San Francisco’s Rupa Marya has spent her adult life dedicated to fighting injustice. The doctor and musician has used her actions to back up her often outspoken lyrics in global alternative band Rupa and the April Fishes.
On her band’s sixth album, Growing Upward, out tomorrow, Marya addresses Standing Rock, the effects of colonization she believes are continuing to this day and climate change.
“I’ve always used my band to travel around the world and witness the intersection between society and health,” said Marya, the daughter of Indian immigrants who grew up between the Bay Area, India and Europe. “Now I was kind of knitting that even tighter in my work.”
Marya has pulled from her experience as a healer, whether it was assisting the “Frisco Five” protestors to stay safe during their hunger strike against the use of police force, or going to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota and South Dakota to help start a medical clinic to “decolonize medicine.”
In recent years, she’s done a few other humanitarian projects. Marya started the Do No Harm coalition to remove the structural barriers to medicine, which she believes to be a human right. She traveled to the Zapatista territory in Chiapas, Mexico to perform and observe how native people were organizing to fight for their sovereignty. She also was one of the key plaintiffs a couple of years ago who sued Warner Bros. Records for the right to use the song “Happy Birthday” without paying royalties, claiming the company held no ownership rights and the song was in the public domain—and won.
“The claiming by Warner Corporation that they owned the most ubiquitous song in the entire universe was just a perfect example of [an] egregious takeover,” she said. “I thought if we could liberate a song, if we could liberate the [public] commons. … Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?”
RIFF: How have you balanced your identity as the daughter of Punjabi immigrants with what society deems as the norm wherever you lived growing up?
Rupa Marya: I guess my identity is a complex interplay between my heritage, my ancestry and the societies where I’m living and I grew up here in the Bay Area—in Mountain View, when there were apricot trees before Google, before Facebook. It was the time when Silicon Valley was really starting to come together in the early ‘70s, mid-‘70s. And I grew up in Northern India, and then also in the South of France. [In] all those different places, identity was definitely a challenge for understanding who I am in relation to where I found myself. But that experience really solidified my sense of living beyond nations and seeing a world where I could see the commonalities between people really clearly. Also, the social conditions that were affecting people in positive and negative ways pretty clearly.
Did that help inspire you for Growing Upward?
What helped me were probably the five albums that came before this one, the evolution of my music and my consciousness as a person. I had just given birth to my son and entered a period of really intense silence after that birth. The only other time in my life I’ve experienced that was after the death of my father. It was such a life-altering experience that I couldn’t write music. I actually didn’t even want to touch my guitar. I was so shocked by the way life changed; it was almost like the world had been turned off its axis, and I was just trying to figure out how to walk again. I didn’t understand where my center of gravity was.
Becoming a mother was another life-altering experience like that, especially within the context of climate collapse and climate crisis, and so that urgency made me really question why I would ever write music. … I literally did not pick up my guitar for two years to write music, and I got this call from this native elder who’s a very powerful medicine person up in Canada; a First Nations woman, and she said, “I believe you wrote a sacred song, and I found it on the internet and I want you to come to Canada and re-record it as an indigenized song.” … I went up there and met with these women and sat in a circle, and it was like reawakening my love of music as medicine. We sat and we did a ceremony, and we talked about the sacred nature of water, and this is called the “Water Song.” We were together with Deanna Gestrin, who is an indigenous composer; a First Nations woman, and she rearranged the song with these women’s voices and their languages. It was just such a powerful and beautiful experience, and for me that awakening was such a beautiful invitation from people to reawaken my own sense of indigeneity, my own Earth-centered self that went way back to India—way back before the Jervidian conquest of the subcontinent. …
It was that and also a bike tour we did in 2012, where we went around the entire Bay [Area] on bicycles and performed using a bicycle-powered sound system. On that tour was the first time I met with Ohlone people [native to the Bay Area] and asked about the history of the Bay and the people of the Bay. … The way you really know a geography is not by driving through it and not by flying over it, but by powering yourself through it, whether it’s walking or biking. You see everything very clearly: the contour of the land, the place and you see the people. We did 350 miles in 10 days and played down at Stanford; we played to 3,000 people on bicycles in San Jose; we played in San Quentin to the people that are incarcerated; we played at the Independent in San Francisco.
That was a very powerful experience because the Ohlone chief Tony Cerda, he said to me, “I’m gonna send you blessings on your trip, and I would like to send a friend with you to teach you a song. I want you to sing that song every day to the water. … The water needs our prayers.” I’ve never really prayed to water; what is that about? And so, we did it. … We all would sing to the water every day, and by the fourth day, I swear you could hear the water singing back to you. … It made me wonder what practices we can engage with that will make us fall in love with the Earth again. That’s what we all need to do right now because most of our sense of being Earth-connected has been robbed from us through capitalism and colonization. How do we each reconnect with those traditions?
What experiences from your career as a doctor did you pull for this album?
There was a very profound one here in San Francisco where I accompanied five people who were protesting police killings in the Mission and Bayview, Hunters Point. The neighborhoods that were being gentrified by wealthy inhabitants, mostly white and Asian, were taking over historically black and Latino neighborhoods. When gentrification happens, the rates of police violations of civil rights of black and brown people increase. That’s been documented. But in San Francisco, that was coupled with racist text messages from the police department and people being shot who were unarmed and killed with no justice for their families or their loved ones.
