it was 10 years ago, which was faster than 100 years ago, but no doubt it’s still a reflection of the inside of our hearts and minds – hearts in terms of the compassion we have, and minds in the sense of the fears that we have. Until the heart is able to express itself more and embrace more, social media will continue to be used to express fear. And where does that leave us? Fear instills fear, so social media projects something and more fear will arise because it’s being magnified. It expedites it as opposed to snail mail, which was a slow process.
Q: Yes, no one pauses before shooting something off, and then the anxiety sets in about how many times their posts have been liked. And you mentioned social conditioning; everything that comes out of our mouths is a judgement or an evaluation, and whoever you choose to follow on social media is just going to compound it because it’s all very curated, never completely neutral.
NP: That’s why I feel that this moment is a blessing in time, a possibility, because we very, very rarely have these moments to press pause. And we very rarely have moments to say, “I’m grateful for what was, what is.” Instead, it is “No, I am entitled to what is, I’m entitled to breath; I’m entitled to go to the mall to spend time with my friends.” All of those are and were blessings, and if you can use this moment to shift at least 5% … Like you said, we’re going to go back to “normal,” so this is like the smashan vairagya situation, when we’re at the crematorium and feel “Ah, I’m enlightened,” but when we turn away from the crematorium it’s “Aargh!” So, if we can take a 5% step away from that, then we have taken a leap as humanity, because 7.7 billion human beings improving their wisdom by 5% is a big shift.
So, I feel that the question we have all been holding is:
What are the habits we’ve created over
these last three months that are going to be
adopted in our lives moving forward?
Am I going to practice a deeper sense of gratitude?
So, I feel that the question we have all been holding is: What are the habits we’ve created over these last three months that are going to be adopted in our lives moving forward? Am I going to practice a deeper sense of gratitude? I think gratitude is one of the most powerful tools if we fully believe in it. It’s not like “Thank you God for the food we eat” and then we eat. From gratitude overflows kindness, overflows using our resources in a different way, overflows respecting one another for everyone’s roles, like we have been doing during this COVID time. For instance, the garbage collector is playing such an important role in my daily life.
If we can come from that space and live differently, it can have a huge impact, and then social media can be used from that space. It’s tricky; social media is an extension of who we are and that we have to make. It’s an important tool, yes, but it needs to be used from a space of stillness.
Q: I have been wondering how you chose the medium of rap music and hip hop when you decided to follow your passion for music. How did you find expression in that culture and music style?
NP: I think it was growing up in LA in the ’80s, listening to West Coast rap. A lot of it was gangster rap; it was a big thing at that time. There was West Coast-East Coast rivalry, and gang rivalry going on in terms of the hip hop scene. Hip hop was a fresh genre, as it had literally just started in the late ’70s, then came into the mainstream in the ’80s. So, it was at that time that I was exposed to it, my brother was listening to it more and at school we started hearing about these artists.
An artist by the name of Tupac Shakur was a very emotive rap singer. His music, his songs were full of emotion – he had many senseless songs and he also had very emotive songs. His song, Dear Mama, is an ode to his mother, and he says,
“Even though you were a crack fiend, Mama,
you always were the black queen, Mama.”
Imagine that! Imagine having a crack addict as your mom, and yet envisioning her as a queen who still supported your life’s journey because your dad wasn’t around. It was very powerful.
It was his book of poetry, The Rose that Grew from Concrete, which made me want to start writing poetry. I thought I could use it as a way to express. I remember writing, and there would be instrumentals on cassette tapes that were from that time. I would use them to write a song or a poem, and I’d try to rap it. This was more in high school, and then I started sharing songs, and performing songs in class; whether it was calculus or anatomy, I would create songs around the topics.
Apart from the music videos I created for these songs, my first performance was for our high school graduation, a song called Graduation. My first major performance in a theatre was at a college in Southern California where I sang a song called Indian Pride at a cultural show with the Indian Students Association, during my senior year of high school.
It went from a space of expression of feelings, topics and things I believed in, which led me to do more in college, and then I was invited to perform because I think I was the first Indian origin hip hop artist performing in America in the late ’90s. That attracted my roommate, Swapnil, who said, “Let’s write a song together,” and it drew the interest of others who were doing similar things in San Francisco, and we formed the group Karmacy.
It was that desire to say who I am, and express how I feel. That’s what hip hop expresses, and that’s what Tupac really embodied.
Q: You must have seen the movie Gully Boy about the rap performer from the Mumbai slums. He had this amazingly powerful medium for expression. I didn’t know there was such a big movement here in India, and the great thing is that you can find any empty disused space to perform, an alleyway or an abandoned building even.
