It’s a sunny afternoon in Carson, Calif., and Arshad Aslam is in front of his computer. There’s a script for another audition sitting at one end of his desk, an unedited version of an upcoming video that he directed on his desktop, a drum set off to his right, and long sheets of fabric blanketing the floors of this makeshift office in the garage.
As an independent artist coming off the release of his album, Knockout, the heat is just beginning to turn up for the up-and-comer. Between shooting Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous with comedian Bo Burnham on MTV, and his single “Girl on Fire” hitting more than two million views on YouTube, Arshad has spent the better part of the last year memorizing lines, designing clothes, and looking through the viewfinder of a camera to piece together his latest video for “Bumper." He’s a one-man army: designing, acting, choreographing, singing, producing, and directing his own shit, all to satisfy his need for expression while paying homage to the community he hails from.
Carson is located about 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles in the South Bay, an area nicknamed by the locals. It’s comprised of surfer-filled beach cities like Redondo and Hermosa; the affluent neighborhood Palos Verdes; and the grittier inland cities like Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Carson, with Compton bordering it from the north. “Growing up in Carson placed me directly in the middle of very different cultures,” Arshad says. “Beach cities on the left, the hood on the right.”
This dynamic was his catalyst for jumping into music and fashion. He recorded mixtapes from some of the tracks he heard off of the radio, but when he checked out the faces of the industry, there was something missing. “Being an Indian kid in the '90s, there wasn’t anyone in the media that I could connect with,” he says. Things haven’t changed much since then: Indian artists are still relatively absent in popular culture. “More than anything I want a young Indian kid out there to have a public figure that they can relate to.”
So, Arshad’s energies are spent refining projects with that in mind. He’ll tell you this isn’t just a pursuit to make a quick buck, it’s about expression and helping others feel comfortable expressing themselves. His last video for “Someone You Love,” which focuses on a bullied teen, saw all of its iTunes proceeds go to Straight But Not Narrow, an anti-bullying organization that focuses on LGBTQ youths. With 37-percent of kids reporting going through some type of bullying in America’s schools, it’s a continuing problem that’s in need of a solution.
“You can escape with music,” he says. “Sometimes, music might be the only thing these kids have.”
Creating something with elements that many people can connect to is what he set out to do with Knockout. The album features some 14 songs that mix EDM, pop, hip-hop, and rock. Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Hindi, and French are weaved into many of the songs, a few of the many languages that are not just found in L.A., but around the entire country. “I don’t think people should feel like it’s different, or strange. It’s not to me,” he says, lifting up his snapback to move his fingers through his dark hair. “I want to expose and connect people to these mediums that they might not otherwise see, either in music or film.”
A fusion of culture visually comes into play in the “Bumper” video, which he directed, styled, and helped choreograph. The dancers and models stem from different backgrounds and perform hip-hop, twerking, waacking, and wushu—a Chinese martial art—to add to the cool chaos of the video, all played out in classic black and white. But to make sure things don’t get too serious, that’s where the youngin’s in the video come in. “Everyone has that internal child in them that just wants to have fun, no matter how old they may be,” Arshad says. “The babies in the video represent innocence, about being oblivious and just getting down.”
Arshad funds all of this himself, and it’s practically a necessity to have a serious pen-to-paper, camera-to-computer, head-down dedication to make these projects come to life. “It’s a trip how things just start as an idea,” he says. “There’s a lot riding on each decision this early in the game. After that, you just have to pray that the audience digs what you put out.”