No justice for Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, or Amilcar Perez-Lopez, for Alex Nieto, for Jessica Nelson Williams.
When I saw five people sitting in front of the Mission Police [precinct] on my way to work on hunger strike, it really touched me and moved me. I went to introduce myself to them and offered to accompany them as a physician to ensure they were safe and to ensure that their bodies weren’t assaulted by the state in any way that would go against their protest. That experience for me really started a very deep and big move and melding in my life. … So, it was an interesting moment where my work and voice in music lent me a space of trust as a physician. So through that, it has deepened my vision and scope of what I’m doing as a doctor.
“Frontline,” which is the second song on the album, was actually requested by the grandmothers at Standing Rock. California natives called me out to Standing Rock. We had formed in the aftermath of the resigning of Chief [Greg] Suhr, the police chief of the SFPD. A bunch of medical students and health workers asked to organize. We create this coalition called the Do No Harm coalition, and now we’re over 450 health workers strong, and we are committed to ending the structural causes of obstacles to people’s health. We see health as a human right. So, part of our work as doctors, as nurses, as physical therapists, as dentists is to actually remove those structural barriers. So, it’s not simply just to treat our patients but to actually get our hands dirty with removing the reasons why they are suffering those diseases in the first place.
I went out to Standing Rock and witnessed unbelievable violence under the Obama administration towards the native people of Standing Rock on their sovereign territory. I worked to help the medical response there and got to witness the ongoing colonization. We talk about colonization as if it’s complete; like it happened. It’s still happening, and it needs to stop because it’s what is causing this climate destruction that we’re witnessing. … One of the native grandmothers said to me, “We need some songs; I heard you write songs. … We need a song to give us courage when we’re on the frontline, getting these rubber bullets in our faces.” So, I wrote that song about the police saying they’re gonna serve and protect us, but what are they actually serving and protecting? They’re not protecting the people. They’re not protecting our right to live with water that’s not polluted. They’re not protecting our right to live with dignity and housing. They’re not protecting our right to live without fear of degradation at their hands. … All these people around the planet are rising for life, and we need everyone to get on board with that program.
Are you ever afraid of backlash from people who don’t agree with you?
There’s like all sorts of backlash. There’s very famous white feminist writers in San Francisco who get very angry with the things that I say when I try to discuss white privilege and the need to dismantle racism. I think people feel OK with it until you actually start pointing out how it needs to happen. Theoretically, it sounds great. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about how the biggest impediment isn’t going to be the KKK. You know where they stand. You know what they are. It’s actually gonna be the white liberal establishment, because there’s a sense of moral correctness. Like, “Yes we’re on the right side.” But, when you actually get down to it, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of people for pussy hats, but when a black person gets killed unarmed by the police, where are those people? When Shaleem Tindle was killed by BART police, where are those people? When Oscar Grant was executed by the BART police, where were those people? They’re not there.
I think that when you start to really call that out, the theoretical pussy hat makes you feel good. And, a lot of the social justice work of white liberal establishment is about feeling good. I don’t wanna feel good. I want my patients to stop dying in the streets. I want black women to stop dying after they leave the hospital after giving birth at a rate of 12 times [that of] the white women. I want the people of Hunter’s Point to stop being poisoned by what’s in that shipyard. I don’t care how I feel about it. It’s not about my feelings as a brown woman who comes from a privileged immigrant group. It’s about what I do with that privilege, and so that’s what we talk about in the Do No Harm coalition—learning how to use your privilege you have as a health worker to get into those communities and help them move the needle towards justice for themselves for their health.
How have you changed how you balance music and medicine in a way that satisfies both passions?
I’ve melded them more and more together so I see now my work in medicine as high art. [I’m] helping to build a clinic for decolonizing medicine in Standing Rock with the Lakota and native healers, working with our indigenous friends with protecting the West Berkeley Shellmound, working with the people of Hunters Point to understand what’s inside their bodies after we found out that radioactive material that’s still in that shipyard, and the data has been falsified for years as they’re trying to develop new housing on that shipyard. So I think that now my work in medicine is really deeply informed by traveling around the world to 29 different countries and witnessing what’s really going on and seeing where we are right now, at the precipice of climate collapse. It really is a powerful time to be a doctor and an artist, and it feels like they’re both just becoming more intertwined. I’m excited about that.
On your new album, you have a cover of “Eena Mena Deeka,” which is a song almost every Indian kid grew up listening.
I know; isn’t that great? That’s how you know there are Indians in the audience; when we perform that song, they start screaming. I love that song.
I grew up listening to that song in Dehradun, driving around with my grandfather in his FIAT and his Ambassador. We would listen to that song nonstop because we loved it as kids. It came out in the ‘50s when India had just gotten rid of the British Raj [after] several hundred years of rule. So who were we then? That song really encapsulates this sort of cultural confusion that comes through colonization. It’s part blues, and part nursery rhyme. The mash of cultures that happens through colonization; not all of it is bad. There’s a beautiful interplay that we see in the arts, the beauty of cultural connections, and cultural overlay and understanding who we are through the arts.