A Conversation with Kish Lal

Interview by Kamna Muddagouni 

Kish Lal is a writer, DJ and podcaster based in Melbourne. Kish has been featured in Sydney Morning Herald, Noisey, Acclaim Magazine, Complex and VICE. Catch her dominating your social media, putting together the hottest fits you’ve seen or educating you on truths about the way in which Australia consumes pop culture.

 We spoke to Kish about her writing, her experiences as a ‘passing’ WoC, and forging her own path in predominantly white male spaces.

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You’re a writer, DJ and podcaster—how, if at all, do each of these pursuits intersect for you? Did that intersection come about organically?

I like the way they compliment each other and I think that's what helps me juggle them all. I began as a writer, running my own trashy music blog, which led to me incidentally knowing a lot about music. I always have a hot rare track or two to drop in a DJ set. The podcasting is something I got thrust into because of my obsession with music, so I just get to talk about all the things I already love. It happened really naturally, but when I look at it objectively I'm really into how perfectly they fit together.

Speaking of DJing, I admire how you’re across every hot new release, and your immense knowledge of references in music. How did your love for EDM and house music shift to your current interest in pop, R&B and hip hop?

Even when I was eleven, I was telling kids in my class about the songs they needed to be listening to. I was a Video Hits addict and felt a responsibility to make sure my friends were on top of what was ‘hot’.  I remember taking orders on who wanted me to burn them compilation CDs. I downloaded everything from Napstar and Bearshare just by typing random words and getting it all. I was pretty much the same person I am now, which I think is deeply funny. I’ve always found a lot of solace in music but have never really felt the urge to make it. I used to do a bit of singing as a kid and sing at stage shows, but nothing really came of it.

I actually grew up listening to a lot of hip hop and R&B. That continued throughout high school but then I went through my neo soul phase which turned into an indie rock phase and then I got heavily into dance music. Maybe dance, house and techno music was the first time I felt really strongly about music.

When I began writing about music, I wrote about progressive house and that required me to know my shit. The dance music community is inherently misogynist and even though I didn’t have the language to communicate that at the time, I knew that I had to be a hundred times more knowledgeable than my peers to get a leg up. I’ve had a lot of conversations with bros who have tried to talk over me, and then acted surprised when I knew my shit, but that only makes me want to learn more and delve deeper. I never wanted to be one of the boys, I wanted to be better. Maybe it’s the Capricorn in me, but I don’t like being underestimated.

My love for dance music died down over the years and I honestly think it’s because of how excessively toxic and white the house and techno scene is in Melbourne. I was working in the industry and would often be the only woman in the room, and worse sometimes the only POC in the room and it was a drain.

 I used to work at this techno touring company, and one day someone was playing the Bicep Fact Mix in the office and he asked a group of us if we knew what the track playing was. When I responded with the song name, he googled it, saw I was right and then mumbled, ‘that's surprising’. I got tired of being surrounded by that energy and justifying my existence in those spaces constantly. Even the most well-meaning promoters would make me feel like shit when I DJ’d or spoke to them about music. I still have a fondness for house and techno but when I circled back to listening heavily to hip hop, I felt welcome. I know I’m just a visitor in the hip hop scene and don’t stake any ownership over it but there is so much more space and acceptance in hip hop circles than house and techno. Even though house and techno was built by Black and queer people, it has been lost to white men and that’s the biggest tragedy in music right now. 

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Your writing practice focuses on all things from music and pop culture, to the impact of racism and sexism in the music industry, to profiles of WNBoC. Through all of your writing and tweets, what strikes me the most is your clarity of thought and expression. Did writing always come easily to you, or was it a process?

I always say, the one thing I'm good at is writing so I might as well do something with it. I never intended to be a professional writer. When I first started as a music blogger, it was first and foremost to talk about music. I wanted to be a part of the blog house era in 2008 and that's how I chose to insert myself into the culture. Then I naturally started writing about other things. I always wrote a mean essay in high school but I didn't think it would land me where I am today. It's cool that it happened this way because when I have a goal I put a disgusting amount of pressure on myself to achieve it. With writing, there wasn't a goal – it just happened. Maybe that's really corny but it's allowed me to enjoy the process. I think I'm better with my words when I'm writing them down than when I'm saying them out loud.

What are some of your favourite pieces you have written and what do you hope to write about going forward?

My favourite articles are always the ones I find the most difficult to write. I think my favourite so far is an article I wrote for Complex on Australian media’s obsession with parodying hip hop culture and how that's inherently anti Black.

