Chicago soul singer Zeshan B had come through NYC to perform the single “Cryin’ in the Streets”, from his debut album Vetted, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert the night before he performed at the Mercury Lounge. A video of from Colbert is below and photos and a couple of videos from the Mercury Lounge are at the previous link. But, before the excellent late show, we managed to say hi to Zeshan and then got him to take a stab at PopMatters 20 Questions. What resulted is an insightful look at a rising talent who defies convention.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The movie Lion. Man, that joint turned on the water works for sure. Dev Patel is the man in general, but his performance in that film surpassed any of his prior work in my book. Everything was SO real in that movie. Like no joke I’ve visited India eight times since I was a kid and I’ve seen the misery and despair with my own eyes that we see in that movie. I remember being bewildered when I’d take the train somewhere with my parents or uncles and seeing kids (who were clearly orphans) wander around train station by themselves and none of the thousands of adults frenetically going about their day paid them any attention at all. Like it was just business as usual. It was mortifying.
I remember seeing kids my age working in factories or living on the street and once again, it was awfully strange that thousands of cars, buses, oxcarts, tractors, people etc. would just pass on by without seeming to give a damn. I mean, I’ve tried to understand why that lack of empathy was so pervasive, and the only conclusion I could draw was that when you have a country of a billion-plus people, maybe empathy is the first thing to go out the window. But anyway, that film really did take me back to those experiences I had in India.
But wow, the scene when Saroo finally tracks down his Mom—that’s when the water works really came on for me. It wasn’t just the sheer enormity of mother and son being reunited but also the poignant authenticity of that Indian village’s vibe that struck a very personal chord for me. Because let me tell you—being the son of a man who came from a small dusty town in India just like the one in that scene—I can say with authority that the vibe that they captured on camera was incredibly authentic. Everything—the color of the walls, the narrow and muddy streets, the livestock and feral animals, the sounds—everything was on point and EXACTLY what you’d see in a village.
And the fact that the whole town starts to gather around the mother and son—that’s precisely what would’ve happened. I mean that in itself it took me back to this amazing thing I witnessed when I went to India for the first time—I was five years old, and my Dad had not gone back to his village since he immigrated to America. When our Jeep pulled up to my Grandma’s house late at night, the entire village was there to cheer on and greet the return of this prodigal son. And for the rest of my life I’ll never forget just how intensely emotional it was when my Dad and grandma sobbingly embraced each other for the first time in nearly a decade.
So yea, as you can see by my long-winded response, Lion really did it for me! The combination of Saroo’s epic life journey with the nostalgia that the cinematography awoke in me. Man, I’m tearing up right now.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Nightcrawler. I was always called that in high school because I bore a resemblance to the dude that played him in the X-Men movie. Plus I was dark like night! I just wasn’t too adept at the whole crawling thing, the teleportive crawling specifically.
I wish I were, though! That would be dope!
3. The greatest album, ever?
Oh boy that’s just not a fair question. I tend to oscillate between Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison, Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul and A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. All of them are very different and since I’m a pretty indecisive person, I’d say that amongst those three epic albums, my favorite probably fluctuates on a daily basis.
Today, I’ll go with Midnight Marauders. But tomorrow who knows?
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars! Real talk, I’ve never seen Star Trek! (**GASP**)
5. Your ideal brain food?
I know this might be cliché’, but honestly nothing gets the juices flowing in my noggin like a cup of black, Ethiopian-blend coffee. And being kind of a coffee snob, I’ve encountered a plenty of good stuff in my travels but I gotta say that among the heavenly Ethiopian blends, my FAVORITE roast of all time is the house blend from this Northside Chicago (Rogers Park) joint on Sheridan Road called Royal Coffee. Trust me, you’ll never have a cup of coffee that’s so bold yet so smooth that it goes down like it’s water or something.
“Mama” Yodet (she insists that us regulars call her Mama) sources from her family’s own coffee farm back in Ethiopia and you’ll taste a copious amount of Ethiopian love in every sip you take.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Back when I was singing opera in grad school, I remember playing the role of Lippo Fiorentino—an Italian (don’t even ask me) music teacher in 1930’s NYC in a Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes opera-musical called Street Scene. And as the title suggests, the show is a treatise on urban life, particularly that of a tenement on a city block in East Side Manhattan.
In a staging rehearsal of the famous “Ice Cream Sextet”—a scene where my character sang on the street to all of his neighbors the many merits of ice cream (you know, typical NYC stuff)—one of the other “neighbors” was a tad bit more sensitive to the director’s demands than everyone else was. This young lady was messing some stuff up with her stage blocking and she knew it because the director was taking her to task for it, and she thus felt embarrassed.
