Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Cover Story

Vidya Iyer: The Million Dollar Voice

By Petrina D'Souza, 20 Mar, 2018

    The YouTube star has been creating ripples in the music industry with her phenomenal voice and creative collaborations. Since launching her YouTube Channel in 2015, Vidya has amassed over 350 million views and over 4 million subscribers.

    Music is universal; one does not need to understand its language or genre to enjoy it. It exceeds all boundaries and connects to millions. It has the power to bridge the gap between multiple cultures and people. Due to the advancement of digital and social media, the music industry has gone through a transformation and produced a new class of musical artists – the YouTubers. The power of this video-sharing website is such that creative work and talent is instantly recognized and promoted.
    Dancers, singers, musicians and many other creative people are using this platform to showcase their work globally. A name that stands out among these trending YouTube idols is of Vidya Iyer, popularly known as Vidya Vox. This famous singer has been creating ripples in the music industry with her phenomenal voice and creative collaborations. Since launching her YouTube Channel in 2015 with mashups of Western pop hits and music from her native land, India, the Los-Angeles-based singer has amassed over 350 million views and over 4 million subscribers, changing the course of her life in ways she never thought possible. Through her mashups, she has been shortening the divide between Indian and Western music, while offering a glimpse of the Indian classical and Bollywood genre to the world. 
    While the concept of musical mashups is not entirely new and has been existing for decades, Vidya’s USP is her sensational voice and ingenious videos. She brings together influences of her Indian-American heritage to create music that is refreshingly new, unique and contemporary, seamlessly fusing together the intricacies of Indian music with elements of electronic and hip-hop for an undeniably catchy sound. Among her most notable works is the mashup of Closer/Kabira, which garnered over 55 million views in seven months, and Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’ with the traditional Punjabi folk song ‘Jind Mahi.’ With over 20 million views, the cover remix was so well received that it caught the attention of Major Lazer who reached out to Vidya to praise her rendition of the song. Vidya’s mashups have since gained worldwide recognition from the likes of Diplo and Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan.
    Born in Chennai, but brought up in Virginia, Vidya studied Carnatic classical music since the age of five. “In the beginning I used to hate practicing so much. As I grew older, I really found a passion for it. Music was my go-to place during high school and college when academics were too stressful,” she discloses. Yet singing was never a career choice, Vidya studied psychology and pre-medicine in college to become a doctor. It was when she collaborated with Shankar Tucker, now co-producer and composer, on her very first video for Shankar’s channel that the thought of becoming a full-time singer entered her mind. Recalling her first video-making experience, Vidya says, “It was interesting because it was during the time where not much of Indian music was on YouTube. When I saw how we used the platform, I thought that maybe this is something I could do but I never thought about it until I graduated.”
    Upon graduation, Vidya moved to Mumbai for a year to learn music. While training in Hindustani music and touring with Shankar’s band, the idea of creating something of her own sparked her interest. With Shankar on board, the duo decided to transform this idea into reality through song mashups – a concept that was influenced by the way Vidya had grown up. “I learned Indian music but I grew up in the West, so I was always trying to find the middle ground. How do you keep your roots and also follow local culture? I found mashups as a good outlet for me in the way I express my upbringing,” explains Vidya Vox, who was given this catchy name by Shankar. “Vox means voice in Latin; it is a very cool alliteration with my name. Shankar would always label my vocal tracks as Vidya Vox and that’s how it came about.” 
    Today, Vidya is counted among the top YouTubers in the world. Her mesmerizing voice is like magic that attracts viewers all age groups and nationalities, regardless of the language or genre the video is in. Another added feature in the videos is the use of different Indian languages, instruments and dance elements, which gives international audience a glimpse of Bollywood music and Indian culture. The queen of mashups also experiments with folk or regional Indian songs, and writes her own English lyrics for it. 
    “It is a little different [than Bollywood mashups] because you need to make sure the meaning and feeling of the song is matched,” adds Vidya, who aspires to bring a bit of Indian culture and representation to western pop music through her work. “It is important to break people’s preconceived notions of what music is supposed to be as music really has no language or barrier,” asserts Vidya, whose favourite genres are Indian classical, EDM and R&B. 
    Though it involves a lot of hard work and time, Vidya states that creating covers or mashups are not that challenging anymore. “The song already exists, you just put a new spin on it. I have done it a lot now so I am very intuitive and know whether the song is going to work or not.” What is difficult yet exciting for this young musician is composing original music. “It is really hard to make sure your message is being conveyed in a way that is enjoyable to the listeners but also something that you are proud of,” shares Vidya who finds writing her own music immensely liberating. “I have a lot of experiences that I draw from and I enjoy putting them down to a melody and rhythm.”
