On one of her latest songs, "Tamil Born Killa," Vidya Vox addresses her critics with a message that she isn't going to change her appearance or give up her Indian-American identity just to be successful.
"I ain't gonna change my hair," she sings over a track that features folk Indian instruments. "Blue, black, or green — don't really care."
The song, which she released in August as part of an extended play, "Kuthu Fire - EP," was inspired by social media comments she had seen over her career criticizing her appearance or work.
"I used to have blue hair, and a lot of people hated that I had blue or green hair, and I'd get so many comments like, 'you're so perfect, but why do you have blue hair?'" Vox, whose name is Vidya Iyer, said. "And it's like, okay, but it's my hair and I can do whatever I want."
Iyer found success on YouTube after posting a series of mashup videos in 2015 that feature a blend of Western pop, electronic dance music, Bollywood hits, and Indian classical music. One of her earliest songs, a mashup of Major Lazer's "Lean On" and a traditional Punjabi folk song, has been viewed more than 27 million times.
"The one thing I won't do is sacrifice my Indian identity in my music, my clothing choices," the 27-year-old singer said. "It's something I tried to hide growing up, and I would never do that again because it's such a big part of me and I'm very proud of it."
Lately, Iyer has been juggling bhangra and hip-hop dance rehearsals in Los Angeles and promoting her original music. She is currently on tour in India, with shows scheduled until the end of November. Her set lists feature mostly original songs, she said, with one or two mashups sprinkled in.
"The thing about doing mashups and covers is it's great, but a part of you never gets to really showcase what your original sound is like or what your writing voice is like," Iyer said. "And even though we've been sneaking songs in there like in 'Sandcastles'...just like with popular Bollywood songs, it just never felt like it was fully our song."
Iyer began writing songs for the EP about a year ago with her boyfriend, composer-director-musician Shankar Tucker, whom she met in college, where they collaborated alongside her sister Vandana Iyer, who also appears on the EP.
The title track "Kuthu Fire" is different from any of the mashups she had been doing, Iyer noted, as it is representative of Tamil folk music and Indian dance tradition. The music video features the dhol drum and henna body art set against a black light.
Iyer added that she was nervous when she first put out the release, but said the feedback has been largely supportive.
"I was so scared of thinking about how it would be received, especially because it's so different from the mashups," she said. "I was so nervous, but when I put it out, people in India really liked it, which I thought was very telling. Some people have similar stories and they can relate to that. There's a little bit of pushback here, but people are open to it, specifically in LA."
On the EP, Iyer explores leaving home and embracing a new life and also conquering inner demons and critics.
Other songs take on female empowerment and supporting one another and looking inward instead of judging others based on appearance.
"There are so many messages especially for women, there's all these magazine covers, you don't even know what's real," Iyer said. "Even social media stars, they're living life on Instagram, but behind those photos, you don't know how much pain or sadness there is in that."
Iyer added that she aims to show that music is universal, and that you don't need to speak a specific language in order to understand the nuances of a song.
"You don't really need to know Malayalam to enjoy that song," Iyer said, referring to "Be Free," another track on the EP. "And a lot of it is in English."
Embracing Indian-American Identity
Born in Chennai, India, and raised in Mumbai, Iyer immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 9 years old.
She said her upbringing and cultural background have played pivotal roles in shaping the person she is today and the music she's creating. Her first exposure to traditional Carnatic music — folk music from southern India — was at the age of 5, when she'd take lessons alongside her sister.
"Truth be told, when I was younger I wasn't really into practicing that much, and my sister and I would goof around until I was about 12, when I started taking it more seriously," Iyer said.
Iyer's grandmother encouraged her to continue practicing, and classical Indian music became a therapeutic refuge as Iyer grew older.
She studied psychology and pre-medicine at George Washington University and planned to pursue medical school after graduating in 2012. But while studying for the MCATs and working at a clinic, she discovered she really wanted to pursue music.
Instead of working toward a career in medicine, she decided to move to India for two years and re-familiarize herself with classical music and arts.
Iyer said that growing up, she and some of her Indian-American friends felt lost as they struggled to embrace their Indian and American identities. There was also a lack of role models like Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra in the media, Iyer noted. She said she felt like she had to assimilate to fit in.
"We were always trying to hide our 'Indianness' and it was always this battle," she said. "I was teased a lot for being Indian … My mom would be packing roti and dal, and she would not be packing PB&J. I'd be begging her to pack Lunchables."
But in college, Iyer became more comfortable with her identity. She joined Indian student associations, an Indian folk dance team, and participated in inter-collegiate competitions.
For the young Indian girls and boys who are struggling with their identities, Iyer wants them to know it is "cool" to be proud of your identity.
"It's okay, it's cool to be Indian and there are cool people that are Indian and doing really well," she said. "It's okay to be brown and cool."
Iyer's upcoming collaborations include a song with Gujarati world music band — MAATIBAANI — and an upcoming Telugu song with an LA-based singer. She recently collaborated with British singer-songwriter Arjun Coomaraswamy on a two-day shoot in Joshua Tree for the original song, "Diamonds."
From conversations she's had with her mom, Iyer said she has learned that it's okay to borrow from both cultures without losing or giving up your true identity.
"I think that especially being an immigrant, I think it's OK to assimilate to where you are, whatever country you are in and learn the culture and social etiquette," she said. "At the same time, it's important to not forget your roots. You can be proud of your roots even though it might not be 'cool to do so'. I think you absolutely can."