She’s producing experimental, synthy music for far-flung internet children.
Here’s the backdrop: an entire generation of would-be inventors hammer out lines of computer code in their parents’ garages, a world’s worth of immigrants have been upended on elite high schools where they take top prizes in every subject, and a burgeoning art scene is rubbing the sleep away from its eyes.
Josephine Shetty, stage name: Kohinoorgasm, is at the center of this raging region.
She hails from Los Angeles and has found a home in Berkeley. There, in the city that kicked off some of the major student protests of the 1960s, she creates music for the underground, experimental music space.
The child of a multiracial family, Shetty came from a household full of Bollywood music and Western art. She was trained in ballet and jazz dance from an early age.
“I’ve always made music and performed since I was little. I come from a really strong technical dance and performance background,” Shetty told Kajal. “But I’ve never had a performance project that was totally and wholly mine. I always feel like I have very specific visions for things. I’ve always wanted autonomy.“
In January she started her current project under the name Kohinoorgasm with her first song “Titalee.” At that point it was still an experiment. Shetty said she had all the aspirations to create pop music without any of the experience. So she turned to Garage Band to create her backbeats.
“When I first made ‘Titalee’ I was like ‘Hell yeah! I love this. This is my style. This is where I want to go.’ You know, like minimal, dance pop kinda thing,” Shetty said.
“Ever since then I’ve been loving Garage Band. It’s so accessible. You have a lot more control than what people think you do. There’s a lot of stigma around using these programs but they’ve given me a lot of opportunities.”
As her shadowy, sexy alter-ego, Shetty creates synthy winding beats and releases them online. She is prolific with her music, sometimes updating her SoundCloud multiple times a week.
Her songs puts you in a trance. Shetty loops simple, one-note beats on top of echoes of her voice. She often repeats the same lyrics over and over again till you are bumping and humming under the cloud of noise she made for you. It is intimate and sultry.
As much as her music loops, her name also seem to dip in and out of the themes she sings about.
“I made the name way before I started the project or had even conceived of it being a thing,” Shetty said. “At that time I was just looking for some funny pun on something I could identity with culturally. I wanted to queer something. Tacking on ‘orgasm’ to ‘Koh-i-Noor’ was like queering some cultural trope for me, also evoking a history in a word that is so storied and tacking on a new history to it too.
“Originally I didn’t intend to use ‘Kohinoorgasm’ for the project but as I went I realized that’s what I’m doing — I’m trying to queer a certain culture or even create a new culture.”
The Koh-i-Noor diamond, which inspired Shetty’s name, was first discovered in Andhra Pradesh, India in the 13th century. Over the years it passed hands between warring tribes and monarchies before being claimed by the British for Queen Victoria in the mid 1800s during the British Raj.
The Queen’s consort Prince Albert wanted to make the gem fashionable for his wife and had it cut in the Western style. The Koh-i-Noor lost 42% of its mass in the process. It is currently set in Queen Elizabeth II’s crown.
The diamond has become a symbol for the ruthless colonization of India by the British and the ensuing lack of remorse the United Kingdom has for its history.
Shetty engages with the history behind her name and her identity as a mixed-race South Asian queer woman in her songs, which are titled things like “Mera Shareer [My Body (Is Not Yours)]” and “Naga Tease.” She calls herself a “culture shape-shifter.”
As Kohinoorgasm, Shetty performs her music live in offbeat spaces. This month she will be dancing and singing, along with other artists, in a vintage clothing store and in a museum.
The Bay Area experimental art scene, she says, is “dominated by femme PoC.” The region as a whole is home to a range of minority groups. This past year, even, Latinos overtook the white population as the ethnic majority in California.
“There are people from so many different cultural experiences making this music,” Shetty said. “It’s like an inter-cultural common ground. We all want to make our culture our own. Watching these artists incorporate parts of their culture into this really wild sonic landscape is cool.”
Even in these spaces, though, Shetty says she comes up against the same societal restrictions and white male dominance she’s trying to shrug off in her music.
“There is an awesome understanding between these artists and their peers but there is always, seriously always, white dude who comes up to ask ‘Oh my God, what language is that? What are you saying?’,” she said.
“Two of my close friends and I have this thread of screenshots of men messaging us, particularly white men, asking us to collaborate and it’s annoying because they clearly don’t have much to offer us in return. They’re trying to ride our thing. It seems they just can’t believe it’s happening without them.”
Shetty says her music gets her a lot of support from listeners but there are still many who don’t understand it. They often ask her questions about her lyrics and themes. But she doesn’t feel like she owes them an explanation.
“They always frame the conversation around my music like an academic dialogue, but I’m like ‘you’re just trying to take my energy right now.’ They’re white dude vampires,” she said.
“I feel like my song is explanation enough. I shouldn’t have to put out anymore for them to get it,” she said.
Photography: Jasdeep Kang