    Turning another dream into reality, the YouTube star recently released her debut EP (extended play), Kuthu Fire, last year. Comprising of six of her original pieces, the EP is produced by Shankar and mastered by Tony Joy. Stating the meaning behind the captivating name, Vidya says that “kuttu is the dance/music of folk tradition of Tamil culture. I’m Tamil so I have heard a lot of kuttu music. It is kind of like the party, fun music of Tamil culture and I wanted to bring in the beats and arrangements to some of the songs we were writing. And fire because it was a catchy name to go with it.” 
    Kuthu Fire includes a set of genre-mixing and culture-blending original songs that are an extension of Vidya’s mashups; they blend together very different cultural styles of music but stand apart in their hip-hop and electronic-inspired arrangements. Through this interesting project, Vidya wanted to share some of the Indian musical arrangements and instruments; the EP has Indian influences like tabla and dhol all throughout. The songs are influenced by Vidya and Shankar’s personal experiences. The songs ‘Tamil Born Killa’ and ‘Be Free’ revolve around the theme of women empowerment and Vidya’s own understanding of the concept. “Women get a lot of criticism for either dressing a certain way or for being outspoken. Whereas men dress or say things but are not labeled or looked down upon. These double standards really need to change. It is all about freedom of choice without being judged for the choices that you make. I’m always thinking about that when I’m writing original music and how I can provide a voice for that,” Vidya explains, who is specially inspired by music legends Beyonce and A.R. Rahman. “I’m a huge fan of Beyonce. I think she represents so many things that we need in society today and she shows it through her music, which is really admirable and important. A R Rahman is someone I have been listening to since I was a kid. He is one of my inspirations.”
    Touching upon the subject of women empowerment and gender inequality, Vidya believes that women deserve equal rights. “We are humans and we deserve the same rights and opportunities that men have had for centuries. I think it is really important that we keep having these conversations, especially about harassment in the work place and power dynamics. It is going in the right direction but there is a lot of work to be done,” comments the young feminist who is proud of the fact that women, and especially celebrities, are sharing their experiences and bringing these issues to light.
    The 27-year-old wants to inspire the younger generation to be strong, confident and the best versions of themselves. This special message comes from her own personal struggles as a young Indian girl in a big American world. In middle school, Vidya was subjected to bullying due to her skin colour, the clothes she wore or the food she ate, which led to her hiding her Indian identity. “When I was younger it was not very cool to be Indian or brown-skinned. I did not have people like Mindy Kaling or Priyanka Chopra in the media then, and I just couldn’t look up to somebody who looked like me,” recounts Vidya, who is pleased that Indian representation has gotten better over the years and now young people can look up to someone for inspiration. “I hope that through my music, young boys and girls, especially Indian girls and boys, know that it is okay to sing in your language, wear your clothes and be proud as an Indian, and still do things which people from other cultures can relate to. That is one of my goals.”
    Vidya’s incorporation of Indian culture is not just limited to her songs and videos but are also highlighted in the way she dresses. Proudly taking up the title of a fashion icon, Vidya’s outfits and accessories strongly reflect her Indian culture and style. “That is how I dress in normal life,” says Vidya, who styles herself for all the videos. “I really put in a lot of thought into clothes because I feel that through fashion you can say so much without saying anything at all and that really is so powerful. I genuinely love fashion and dressing up and finding that balance.”
    Like any celebrity in the crazy world of social world, the beautiful artist is exposed to criticisms and demeaning feedback. Vidya deals with it by turning a blind eye to negative comments. “It is important to take everything with a grain of salt, including compliments. I post videos and don’t look at it again because that is the only way I can keep my sanity,” she says. Initially, she would feel sad and upset about the comments but eventually realized that one can’t please everybody. “Music is so personal and so subjective that you just have to live in your own world. You just have to be proud of your own work and your own music,” declares Vidya, who is still learning Hindustani music, western vocals and going to class to expand her knowledge. “And I practice now and am very good at it,” she quickly adds. I ask her if a singing career in Bollywood is in the near future, and Vidya answers, “I have a few offers from Bollywood; I haven’t been able to accept them yet because I was working on my own music and it did not feel like the right project. If it is the right project and the right song, I would love to sing for Bollywood and even Hollywood.”
    Just back from her tour, Vidya is currently enjoying her time in LA and getting ready for an exciting year ahead. Instead of mixing up various elements, she is looking forward to experimenting with a new concept for her songs and videos – mixing just one genre with Indian influences. Her 2019 goals are “to do an album, work on a brand new show, and do a concert of fully original music.” We are confident that Vidya’s year will be just as vibrant and energetic as her music.
    Photos: courtesy of Shankar Tucker, Vidya Iyer, Lovebugrobin photography, Prasanta Kumar Sur photography, Amans photography, Dream Big Studios

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