Award-winning Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra was the opening keynote speaker Saturday morning at the two-day SAMMA (South Asians in Media, Marketing and Entertainment) Summit 2013, at New York’s Time Warner Conference Center.
Introducing Chopra, Huffington Post Media Group managing editor Jimmy Soni lauded “the principles underlying her work,” the most interesting including her “pluck, courage, conviction, and a kind of strategic whimsy.”
Named by Variety as “the international star you need to know,” Chopra was Miss World in 2000. She has most recently become the first Indian film artist to be signed by a major record label in America; her debut single “In My City” was chosen for the the theme for NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football.
Topping it off for the time being, Chopra, who is the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Child Rights and a columnist for national newspapers in India, is the voice of the first Indian character (Ishani) in a major Disney animated film (Planes).
Surprisingly, then, she likened herself to an “F.O.B.”--fresh off the boat--immigrant in her keynote remarks, a middle-class girl from a small town in India, who was “suddenly transported” into American culture via Queens, New York, where she lived with an aunt during her high school years.
“I came as Priyanka Chopra and left as Mrs. Tupac Shakur!” she said, explaining how she overcame initial culture shock and found “a comfortable place for myself in the melting pot” of her newly adopted American culture.
“Hip-hop, R&B, rap,” she listed. “A large part of my journey was fueled by music”—and it continues to, she added. She said that as a teenager in the 1990s, she made mixtapes from radio songs, and although she “cried over crushes,” she also broke someone’s nose and was suspended for three days—“and I’m proud of it!”
The good small-town Indian girl became “a soul sister, in my mind,” then returned to India just as suddenly and in short order won the Miss World pageant.
“Fast-forward and I’m at the same place,” she said. “F.O.B., from gawky teenager to debutante recording artist. It feels very similar [because it’s] completely new and different from what I know. Very scary.”
Chopra’s second single “Exotic” was released in July and features Pitbull, who co-wrote it with her and producer RedOne. It contains both English and Hindi lyrics, and was selected as the official theme song of the Guinness International Champion Cup 2013.
“I quite deliberately brought my culture and background with me,” Chopra said, and noted that she likes both “lentils and rice and a double cheeseburger,” both Rihanna and Robin Thicke and the latest Bollywood blockbuster. Music, she added, was “a great binder and equalizer.”
But Chopra, who said she was currently training in boxing for an upcoming film role, jokingly threatened to “inflict bodily harm” on anyone who brought up the dreaded “C-word,” i.e., “crossover.”
“I find the crossover term limiting,” she explained. “I prefer 'test-tubing,'” she added, likening her music to “a science experiment” that could be “explosive” or like an “exotic cocktail.”
In a conversation with Soni following her speech, Chopra said that she wasn’t so much transitioning from movies to music but hoping to do both. She noted that where India is “very star-driven,” she has experienced how artists in America are promoted by a management team consisting of managers, agents, record company executives, producers and publicists. All this she touched on in a quick Q&A immediately following her presentation.
Are you making the music you want to make, or is it at the direction of your team?
A lot of it is the team. RedOne is a hitmaker—he knows what good music is. At the same time I really did have an opinion and voice to do what I wanted.
You said being a debut recording artist was “very scarey.”
It’s new for me as an actor. I’ve never made music professionally because I’ve been busy making movies. But I want to be able to do both.
Were you involved in the album creatively, besides singing?
A lot of the songs on the album were written by me and a lot of people. I collaborated with incredible musical minds!
I wrote the Hindi part in “Exotic.” The rest of the album will have me writing melodically or lyrically.
You mentioned Rihanna and Robin Thicke and Bollywood music. How would you characterize your musical tastes?
I’m somebody who is very erratic and eccentric in my tastes, whether it's the movies I do or the music I listen to--and my album is a reflection of that. I like EDM [electronic dance music], pop music.
What about ghazals?
I do love ghazals [the poetic Indian classical song form]. I just can’t sing them yet!
What about your audience?
For me it’s a global audience. It’s an English album of mainstream pop music: I like listening to Top 40. It’s my favorite genre of music. But the influences of where I come from are not just American, but not just Indian either--so I want the appeal to be global.
You’re sort of back home here.
I grew up in the ‘90s in Queens, so for me hip-hop was hugely influential—Tupac, Biggie, Salt-n-Pepa. At the same time, Hindi music and Bollywood were really big for me. I went back to India when I was 17, so today I have ghazals on my iPad, old Hindi music, new Bollywood chartbusters or Robin Thicke or whatever. I don’t’ think my album is limiting to a specific genre at all.
How do you have time to do it all, the movies, music, charitable commitments?
Sleep to me is not very important! And I don’t’ jet lag, and that helps. But the last two years have been a little hard in juggling two careers, I have to admit: I finished seven movies, and released five. I’m filming two, and made an entire album after recording almost 30 songs. So I maximize my time. I recorded my album in New York, London, Ibiza, Mumbai, Los Angeles—wherever I was. RedOne was flown all over the world, and we were influenced by each place we visited.
And now you’re at Columbus Circle!
I went to RFK High School in Flushing, Queens, but for me, Manhattan was the ambition of my life. To be here today is so funny!
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