A Foot in Each Boat: Harsha Sen

Harsha Sen '19 performing at Swarthmore's Olde Club

Harsha Sen '19 performing at Swarthmore's Olde Club

“I probably wrote my first verse in the back of the school bus on a little scrap of paper when I was like 12,” Harsha Sen ‘19 tells me, smiling as he recounts his journey into music. Harsha is a senior from Kolkata, India. At Swarthmore, he is a Biology and Economics double major. Outside of class, he does Statistics and Biology research, and is an RA on Hallowell 2nd. A former member of GoodGoodNotBad, he now hosts a radio show at WSRN called Beats, Rhymes, and Life.  

Writing is second nature to Harsha. “Yesterday I had my to-do list,” he recalls, “and I was just not being super productive and I was just writing a rhyme on the bottom of it. It's fun and it's therapeutic for me.” At the same time, he tries to be intentional in the music he creates. For Harsha, hip hop is an exercise in self-exploration and truth telling. With his music, he is “speaking into existence and presenting [his] whole self.”

In his music, he grapples with questions of identity, using language as a way to communicate different parts of himself. Harsha speaks Hindi, Bengali, and English. He describes a current draft of a song which incorporates all three languages, saying, “a small percentage of the people around me will understand all three of the languages. It sounds dope … but I'm not super concerned with giving everyone something they can fully understand… I'm speaking my truth in all these different languages. People will rock with whatever subset of those languages they can understand, and it's cool for me to still have this bigger picture.”

This summer, Harsha released his first music video, “Du Noukay Paa,” which means “A Foot in Each Boat” in Bengali. The first half of the song is in English, and the second half is in Bengali. Harsha explains that he came up with the song in a rather unique way: he found a free beat tape and wrote an English verse. Independently, he wrote a verse in Bengali without a beat. “At some point - I was in the bathroom, the idea came to me when I was peeing or something like that - like, yo, what if I put these two verses together? That would be cool.” After recording the song, he began to make a music video with the help of some Swatties as well as some friends at home in Kolkata.

Harsha also draws attention to one line of  “Du Noukay Paa,” where he raps “ইংরিজি মার্কিন, Malcolm আর Martin,” which means “my English is American, Malcolm and Martin.” He says he views art as a medium for resistance, although he clarifies “I make music for myself.” He explains, “I try to live my politics to the extent possible and talk about my life in my art…  It's cool that I've got all these white kids at Swarthmore listening to a song that's half Bengali. They can't pronounce the f**king name of the song. That sh*t is dope.”

Harsha also grapples with issues of privilege and positionality, constantly considering the privilege he has as a student at a foreign private liberal arts college.  “More power to you if you're speaking to these issues. If you're doing good, I'm never going to stop you, but also, I think for me at least, I have to have that second of introspection - where do I stand? Who am I? I'm trying to navigate that in the right way.”

Harsha also spends a lot of time thinking about his positionality as an Indian-American creating hip hop. “Mos Def said hip hop is just shorthand for Black people in the present day. In a lot of ways, I think that that holds true—so where does that leave someone like me?” he asks. This summer, Harsha wrote on Facebook:

“For those who do not already know: The music I make, hip hop/rap, is Black music. People all over the world are inspired by this music and participate in their own ways, but it is important to acknowledge its roots in Black American and deeper African traditions. As a non-Black rapper, it is important for me to make this clear to my audience. Too often, non-Black people consume Black culture but do not care as much about Black people. Regardless of cultural contribution, I hope we push back against anti-Blackness in our lives and communities in the ways we can, simply because it is the right thing to do. I hope my music introduces people to new perspectives, and reminds us to always see each other as fully human and equal.”

In our conversation, he explains that “no matter how ‘hood’ you are or how [proximate] to Blackness you've been your whole life, you can also just as easily step away, where the difference is … Black people can't do that. Black people can't switch off and be seen as less threatening by whiteness whereas non-Black people can.”  Harsha furthers that coming to the U.S. from India provided more context for him to grapple with those questions. “I know my place in this music and [I] contribute in a way that is meaningful and honest and kind of does some good in terms of [making sure] I’m taking up the right kind of space.”

Harsha Sen '19 performing alongside Tiye Pulley '19.

Harsha Sen '19 performing alongside Tiye Pulley '19.

Harsha loves Freestyle Fridays, a time on Friday nights for students to come to the 4th floor of Parrish, make music, and relax. “I don’t know how many other places have that but in terms of a real physical space and time that [WSRN] provides.” Throughout our conversation, Harsha also points out that he’s had help from other students. For example, Ariana Hoshino ‘20 filmed Du Noukay Paa and David Molina Cavazos ‘20 helped him edit it. “I want to make sure it’s not just about me. I constantly feel the need to push other really dope artists here. Frames and Tiyé are really f**king awesome. If you're interested in the music my friends back home make, the collective is called the Cypher Project.”  The community of musicians and creators on Swarthmore’s campus has helped shape Harsha as a musician: “I may have been able to have a conversation about people’s ‘Top 5’ on the internet back home or something. But here, there's a lot of really smart, wise, wise people that I’ve learned a lot from.”

If you’re interested in listening to some of the music discussed in this article, Harsha’s Soundcloud can be found here and the music video for Du Noukay Paa is here.

CULTUREOlivia RobbinsComment