“Music is something that belongs to everybody. It is a universal force,” jazz pianist Vijay Iyer said. “I didn’t know the world would let me be an artist.”


Vijay Iyer is a notable jazz pianist who recently performed and spoke at our school. Iyer is most notable for writing and playing his music while keeping ethics in mind. He hopes to send a message to his audience about the struggles of being a child of immigrants and talked about the 1965 Immigration Act which brought in a new wave of immigrants to America, including Iyer’s parents who are of South Asian descent.


Prior to his on-campus concert on Jan. 17, the head of the English Literature Department,  Priya Jha, hosted a talk with Iyer, discussing not only his music but about his experiences being “brown in the West.” The jazz pianist emphasized that he does not always try to make music to follow his identity, but rather uses his identity as a backdrop to create something more real for his audience to relate to.


I had the opportunity to be a part of this conversation, and while I was surprised to be pulled in between Jha and Iyer, I was able to reflect on my own experience with Iyer’s music. Although it was nerve-racking to speak in front of so many people, it was an experience I will never forget.


In spring of 2017 I was a part of Jha’s South Asian Literary Culture class where we had the opportunity to explore many mediums (film, literature and music) to enhance our learning. Iyer’s music became a part of our class and evoked an amazing discussion within the class simply through the messages of his music. Jha’s class sparked my interest in Iyer, not only as a musician but as an activist as well. Upon learning that he would be coming to the University, I knew I wanted to attend his talk prior to the concert and was excited to have to opportunity to converse with him.  


The result of our conversation brought to light an interesting question: what is Iyer’s relationship to mainstream music as a man of color? As he reflected, it gave me the chance to think about this as well and Iyer could not have put it better. He brought up that it is “more than just being pulled aside at the airport,” and he hopes his music will help serve as a form of healing and education for many.


Traditionally the history of jazz, as said by Iyer, “has white musicians and black musicians, but it does not have brown ones.” Iyer spoke of this during his conversation, about being an Indian-American in the jazz world, and quoted Abbey Lincoln when she said “a lot of people think they are playing jazz. But they aren’t because jazz doesn’t exist.” Through his use of collaborations, alliance and choice in repertoire Iyer ensures that he is acknowledging the heavy African American history of jazz music.


Iyer will often say something before a piece about where it came from or why he wrote it, and shares that his main hope is to lead his audience to a place of political awareness.


In his parting words, Iyer touched on one of the most special parts about his creativity: “Others can find something in themselves through you.” Leaving the rest of us craving more and encouraging us to empathize with one another.


Photos contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer Miracle Carciaga.