NP: Absolutely! Some of my friends are in that movie. At college, we had something called the Gathering. Every Wednesday night, we would gather in the basement of Houston Hall at UPenn; hip hop artists from all across Philadelphia would come together. It’s a cipher, where you can share, you can spit your rhymes. It was really powerful to engage in that type of energy and that’s what we’re seeing right now in Mumbai and across India in the last 10 years. What was happening 30 to 40 years ago in America started 10 years ago in India. It’s a form of expression, an identity, a culture, a style, and everything. That’s why Gully Boy was a big moment for that community, specifically, and finally now it’s being embraced in India as an identity and a culture.
Q: So, Nimo, clearly every child at the Gandhi Ashram is your family, and there’s your biological family too. Is there a place you call home? Or is it a case of “wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home”? Are you here in India right now because you got stranded here during lockdown, or was it your plan all along?
NP: You’re right, I have many special people in my life. I haven’t had a partner for quite some while actually, and it has felt beautiful. Not to say I’m against it; if it happens, it happens, but definitely in my own vision I don’t want to have children, so I don’t feel pressure there.
I have so many children in my life, I mean hundreds of nieces and nephews in that sense, and all of them I feel are my children in one way or another. That is a blessing – to be able to invest in many children and not just a few. That’s been a part of my life’s journey and it happens in small ways. For example, there are a lot of Skype calls and video messaging, and reconnecting with children in whatever city I am in. So, there’s never been a desire to have a normal kind of family, and again, if it unfolds all well and good.
As for being in India now, the plan was to be here all along, even throughout the next month. I may have to head back to the U.S. for something in the next few weeks. We’ve been focused on the relief efforts over the last three months, so all our time and efforts have gone in making sure there’s enough food distributed to as many families in need as possible in Ahmedabad. The work that we’re doing with our kids is on hold until mid-August; we’re just doing some planning and continuing the relief work.
Q: What is your set-up in Ahmedabad? Is there an NGO you work with?
NP: There’s an NGO called Manav Sadna based at the Gandhi Ashram, and it has six community centers across Ahmedabad where we serve in the slum communities. That’s where all our work with the kids is done. I’ve been volunteering with them for the last decade, so that’s my full-time work aside from Empty Hands Music which is my non-profit in America. The focus there is to serve communities through music, through workshops, either bringing communities together and talking about messages of gratitude, compassion and service, of oneness.
That is the purpose of the music, and that’s where the music becomes a bridge during these gatherings and interactions that we hold. During a lot of my tours, almost 50%, we end up going to schools across the world, and the other 50% are communities, neighborhoods, churches, spiritual gatherings, conferences, and people’s homes. And all these events are through invitations that people have extended to me. Over 4 to 5 years, I think I’ve done 400 to 500 events and they are very humble. I never charge for them, they’re invitation-based and open to the public, so it’s really all about how I can go to these communities and support their vision of love, compassion, gratitude, kindness, and service to their messaging.
If I’m a community stakeholder, and I invite a musician here who the community respects, whose music they have heard, then that musician is supporting the deepening of the message in that community. And that’s the role in which I see myself when I’m doing Empty Hands work.
When I’m in India I bring the arts to the children of the slums, because in under-privileged communities education for children is already hampered. Through Manav Sadna I’m involved through the arts platform, and we offer not only supportive education but also holistic education. When they come from school, we give them a values-based, holistic experience from sarva dharma prarthana (prayer for all faiths) to exercise, Yoga, sports, arts and the academic curriculum as well. We hold science fairs, sports competitions, and activities around nutrition and health care. Children need to have exposure to creativity in order to experience joy. That should be the human experience, but unfortunately most of our children on the planet don’t have access to that. So, God bless all the NGOs that are doing similar work and trying to do their part to bring communities together and support children.
There are a few of us here who have been supporting the ecosystem we have, the 100 workers in the organization, and the running of the organization. That’s how I spend my time when I’m here in Ahmedabad, and I usually only travel out to do Empty Hands work.
Q: How bad is the pain in your hand? You said it’s a chronic problem.
NP: It was really bad with all the relief work, and doing the house work and cooking, but it’s getting better gradually after I stopped all computer work, and started taking the Ayurvedic healer’s medicine again. So, I’m feeling positive about the improvement over the past week. I will continue with the medicine and the special diet, basically avoiding sour foods. I have to be sensible about my computer usage – that is the lesson I had to learn before, and that is the lesson I’ve had to learn again. I’m really happy not to be on the computer as much and I just have to be careful and work around it.
Q: Thank you, Nimo, for your time. It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning. I hope your hand gets better soon so that you can resume your relief work, and also that this situation improves and you can continue to spread love and joy through your Empty Hands concerts.
Interview by VANESSA PATEL
August 30, 2020
August 30, 2020
August 30, 2020