I'm just hoping to be a better writer with every piece. I feel like I'm not as good as I want to be just yet. Do you ever have that feeling when you're creating something that it's almost a masterpiece but you don't have the skill set to get it there? That's how I feel about my writing right now. I'm hungry to be better and do more and that's all I really hope for when I think about the future.

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What are ways in which you hone your craft as a writer?

 I have a list of writers I really look up to because the way they articulate themselves is so effortless, beautiful and concise. People like Nayuka Gorrie, Ayesha A. Siddiqi and Nate Louis are all on that list. I always read their work, old and new to figure out what I enjoy and see if I can learn or borrow words, styles or ideas from them. Maybe that’s a bit fucked up. It’s not as though I’m stealing their ideas and selling them to publications — imagine admitting to that in an interview. I think it’s not dissimilar to idolising a celebrity. I want to be more like them and I do that by reading their writing and emulating that. Besides being an awful writing thief, I try and write as much as I can. I wish I did it more, because the more often I do it the better I become.

I want to talk a bit about racism and sexism in the music industry. As a DJ, you have been outspoken about the music industry needing to do more to be a truly representative, inclusive and safe space. What are some hurdles you have faced as a woman of colour (WOC)?

Ugh where do I start? Look I'm a settler, I'm light skinned and racially ambiguous and for those reasons I probably don't have to deal with a lot of bullshit other WOC do. But in saying that there certainly has been no shortage of bullshit that's come my way. As a DJ I've been asked whether I know how to mix songs together, lowballed with rates, not paid at all, and treated like a piece of meat. Sometimes it's hard to comprehend the entire spectrum of obstacles I face as a woman of colour when it's all I've ever known. I've been in offices where people haven't known my racial background and have openly said really racist things. When I've pulled them up on it their only apology was that I didn't look Indian so they didn't know I'd be offended.

‘Passing’ either as white or racially ambiguous can be a double-edged sword. It can both provide a certain level of privilege but also can be a burden to carry when your identity is seen as neutral or ambiguous and not that of a person of colour (POC). How has ‘passing’ impacted your racial politics?

 I’m unsure if I’m white passing or racially ambiguous, I feel really dysmorphic about my skin colour only because the way it is translated back to me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am asked about my ethnicity multiple times a day, every single day. ‘What are you?’ ‘Oh you look like you’re an interesting mix!’ ‘Are you Italian?’ ‘Are you Persian?’ It’s made me unsure of how I look to other people but suffice to say I understand there’s a lot of privilege with being light skinned. I’m not sure if I’ve ever found it to be a burden because I do look ‘ethnic’ for lack of a better word, it’s more that I’ve needed to take time to understand how I can yield my privilege.

It’s meant that I have had to be in uncomfortable situations to protect other less privileged, less ‘passing’ POC but isn’t that the bare minimum anyway? I think it’s allowed me to be more vocal in my anger about certain issues but then a lot of the time when I think I’ve been in a position to be more vocal, be more angry, some white person comes by and effectively ‘puts me in my place’. It’s not a burden at all.

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 Have you always been comfortable in your identity as a South Asian WOC? What has influenced your own self-perception?

I’ve struggled with my identity for years and I think in a lot of ways I am still struggling. When I was growing up my parents always praised how light my skin was and how I could pass for ‘anything’. I internalised a lot of that. There were times in school where boys told me they couldn’t date me because I was brown. In primary school whenever we would play ‘Spice Girls’ I had to be Scary Spice. I was told by classmates that I was the colour of ‘poo’ countless times. Even as I got older, I’ve come across these attitudes, the language is just different— less overt but definitely more insidious. Despite all of that, the hardest part has been trying to unlearn the attitudes my own family has instilled in me.

Growing up around a lot of inherent internalised racism has a big effect on you. It was only in my twenties and meeting other people who are proud of their South Asian heritage that I began to feel a sense of pride. I used to lie about my heritage when boys would hit on me at the club because I thought they wouldn't like me if they knew the truth. It's taken a lot of time to get to this point for me and even though it's been a messy journey I'm really proud to be here.

You’ve touched on a really important part of identity for a lot of South Asian women. As someone who has darker skin, I’ve experienced colorism within my community, which only enforces the western beauty standards we are forced to deal with every damn day in our wider society. Recently, I’ve realised how colorism within South Asian communities is tied to white supremacy and anti-Blackness. A lot of South Asian women have used social media to counter these narratives—have you found the flipping of these beauty standards empowering?

