Representation. It’s an easy buzzword to capture a lot of different experiences for people of color in pop culture. For Asian Americans like myself, this idea became a media mantra over the past decade. But the dialogue around our community’s representation in 2018—the year that “Crazy Rich Asians” (hopefully) justified our sustained market value to pop culture gatekeepers—has undervalued roots in the activism of Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, H.G. Mudgal, The Third World Liberation Front members and other Asian-American activists’ work.
I didn’t know about any of these dynamics when I first encountered the Kondabolu brothers’ work. I just knew that watching Hari’s stand-up comedy and listening to younger brother Ashok’s hip hop group, Das Racist, made me feel seen. Their version of South Asian identity resonated far more deeply than the Bollywood glamour, Asian Underground beats or corny rhetoric about overbearing parents and overachieving kids that surrounded me as a child. Between Hari’s cutting anti-oppressive jokes and Das Racist’s absurd lyrics, I saw a holistic community narrative that actually reflected my own. They connected the dots between my liberal arts education and anger about the slights I later learned to call by their real name: racism. They pointed to a history of activism and art that confronted White supremacy’s diffuse impact on my life, and helped me see my role in a struggle alongside Black, Indigenous and Latinx people. Most importantly, they showed I could fight my lifelong loneliness by nurturing my talents and gearing them toward liberation. They represented me and all I wanted to be: a creative, sometimes-comical and earnestly irreverent agent of change.
Imagine my excitement to learn that they resurrected their podcast, Kondabolu Brothers, for a new season of live tapings this year. Like its antecedent, the Untitled Kondabolu Bros. Podcast, their Earwolf show centers meandering discussions about typically mundane topics. As Hari told the audience in the first episode, “You will be witnessing two brothers talking to each other and occasionally acknowledging the audience.”
Their conversations often incorporate themes that may seem “culturally specific” to an outsider, but scan as completely normal to those who understand them. For instance, one episode features Ashok discussing how he lost his spice tolerance after a prolonged period of not seeing their mother in Queens. The next time he sees her, she cooks an appropriately spicy South Indian dish:
From the first bite, it literally was like when they make fun of White people—I took the first bite, and it burned my mouth! I went, “Aahhhh!” And I started coughing, and then my nose immediately started running, and I was a complete mess. And Amma [“mom” in several South Indian languages] was like, “no, put ghee in there,” and I was like, “I did! I did all this stuff!” And I’d completely reset my tolerance to spice.
Ashok’s story sounds so much like an interaction I had with my own South Indian mother that I wonder if we were eating the same thing. While this could read as an apt metaphor for losing one’s sense of culture, neither Ashok nor Hari described it as such. Instead, it’s just a part of adult life, just like the banter they have with their mother in the last episode of the season; you have to listen to Uma Kondabolu’s perfectly timed comments on Steph Curry’s handsomeness and Ashok’s childhood truancy.
Within these mundane topics lies the most important aspect of representation: feeling utterly normal. Our stories about being seen often contain so much drama around the pain of erasure that we can overlook the more ordinary experiences—like being floored by a mother’s cooking or learning she finds a basketball player attractive—that fill out our lives. Kondabolu Brothers speaks to the subtle joy of these moments and helps us feel normal in a world that demands we always have something to prove.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my Amma just texted. Gotta go.
More of Sameer’s Favorites:
TV Show: “Random Acts of Flyness”
Artist: Loveis Wise