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Sowmya Krishnamurthy

Freelance music journalist

Kalamazoo resident Sowmya Krishnamurthy really loves hip-hop and hip-hop fashion, as evidenced by her new book, Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion, which was released last month by Simon & Schuster.

A self-described ’90s kid who had a steady diet of music television and internet music platforms, she says she always had an “inner knowing” that she would be involved in the music industry. She is now a freelance music journalist living in New York City.

“I didn’t know how I was going to get from Kalamazoo to the music business, but I knew it was going to happen,” says the 39-year-old, a graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School and the University of Michigan.

While at U of M studying marketing and management, Krish-namurthy had a number of internships, from writing for The Michigan Daily, the university’s student paper, and reporting for CNN to working for the music label Bad Boy Records. She started freelancing for New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, writing reviews for shows and concerts and decided to become a full-time freelance journalist. But the one thing Krishnamurthy has taken away from her career experience thus far is how “you can be from a small town, have big dreams and ambitions, and follow those dreams.”

“I would always think of Derek Jeter because he was the biggest celebrity from Kalamazoo,” she says. “For me, it was really inspiring to see someone from Kalamazoo who was so successful at the top of his game. It really showed possibilities.”

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I think I always gravitated towards public speaking and English. I love to read and write. I loved reading the dictionary and learning big words. When I was really young, I wanted to be a teacher. I remember having my stuffed animals sitting around, and I would tell them things. I’m not sure what I was teaching them, but I kind of liked this idea of having a platform.

The idea of getting into the music business probably came when I was 13. I grew up in the ’90s and was definitely a kid that would run home after school and flip between MTV, BET and VH1. As the internet became an important platform, I would go on message boards and Yahoo chatrooms to talk about music. I knew I wanted to move to New York.

Why did you choose to write a book about hip-hop fashion?

There had been occasional fashion books before, but oftentimes with hip-hop fashion it becomes distilled into the most basic thing, like, ‘This is a book about baggy jeans or clothing with logos.’ But to me, it’s deeper than that. I set out to dive into the history, politics, economic conditions and psychology of hip-hop fashion, not just what artists are wearing, but why, and looking at it from a larger perspective. Before we can talk about logos, you’ve got to talk about Dapper Dan (the moniker for Daniel Day, a Harlem, New York, fashion designer whose designs are iconic in hip-hop music). Before we talk about Dapper Dan, we have to go back to Harlem, really going deeper than just ‘these are the artists and these are some of the brands that they wear.’

What is something you didn’t anticipate while writing your book?

That book writing is a marathon. When writing an article for online or print, I can turn around 2,000 to 3,000 words very quickly. But a book is 80,000 words. I think every chapter had approximately 40 to 50 references, so you really have to become immersed in the subject matter. I thought going into this, ‘Yeah, I know about this,’ but there were things I didn’t know about or only knew part of the story. That research was quite interesting — I’m reading books, watching documentaries and old music videos, interviewing artists and listening to podcasts. With a book, you do all this research and feel like you’re just scratching the surface.

What were you surprised to learn?

An interesting tidbit was the contributions of women. Often when people talk about hip-hop and fashion, it’s told through the lens of men and their contributions, whether it’s artists, designers, even models. But behind the scenes, there were so many integral women, from magazine editors to stylists, just people who were there and made important contributions. You look at somebody like April Walker — her story as a streetwear pioneer is often forgotten because you hear the names of her contemporaries, but she was right there. She was dressing Biggie, Tupac, and Treach from Naughty By Nature and was very much a young female entrepreneur.

What has been your experience as an Indian American journalist?

When I was growing up, there was not a lot of Indian American representation in journalism or otherwise. The earliest example I remember was Sanjay Gupta (chief medical correspondent for CNN). Because there was nobody to compare myself to, I was able to forge my own path and figure out the blueprint because I was the blueprint. Anytime you’re doing something nontraditional or off the beaten path, you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself, be your biggest cheerleader, fan and advocate, because often you don’t get that from the people around you.

What’s great now is you are seeing more Indian American representation, whether it be on television, in film or in politics. I really hope that my story and other people’s stories do inspire the next generation.

— Interview by Kalloli Bhatt, edited for length and clarity

Kalloli Bhatt

Kalloli is a Western Michigan University student majoring in journalism and a former Encore intern.

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