In his eloquent and poignant story, Zeshan describes his unique upbringing from South Asian parents. After studying Opera in college, he decided to blend an eclectic combination of his talents. A conservatory-trained vocal virtuoso, he is as home with classic and neo-soul as he is with ghazal, qawwali, gospel or opera. Zeshan recently performed for President Barack Obama’s birthday at the first White House Eid celebration.
His profound appreciation for culture, heritage, and arts is captured in his story. This story was recorded in partnership with StoryCorps and MALA.
“My story begins just outside of Chicago, Illinois. My mom and dad, they are immigrants from India. My father comes from a very small, dusty village outside of, well, about nine or ten hours outside of Mumbai, called Bailongo. And he left that place when he was sixteen. And my mother grew up in Hyderabad. Well, she was born in Hyderabad but grew up in Bombay, very much comes from a Hyderabadi culture. And that’s kinda what’s, you know, interesting about – people think Indians and Pakistanis are, you know, kind of one big thing, but really it’s a subcontinent so every state, every culture has its own flavor. And I grew up with both of those: the South Indian culture as well as the Hyderabadi, more Mobilai, North Indian culture in my household, which was really cool.
I started out in college studying Opera because it became very apparent later on in high school that I had a voice that was well-suited for opera. So I rigorously studied the art of singing and the art of, I mean, classical music forms, whether that be the rudiments of music theory, oral skills, just the grounding that is good to have if one is to pursue a career in music. Growing up around Indo-Pakistani music, as well as Black music – I mean my mom and dad, you know, really liked listening to Motown. They liked listening to James Brown, they liked listening to Stevie Wonder, among other things. And my dad had a profound appreciation for Black culture and the Black narrative here in America. I mean I remember when we were growing up, on Martin Luther King Day, it wasn’t like just a holiday where, you know, we just ran outside and played like the other kids. My dad had this rule that we had to come home for dinner, ‘cause there would always be something on TV about Dr. King, and he made us watch it. And around dinner time we would have a discussion, and every year my mom and dad would say, you know, “you have to be grateful to Dr. King and what he did because if it were not for him, we would not have been able to come to this country.”
When you grow up, it goes back to that whole, you know, first generation immigrant narrative in that, you know, there’s a dichotomy. You have, there’s your, the country of your parents and then your home country, and for me, now I feel like I’ve finally found a sound that, like, is very representative of me because there’s that, and I call it “Brown Skin Soul,” because the Brown aspect of it is, that the hip stuff that was coming out of India and Pakistan in the sixties and seventies that my parents listened to, and the American side of me gets to channel indigenous American art forms like Blues and Soul and maybe a little bit of Jazz. I’ve performed all over the world, I’m fortunate to have said that. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve, you know, performed in so many places all over the world and, you know, the White House. It’s like, you know, you’re used to certain mundane aspects of doing a gig, you know, you pull up to the club or the hall or whatever it is and you load in your stuff and imagine pulling up to an iron rock gate at the White House and, you know, the guy who greets you is, you know, holding the M16 machine gun, says, “can I help you?” *laughs* And I said, “I’m with the band! I’m performing at the White House, please don’t shoot me!”
That was cool! It was an honor to perform for President Obama because I feel like a lot of people here in Chicago have their own story of, you know, “oh, I saw him here!” or “I saw him there!” or “I met him here!” or “he used to work out at the gym that my mom would work out …” or whatever. Everybody, or, you know, has their, they’ve seen him back in the day. And I met him when he was campaigning, I couldn’t remember if it was for state senator or senator, I’m not so sure. But, you know, I was just an adolescent at the time, and I met him, and I remember being so in awe of him. He was so inspirational, and I remember shaking his hand, and I remember my dad, you know, he came to our mosque, and I remember my dad turning to me and saying, you know, “that man, you know, he’s, he’s going to turn into something.” And my dad was right. It was kind of full circle to be able to go and perform for him, and he’s just such a gracious guy. He liked, we had the offer, and we was excited that my bandmates and I are all from Chicago. And when I told him that we had all met him at some point or the other when we were kids, he looked at me and he said, “ah, you ruined it.” And I said, “what? What did I ruin?” And he says “you know, I’mma tell you something: It’s not nice to make a man feel old.” *laughs* He’s just, you know, really a cool guy. Like I said, that was really an honor and a high watermark of my career.
I think I want them to remember me as being real, you know, being honest, you know, and being virtuous, and uncompromising in my values, in my integrity.”