Story by Imama Khawaja
Photos by Priyanka Podjale
The first time we heard of Tara Chandra Mahadevan, she was sitting up on a stage, mic in hand, interviewing Chicago rapper Saba on his new album. She is first and foremost a journalist - having interviewed everyone from Noname to Chance to Joe Freshgoods to Ravyn Lenae (and so many others) - but she’s also a content strategist, creative director, and all other possible jobs that embody an oriented creative hustler. As a first - generation American Indian woman with her experience and expertise, her take is a more unique one on the Chicago underground and indie rap scene. We were eager to interview her for her perspective.
How did you start out with all of this creative work?
Originally I wanted to be a doctor. You know how it is, I’m South Indian so I have a super conservative family, we’re Brahmin, vegetarian. I first went to NYU for English and I hated it. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, so moving to a city like that when you’re eighteen - it was a lot. But then I transferred to SAIC’s creative writing program in Chicago. Although if I had gone to NYU I’d probably have a really lit job or something right now.
What are some differences you see between New York and Chicago?
It’s easy to get your foot in the door here. I was in New York for two years and I don’t think I accomplished the same amount there than I have here. Chicago is like, Midwestern mentality, but still the hustle of the city. You can be a big fish in a small pond. In New York, everyone wants to look a certain way, act a certain way, dress a certain way. Every time you go out in New York you gotta bust a fit to go to the grocery store.
How has being a person of color/woman of color/specifically Indian shaped your journey?
There is the feeling of being ‘othered’ - especially in rap, when the narrative is largely black or white. When I was starting out I just wanted to write about everything so I did, specifically I realized I like writing about underground indie rap. These people I’m interviewing and covering are largely black rappers, regardless of men or women, and it’s like, that’s not my perspective or where I come from. But my family still had issues growing up, even if I didn’t know about them until much later on. Sometimes those are things I can tap into with this. It took me awhile to realize that - write what you know.
I feel like a lot of POC feel like they’re speaking for their whole race or culture. It’s hard because in Chicago it doesn’t feel like there are really any other Indian people doing anything. In New York I had a lot of brown friends, but they’re Bengali or Pakistani or Muslim, while I’m South Indian and Hindu - even going that close to my identity, there’s not a lot of people exactly like me. We have such a rich artistic and musical history that is overlooked.
"I think when you do things with honesty and sincerity and you’re not a complete shithead or a snake...people trust you and they tell you real shit."
What are things to remember while being a journalist in this industry?
I think when you do things with honesty and sincerity and you’re not a complete shithead or a snake - which a lot of people are in entertainment, it’s so easy to be - people trust you and they tell you real shit. But then sometimes you have to realize, I can’t tell this story, this is not for me to tell. It’s hard because the creatives that I know are doing things to serve themselves, and I do too, but that’s not necessarily always what I’m doing. I’m not always telling my own story. So I have to figure out - how does what I’m about come through in my writing? And oftentimes it doesn’t really. But I am writing a book.
What’s your book about?
It’s about Saba and his group, Pivot Gang. I’ve interviewed Saba six or seven times. The book has been revamped like five times in the last two and a half years.
Tell us more about your creative work with Kevin Coval.
I met Kevin through YCA. I had interviewed enough people to know YCA is fundamental to a lot of musicians - Saba, Chance, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Jamila Woods. They have the longest running youth open mic in the city. I interviewed Kevin and that led to him offering me a job at YCA teaching a journalism program. We now co - host a podcast, Cornerstone, but I also became creative director for his book, A People’s History of Chicago. We were on The Daily Show, that was tight. I never fangirl, that was unlike me.
So you’ve interviewed like a million people. Who are your favorites? Any crazy stories?
A lot of crazy stories, probably inappropriate. Freddie Gibbs was trill - nobody uses that word anymore, but he just really is. I prefer interviewing people who are more relatively new because that part of their story hasn’t been told before. I’ve staked my career on that shit, I did Smino in some of his earliest interviews, Saba, Cousin Stizz. When I first started writing around 2014, people wanted to break artists, give them their first interview. Now it’s all about cliques. The whole thing’s fucked anyway. Every editor’s a white guy. I don’t want my story about a person of color being edited through the lens of a white man.
But now I’m taking a break because I write news for Complex and I co - host the podcast and I’m trying to do things in real life instead of being an online person. Just in case the Internet costs a lot of money with that net neutrality thing. I always just thought I was a writer, but I found out that what I do can be applied to other mediums within music and entertainment. Producing events, creative direction, project management. I really like curating galleries now.
You’ve had a long journey. Were there any specific moments where you were like, “I’ve made it?”
I don’t know, I always feel like there’s something bigger or more than what I’m doing. Which is why I’m writing a book. I can’t be churning out article after article and feel satisfied. You sit there and you’re like, I did that shit - but then the moment’s over, you’ve got more shit to do. You’re already onto the next thing.
So you don’t feel you’ve necessarily have that moment - you think it might still be coming?
I mean it’s not good to compare either and I grew up comparing myself. Like, I’m twenty - nine, what have I accomplished compared to other people? I’m always just trying to do more. I’m really invested in helping the community too and I’m trying to bridge the gap between Chicago and St. Louis. Or do more for Indians, but I don’t even know what that means. There’s a lot of parts to hit that I don’t know how to yet.
"I just wanna do substantial things. Stuff you can hold in your hand, not shit on the Internet. It’s not tangible."
What’s coming next for you?
My friends and I want to start a music summit for kids. What’s obviously missing in Chicago is the lack of a real infrastructure in the industry here. Coming from New York and seeing and knowing how shit actually works - the business side here is lacking. We want a summit for the youth, where we talk about all those parts of the industry - publicity, management, performance, recording, through panels and workshops and interactive events. I just wanna do substantial things. Stuff you can hold in your hand, not shit on the Internet. It’s not tangible.