“If I could fight my nature, if we could break this wager, would you as well,” starts the song “Fucked up.” From the EP “Outside” that helped singer-songwriter Leo Kalyan skyrocket to fame, the song seems to delve deep into the fractured mind of a person going through an identity crisis. It is dilemma much too common, but Kalyan is able to capture the ethos of that crisis in such a refreshing way. It is one of the many things that makes hima must-checkout artist. The latest notch on his belt has been his album “Focus” that was released November last year. It has been five years since Kalyan entered the music scene and he has definitely made his own mark. Even a half-hearted attempt to listen to his work will make one thing clear– he is not afraid to chart his own path. We caught up with with him recently to find out more about his life, his work and everything in between:
Q. Krupa Joseph: Tell me a little bit about your family and childhood— what was it like growing up in London?
Leo Kalyan: I come from a typical desi family, where everyone wants to gossip about everyone else. My mom and her sisters are very close. They all gather around my Naani’s house in South London, which has been the heart of our family for the past 40 years. My maternal grandfather was an Urdu shaair, so poetry and music, especially ghazals, have always played a huge part in our family. Sadly he’s passed away, but my Naani says that I owe my talents to him.
Q. What was it like coming out for you, especially with your family?
LK: It was difficult, as it is for most people. It happened in phases. I came out first, to my sisters as a teenager, and to my mom in my early 20s. I only came out to my dad a couple of years ago. He’s a religious person, and it worried me. I wrote him a letter, and we spoke a couple of days after he had read and digested it. Thankfully, he was really accepting. Now, he sends me articles about queerness and Islam. He says that he can be a Muslim and still love his gay son. Our whole relationship improved after that. We could finally see each other.
Q. When did you discover your passion for music?
LK: I’ve always loved music. I grew up watching so much Bollywood—from Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan to DDLJ and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The songs in these movies were at some point the soundtrack to my life. I used to steal my mom’s CDs and listen to Lata ji, Asha ji, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and AR Rahman—all the stalwarts, basically. Somewhere along the line, I discovered my passion for music.
Q. Who do you draw inspiration from?
LK: If i had to choose one person who really inspires me in life, I would choose Rupaul. His positive attitude is endlessly inspiring. Musically, though, I’d have to say AR Rahman. No one else composes like he does. He is a true master of melody and music-making.
Q. How much does your identity as an British-Indian-Pakistani, as well as a member of the LGBTQ community, influence and drive your work?
LK: When I first started making music, I didn’t address these parts of my identity in my work. Soon enough, I reached a point where I felt like something was amiss in my work— I didn’t feel as connected to it as i should have. I realised that it was because I wasn’t expressing myself honestly. That is how my song “Fucked up” came into existence. It is a song that was born out of my feeling like a disappointment to my family.My whole attitude to songwriting changed, eventually. Now, I try to put all of my truth into my lyrics. It is challenging, but so much more fulfilling. I think people enjoy and can relate to that kind of vulnerability.
Q. What has being a British-Pakistani LGBTQ artist truly been like?
LK: My family is from both sides of the border. I am from both, Pakistan and India. But, most of family, now live in London. It has not been easy. The music industry, like so many other industries, is a very restrictive place. I’ve experienced my fair share of racism and homophobia and that’s one of the reasons I decided to talk about my identity through my work. I want to break the stigma so people can feel empowered and represented.
Q. What do you feel about the decriminalisation of Section 377?
LK: Overjoyed, relieved, excited. I’m so happy that queer people don’t have to hide in the shadows anymore. We don’t have to be invisible, but, india is just one part of south-asia. Hopefully the rest of desi communities around the world will follow soon.
Q. Within this new climate of acceptance or tolerance, what do you look forward to in terms of of the LGBTQ community?
LK: I am looking forward to “tolerance” turning into respect. In South-Asian societies, both at home and abroad, there’s still such a huge stigma around being gay. Just because the law has changed that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with it, and I hope that over time, everyone realises that we are human beings, just like everyone else. We deserve to be celebrated, uplifted and protected.
Q. What does Pride mean for you?
LK: To me, pride is about fearlessness– to be able to live without being scared that your rights as a human being will not be jeopardised by your sexuality. After all, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, who we choose to love is nobody else’s business.
Q. What are you looking forward to in the immediate future?
LK: I’ve just released an EP called “The Edge” and a music video for my song “Focus.” I’m taking a little break over Christmas–it’s a pretty magical time of year in London. After that, it’s time to work on the next EP. I’m also planning on performing in India sometime this new year. I really want to start releasing more music in India because it’s such a huge part of my story, and I think with section 377 repealed, there’s a little space for queer artists to succeed. Also, my new single “Trevi Fountain” is going to be released on February 6th on all online platforms, and I am extremely excited about that.