He is the first of a kind. Rap is usually sung in English, even if the song is in Hindi, Punjabi or English itself. But Bohemia raps in Punjabi. No one’s done that before, and no follower — if any — has been noticed.
Bohemia’s real name — he does not hide it — is Roger David. What’s a Christian doing singing Punjabi rap? “I am from Punjab, where my great-grandfather converted from Sikhism to Christianity for some reason,” says Bohemia simply. “However in my house, the Granth Sahib and the Bible were both there, though I was raised as a Christian. As for me, I believe in God, but I am not religious.”
The term “Bohemia” suggests flouting traditional mores. And rap is all about personal angst or feelings. So what is Bohemia the man all about? “Well, I lost my mom when I was just 14 or 15, and I was quite a momma’s boy. That made me mad and I was kind of pushed into negative things. I have to thank God for music, for that’s what finally made me wake up and gave a reason to live. Dad played the harmonium and I learnt the keyboard.”
He goes on, “When we shifted to the U.S., I lived a strange life. I was virtually living at the Milan Recording Studios in Sacramento and sleeping there or in cars. Harjeet Mehndi, Daler Mehndi’s brother, and I would go perform at occasions like birthdays and marriages, where I would play a bit of keyboards. I also worked with Jazzy B and others. I was friends with Suresh Margoli, a tabla player, and when he passed away at a young age and was replaced by another tabla player just as easily as if he was a broken instrument, I was mad again. I told the studio engineer that I was through with being a keyboard player who could go into anonymity if he died tomorrow. I wanted to do something where I would stand out!”
Bohemia’s first album was “Vich Pardesan De” in 2002, which was about coming to a foreign land. Hip-hop was then limited to the underground, and he pioneered Punjabi rap. Then came “Pesa Nasha Pyar” (Money, Intoxication, Love) in 2006 in India, the first-ever full-length desi rap album to be released worldwide on a major music label (Universal).
Bohemia says that his emotions are first-hand and are about what has happened either to him or people very close to him. “My emotions tend to be on the edge of the extreme,” says Bohemia. “Like a high when I am feeling good about myself, or when I am very bitter, like when a person of color in America is forced to even take off his socks while being frisked or is continually bothered by cops. I have never written my rap from sheer imagination or from fairytale land.”
“Da Rap Star,” his new album, also has some regular songs, as Bohemia realizes that rap usually is just a part of a song. He is also vastly proud of India’s musical heritage, and is a great fan of Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Jagjit Singh in particular. “That’s the real gold to be treasured. It’s our heritage and I listen a lot to them,” he says.
“Da Rap Star,” he says, “is all me, without any samples used other than my tribute track to Malkit Singh. I am showing off how good a producer I am! I have used a lot of bass, beats and keyboards and I have even done the sequencing. My associate J. Hind has added the desi hip-hop. There are tracks that describe my journey. To sum up, it’s me saying, ‘I’m me! Look, I’m still here!’”
Pioneers like Malkit Singh and Rabbi Shergill are unhappy about the current Punjabi pop scenario. What is his take? “I am optimistic,” he replies. “Being proper or right is a vast statement. When a U.K.-born Sikh comes out with a bhangra-pop album, what is important to me is not that the Punjabi accent is not correct but that a U.K.-raised guy is actually singing in Punjabi.”
He describes his collaboration with Akshay Kumar in “Chandni Chowk to China” and “8×10 Tasveer” as a “fantasy-come-true.” “Dad loves Akshay Kumar for the edgy stuff that he does and when he was once watching his film he asked me, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Akshay called you to do a song?’ I agreed, but asked him why it would happen? And it was bizarre that six weeks later Pooja Batra called up and stated that Akshay wanted to be in touch with me!”
The superstar invited Bohemia to the Torino Film Festival to the premiere of “Singh is Kinng” and they walked the red carpet together. “He told me that he always worked out to my music and we hopped into his limo and he told me that he needed a song for his film and gave me a brief. That same night, I started making a beat for ‘Chandni Chowk To China.’ Some months later, he called up from Cape Town and got me to hear the synopsis of ‘8×10 Tasveer.’ We are working again in ‘De Dhana Dhan.’”
And what’s with the angry-yet-sad kind of look on his new inlay cover? Laughs the rapper, “Ha! That’s the music company’s choice! I had chosen another picture but they insisted on this one! You will have to pull them up for it!”