By Noah Hubbell
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Bhi Bhiman has an ax to grind. Leaving behind the dance-happy roots funk of his old Bay Area band, Hippie Grenade, Bhiman has tapped into some hardcore angst. Whether he's vilifying the Bush administration or calling bullshit on racism and America's culture of apathy, he's considerably more provocative on his own.
Even so, don't expect to see any Mohawks trading blows in the pit at a Bhiman show. The coffee-shop acoustic on his newly released solo album, The Cookbook, blends a mixture of sweet Southern gospel, backwoods pickin' and hippie-headed California folk music. In addition, he owes a great deal to early-twentieth-century Delta bluesmen like Skip James, yet there are times when you'd swear he just channeled Bob Marley. Bhiman's lyrics are pure protest. And why not? He's calling it as he sees it. Railing against the establishment comes easy when the establishment has so obviously flushed this toilet nation into the geopolitical sewer.
"Nobody's thinking of why we're pissing people off in the world and fixing that," Bhiman complains. "I don't write good-day-sunshine songs — that isn't my thing. I can't think of one of my songs that isn't deriding, snide or angry at someone or something, even in a minor way. But it's not my fault. People in our country, they just don't care about anything."
Yet the culture of apathy Bhiman indicts isn't half as unholy to him as the lingering racism — some of it overt, some of it institutionalized, invisible — that he sees infecting the land of the free. For this first-generation Sri-Lankan American, finding acceptance is more than just a musical muse; it's a personal mission.
"Look," he says, talking about his St. Louis upbringing, "I never got my ass kicked because I was brown. But people had their prejudices. I used to play baseball growing up, and I remember this one kid coming up, and he was like, 'What are you?' That kind of racism — he didn't even know. I said, 'Dude. I'm an American.'"
For Bhiman, the challenge has become how to flip the middle finger in a post-9/11 world, one in which you pick up guns or ball into the fetal position whenever someone with dark features says "Boo." The answer? Bring in the yuks, sharpen the teeth of biting sarcasm. Maybe that's why Bhiman lists pull-no-punches social critics such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Bill Maher as top influences. "People are going to see something they really haven't ever seen before. I'm a westernized, Indian-like guy, playing rock music and putting a comedian's game in my lyrics."