It’s a Friday afternoon in quarantine land. A phone call connects Saint Louis, Missouri to Los Angeles, California, two places that happen to be home bases for full-time rapper Dandila. Besides rapping, Dandila, or Abhinav “Abhi” Kanakandila, also holds the position of Vice President of Strategy at Stem, a platform that helps support independent artists. Dandila graduated from New York University’s Stern School of Business in 2013, and from his commencement speech, it’s clear that he’s ready to pave his own path in the world. In his cap and gown, he’s charming, eloquent, and confident as he faces his Indian father and talks about not upholding the “typical” South Asian route, emphasizing instead, “I gotta do me.” He talks about how reflecting and creating “organic connections” with people is imperative. He recognizes that being educated in New York gives him and his classmates a certain edge, how it’s a privilege to be put in the center of one of, if not the most cosmopolitan cities in the United States. He speaks about something called “normalizing the amazing”—his own phrase that reminds himself and the other graduates that they are all immensely talented and how they should be proud of their accomplishments instead of normalizing their success. They should recognize themselves. It’s been seven years since he gave that speech, and it still matters. Dandila continues to not normalize the amazing.
“I gotta do me” is still part of Dandila’s M.O. Something that must be understood about Dandila is that he doesn’t consider anything as a hobby. Dandila takes himself seriously—everything he completes undergoes analysis with intention and utter precision. He does everything with one-hundred percent effort, not only because he hopes success will follow, but because that’s his love language—that’s how he shows you he cares. He speaks about growing up South Asian and being in a community where, generally, creative fields are not taken seriously—they’re seen as hobbies—and people who choose to take the creative route have a lot of explaining to do to not only their community but to themselves.
After graduating from NYU Stern and working in investment banking for a couple of years, Dandila traded the East Coast for the West Coast and arrived in Los Angeles. His first job in LA was at SpaceX, working in finance, where he was able to delve into his “left-brain” interests. On the side, he weaved in some more creative, “right-brained” personal projects into his daily life, collaborating with other artists and creating music.
In 2019, the music video for his single “Melanin in the Hamptons” was selected as the best music video at the South Asian Film Festival of America. It was directed by Shomi Patwary, who counts artists like Beyoncé, The Weeknd, and A$AP Ferg as his clients. For the music video, Dandila wanted to show a side of himself and South Asians that isn’t always portrayed in the media. He’s not dismissive or submissive; instead, he’s in charge, making it big, and proud of it. He’s not trying to normalize the amazing, which is something that is common in the South Asian community. Dandila even said some of his friends that were on the set were shocked to see the usually mellow rapper completely go off. But that’s Dandila’s one-hundred percent effort showing.
The idea of “everyone is capable of anything” has been a common thread throughout Dandila’s projects so far. He fights to show and represent the South Asian community in his music, and with his work at Stem, he seeks to empower artists. Stem understands that something that really prevents artists from taking creative control is the ability to understand their worth. Record labels are notorious for taking advantage of artists, Dandila explains, “TLC or Toni Braxton, will generate $200 million of album sales for the record label, but they’ll end up kind of declaring bankruptcy towards the end of the careers.” Stem is trying to resolve those worries with tools that help artists manage distribution and payment. Dandila wants to help give everyone a shot—a shot at their dreams and a shot at being validated, “Stem offers independent artists, independent labels, the ability to kind of like understand their finances, be able to pay people correctly, collaborate, and then access capital outside of the major label system.” Essentially, Dandila summed up Stem as a super involved middleman between forums like Spotify or Apple. Stem is involved in the creation process, puts it into a platform, receives the money, and sends it back to the artists and collaborators.
Throughout our conversation, whether my questions relate to his work with Stem or finding his way into the music industry, Dandila’s responses are very detailed. When asked about growing up in an Indian family in the Midwest, he notes that while he struggled to sort out his identity, he also recognizes that he was in a very unique, lucky situation. His parents supported his interests and dreams, and when he went to college, they supported him when he joined a hip hop group called Gorilla Warfare Tactics. Pigeons and Planes (a small blog back then) spotlighted the group, which Dandila says “created this feedback loop of believing in [himself]” pretty early on in his music career. He had supportive friends which fed into being validated as a young musician, as well. It also didn’t hurt that he was a good student, he continues, “I’m essentially concurrently achieving my parents’ dreams while I’m going out there and pursuing mine.”
But when asked “who are you?” rather than revolving specifically around himself, his answers center around his community and family. Eventually, Dandila gushes over how Jay Electronica is everything, he raps in the shower, but is completely tone-deaf (self-proclaimed), he wishes to slow down a little, and he misses Missouri. When asked, “who are you?” one final time, he hesitates—he doesn’t have an answer. But then it hits me, Dandila is truly an amalgamation of his life thus far, defined by the communities he has immersed himself in. There is no “‘i’ in ‘team’” is not only a mentality he embraces but also a major part of his identity. Throughout his projects, his analytical and creative talents may evolve and take a new form, but there’s always a bigger picture to what he does—empowering the communities that he’s a part of.
Dandila has recently released three singles, “Ojai,” “Megaphone,” and “Steak n’ Shake” which are part of a bigger project. Pending release date.
STORY MEGHANA PATNANA
COVER PHOTO NEERAJ JAIN
PHOTOS TANIMA MEHROTRA