Well, unbeknownst to the director and the entire cast, (her back was turned in such a way that she was only facing me) she started crying. And as I continued to sing the praises of ice cream on a fictitiously hot New York day, I remember immediately feeling a sense of empathy towards my colleague and thus, a human responsibility to alleviate her pain and better her condition. And that’s exactly what I ended up doing—all the while staying in character.
So in the very spirit of my character’s general warmth and unbridled excitement towards ice cream cones, I went right up to her, put my hand on her face and caressed her cheek—at least that’s how it read to everyone else who couldn’t see what was really going on, and the director later on praised me for “interacting organically with the neighbors and making good character choices.”
But this is what actually happened: I put my hand on her face so that I could wipe away her tears, which I did in a caressing motion. I’ll never forget that furtive smile that came across her face. For without saying it, I basically told her, “Hey, no worries. I got your back on this – everything’s gonna be just fine.”
It’s not the sort of tangible “accomplishment” that I can hang on a wall or quantify in objective terms but I’m mighty proud of that random moment. More than anything else I’ve achieved in my life thus far, this incident sticks out to me because I feel like I achieved something priceless (making someone feel better) by enacting the rudiments of humanity: empathy, decency and love.
And I somehow did it without having to make any artistic compromises. Like I said, I built it into the scene, stayed in character and I successfully emoted a deep, subliminal message to the director and the rest of the cast—that ice cream cones are amazing.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
Refer to answer #6.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
My grandparents. Their entire generation, pretty much all across the world, endured immeasurable hardship and suffering. In my grandparents’ case, it was the chaotic, bloody 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan that killed a million people and displaced countless more, and in my wife’s grandparents’ case, it was fighting on the front lines of WWII (grandpa) and working in a munitions factory while worrying whether your boyfriend will make it back alive (grandma).
Yet they emerged from the trauma and upheaval of these global conflicts with an incredible resilience and fortitude that they embodied for the rest of their lives. It’s amazing. Nowadays, whenever I think I have it hard, I start picturing how hard it must’ve been for my grandma and grandpa to look upon the ashes and rubble of their first shop that was burned to the ground just because they were Muslim. I think of my wife’s grandpa witnessing his best friend’s arm getting blown off from a Japanese artillery shell in the Battle of Saipan.
When I think of these awful things and then think of how virtuously steadfast, kind hearted and noble our grandparents turned out to be in spite of their suffering… well, that’s as inspirational as it gets.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Marvin Gaye’s iconic album, What’s Going On.
10. Your hidden talents…?
At the shooting range, I’ve been told that I’m a natural marksman. Oh and I used to work on cars.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Above all, a song’s gotta groove. Don’t nothin’ else matter!”—Lester Snell (Legendary Stax producer/arranger for Isaac Hayes and Al Green, produced ‘Vetted’)
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Stole a nice, heavy-duty music stand from my alma mater, Northwestern Music School. And I actually don’t feel an ounce of guilt for it… do you have any idea how much my tuition cost? I’m pretty sure this stand can be factored into those astronomical costs. And it’s seen me through some pretty amazing rehearsals!
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Levi’s! Especially their line of assless chaps…
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
My wife. Hands down. There’s no one else I’d rather be with at any given time or place. Period. Plus she keeps me civilized—she promptly notifies me of residual spinach/greens in my teeth, shmutz on my face, breadcrumbs around my plate, etc. These things make a difference at the Ritz.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
1968 Chicago—socio-politically speaking, a pretty awful time. But aesthetically, artistically and (most of all) musically? Man! What a time!
Like I hate driving today because cars are ugly and have zero character. But I would’ve LOVED to get my hands on a tank-esque boat like a ‘68 Pontiac Bonneville or better yet, a ‘67 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and just go joyriding down Lakeshore Drive!
And during this 1968 joyride, I wouldn’t have to go through this business of fumbling through my phone to put on a Spotify or YouTube Red playlist of my favorite music like I do today—all I’d have to do is just turn on the radio and pretty much anything that came on would tickle my fancy!
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
None of the above. Instead, I usually opt for a couple of episodes of The Three Stooges—that ALWAYS gets the job done!
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or..?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
City!! And while there are some amazing towns out there, none of them do it for me like Chicago does. There just isn’t any place like it. Hands down.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
“Hit the road, Jack! And don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more!”
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
An exquisite pot roast.
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