 I think colourism exists in every racial group and that lends itself to eurocentric beauty standards, and to white supremacy and anti-blackness. I don’t know if I’m in a position to flip anything because I am so light and ultimately reclaiming or flipping colourism isn’t something I’m in a position to do with my own instagram. I do try to do what I can to applaud, promote and praise darker skin men and women but as for me—my light face isn’t challenging any standards but probably playing into them.

I want to ask you about your identity as a Fiji-Indian woman, if you are comfortable discussing it—the Fiji-Indian narrative is one that is not represented or discussed enough, and I’d love to know how being Fiji-Indian has influenced where you are now?

It’s definitely not discussed a whole lot. It's left me wondering where I fit in for the most part. Am I an Islander or a South Asian? I don't really fit into either and I don't have any Fiji-Indian friends. Usually when I tell people I’m Fiji-Indian they have no idea what it means. I’ve had to take it upon myself to learn about what being Fiji-Indian really means as well as the history behind it. I recently learnt that my great grandmother was Fijian and that’s something I’ve been digesting on my own. Trying to work out how you relate to your own heritage can be hard. Fiji-Indians come from a history of indentured labour, or legalised slavery, once slavery itself was abolished. Indians were shipped over to Fiji and told they'd be paid, when often times they weren't, and after their work was done many were too poor to go back to India, so were forced to settle there.

I’m not sure how it’s influenced where I am now. It’s just meant a lot of introspection because I haven't had anyone to speak to about these things. I have a difficult time connecting to my own heritage for a bunch of reasons so when I typically do work for people and they want to celebrate my “POC-ness” I recede into myself – not because I’m embarrassed but because I’m still figuring out what it means to me and how it makes me who I am.

There’s a lot of internalised shame in the Fiji-Indian community. They reject being Indian but also a lot of the time reject what it means to be Fijian, so having a conversation with someone in the community isn’t an option for me. It’s cool though because figuring it out myself hasn’t been too painful, it’s just taken a long time.

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You’re also a law student. Do you consider law a separate pursuit to your current professional interests or do you think it complements your current work?

It’s funny that you asked about my South Asian heritage earlier because I feel my law degree is so connected to that. I’m doing a law degree to please my parents. Is that sad? Probably. I’ve always felt the Indian dream is to have a lawyer and doctor in the family and I’m out here trying to do half of that. It’s not something I really love doing but the idea that I could use it to help people makes it feel worthwhile...sometimes. 

Your work ethic and ability to juggle so many different creative pursuits is amazing. This can be such a challenge as it means having a lot of resilience and getting the job done while being relatively unsupported in a freelancing environment. What does an ‘usual’ day look like for you?

I don’t really have a usual day. I wish I did but right now things are always changing. I usually wake up pretty early, scroll through my notifications and reply to important texts. Check my emails, call my dog Nacho over to cuddle me before I get out of bed, pat him and then roll out. I consider working out then don't, make breakfast and plan out my day and prioritise my to do list. I then do some writing, listen to some new releases and probably get distracted watching makeup tutorials. Then depending on whether I have any meetings, I get dressed (which takes forever) and make my way to those. I’m usually working from 8am-8pm, and then crash. It’s not at all ideal.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers and/or DJs?

You won’t get anything without asking! It’s so scary to send an email putting yourself out there but no one else is going to do it for you. Send out your pitches, circulate your DJ mixes, tweet at your idols and be your own biggest fan. You don’t have to be coy and preface your successes with ‘I did a thing haha read if you want.’ Demand attention. I think especially in Australia we’re taught not to be confident, to be polite and dulled down versions of ourselves because it’s unattractive or rude—I think it's actually the opposite. I gravitate towards confidence and have found that putting myself out there regularly, even if i’m being rejected 9/10 times, that's still one thing more than I had already done. Rejection can be tiring but you won’t achieve any success without it.

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Who are you inspired by?

Kanye West, Flexmami and Ayesha A. Saddiqi.

What are you currently listening to?

I am crying and listening to Lil Uzi Vert’s new album Luv Is Rage 2.

What are you currently reading?

Oh I’m so embarrassed by the fact that I don’t read books. I just read hot rap takes. This one by Alphonse Pierre is my current fave.

How do you practice self-care?

Saying no. Saying no to extra work when I’m already swamped, saying no to being poorly paid, saying no to situations that aren’t good for me. I never really regret saying ‘no’.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

I think it means rectifying my parents’ mistakes. I understand why they made them but I don’t agree with those decisions. I think I'm in a position where I can teach and inspire other Asian-Australians to think broader and kinder, and just because our parents suck doesn’t mean we have to.

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