How Jay-Z’s remix of ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ helped bridge cultural divides in post-9/11 America

Remembering a song that helped challenge stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs.

Published : Sep 10, 2023 23:30 IST - 4 MINS READ

Jay Z performs during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Cleveland in November 2016.

Jay Z performs during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Cleveland in November 2016. | Photo Credit: Matt Rourke

At the turn of the century, my brother Ravi and I were listening to anything that contained loud bass or distortion: The Ramones, Nas, The Smashing Pumpkins, Jay-Z, Rage Against The Machine, DMX, Big Pun. We were restless youths with displaced energies. We expressed our teenage angst and frustration through voices we idolized while searching for our own. I found myself writing lyrics and poetry during class instead of taking notes on our nation’s history or solving mathematical equations I’d never use. My brain never functioned well in an academic setting. If I wasn’t connecting words in my notebook, I was daydreaming about performing live and reaching people through some form of creative expression. For me, entertainers delivered a more powerful message than politicians or businessmen. Artists connected people.

On September 11, 2001, I was only 14 years old, entering my second week of ninth grade. After the attack on the Twin Towers, overnight, Americans’ perceptions drastically changed across the country, including those of my classmates. As anger and patriotic fervour blanketed the streets, people began to view individuals with brown and tan skin tones or non-biblical names differently. It was as if anyone who had a tinge of less fair skin or possessed a non-biblical name was now perceived as the enemy.

For the first time in my life, I witnessed blatant prejudice based on the colour of someone’s skin or ethnic origin. It was surreal. Up until that point, racism had been a black-and-white issue. Although I knew that my family had experienced bigotry much earlier in my life, it wasn’t as obvious to me. The post-9/11 world held no subtlety, no passivity, and my friends and I were easy targets.

Punjabis and Sikhs who wore turbans were easy prey for ignorant teenagers looking to express their rage. Although none of my friends were ever physically harmed, hurtful words and name-calling, such as “towel head” or “camel jockey” or “Osama,” stayed with them longer than a punch to the face. Reports of 7-Eleven employees in nearby communities getting roughed up and even murdered struck lingering fear into our young minds.

For those first couple of years following the attacks, terrorist and militant faces covered American television screens as white talking heads dictated viewers’ emotions. The vibe in New York was uncomfortable at best as paranoia remained on high alert.

Album cover art for ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ by Panjabi MC

Album cover art for ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ by Panjabi MC | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Then, something unimaginable happened. In 2003, Jay-Z remixed Panjabi MC’s international hit “Mundian To Bach Ke” (translated to “Beware of the Boys”)—an unknown song in the US, but a tune that we in South Asian and Middle Eastern communities knew. It was played at every wedding and arangetram. The remix quickly became a hit, helping introduce the Bhangra sound to an entirely new audience. The song had a positive impact on my classmates.

Suddenly, kids who knew nothing about us “foreign” people were spinning the track at communions, bar mitzvahs, and sweet sixteens. Though the track sounded like it was from a far-away land, Punjabi MC—whose real name is Rajinder Singh Rai—was not so distant after all. The British-born DJ and rapper had been building in popularity during the 1990s and early 2000s. After remixing the theme to Knight Rider, a popular American show in the 1980s, the song became a hit all over Europe. Due to its popularity, Jay-Z heard the song and asked to remix it.

“All I knew was it was something totally fresh,” recalled Jay-Z. “It felt like world music in the best sense, like a bunch of sounds from different parts of the globe joined up like an all-star team. People in the club heard it and went crazy. I did, too. I tracked down the artist (Panjabi MC) and called the next day to see if I could do a remix of the song… I wanted to make it a party song, which was the mindset I was in when I first heard it. But the international feeling of the track—which some people thought was Arabic—moved me into a different direction. So I dropped in a line against the Iraq War”

For the moment in time, Jay-Z, who was like a god to us—especially in New York—opened up the world to young Americans still trying to make sense of it. While the grown-ups devoured 24-hour news coverage, we had our media and its correspondents to help understand the changes occurring around us.

In those ensuing high school years and onto college, we felt a little less like outsiders who didn’t belong.

Raj Tawney writes about race and identity from his multiracial American perspective. He has contributed essays to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and other publications around the world. His debut memoir Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience will be available on October 3.

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