'This is the sound of India's rainbow revolution' - Petter Wallenberg on his new album
Petter Wallenberg’s connection with India goes way beyond music. It is more a case of identity and respect, which Petter felt was lacking when he first arrived here. “Being gay, I was legally a criminal in the country, until Section 377 got scrapped last year. But not before I started working on my debut album, Rainbow Riots India, which was a means of protest,” says the 42-year-old Swedish music producer, who is the founder of Rainbow Riots, a Swedish organisation that advocates for the rights of LGBTQIA+ people.
Petter recently released the first single from the album, Love is Love, which features drag queen Sushant Divgikar and transgender dance group Dancing Queens. He tells us, “It’s been hailed as India’s first pride anthem, which is amazing. What makes me the happiest is the response from regular people. Many from all over India have contacted me and thanked me, saying this gives them hope and helps them feel good about themselves.”
Incidentally, the title, Love is Love, was inspired by one of the responses that he got from a crowd who had gathered to listen to him speak at a pride march in Mumbai, right after homosexuality was legalised last year. “I shouted: ‘Love is what?’ and the crowd responded: ‘Love!’ The atmosphere was electric. So many people came out into the street and showed that they were no longer afraid to show who they were. You could feel the wind of change in the air,” he reflects.
Ahead of his upcoming performance in Mumbai, we caught up with Petter and found out more about his musical journey and why he believes that there is a long way to go for the LGBTQIA+ community in India. Excerpts:
How would you describe your musical style? How much has it evolved over the years?
My musical roots are in disco music. Disco music represents freedom. When disco came into prominence, it was the soundtrack to the LGBTQIA+ liberation, with the roots in American black soul music, often fronted by big disco divas and strong women. That is so political in itself, as the opposite of macho rock music at the time. Disco was like a big glittery revolution, and since then, it’s lived on in new shapes and forms. My style is very much a homage to classic dance music and the freedom it represents. But with a new twist. I like to constantly explore mixing different styles.
What are the lessons you learned in your career so far?
I have had an amazing journey, following nobody but my own drive and dreams. At 18, I left Sweden with a one-way ticket to London. I threw myself into the club scene and spent most of my twenties living a chaotic existence. I have never had a ’normal job’ but always cut out my own path, by creating art and humanitarian projects. Sometimes it’s been very hard to make ends meet, but there is such a joy when you achieve what you want so that it keeps you strong.
If I have an idea for a project, I don’t let anything stop me until I achieve that. You just have to deal with challenges as they show up along the way. It’s life. A big lesson in life is to not dwell on what you can’t do, or what is holding you back. Focus on what you can do and move forward. I think it’s important to constantly grow and develop. But be kind to yourself and others. It’s not rocket science. We humans just tend to complicate things. But life is short — so try and make the most of it, and enjoy the ride!
Where do you get ideas for new music?
I love new influences. From pop music with traditional instruments, rap with orchestral sounds, Indian singers with Western dance music — I love to mix it all up and challenge myself and the audience. I always make music with a theme, or a concept, or a story. I approach music as a much bigger project than just a throwaway pop song. I see it as an important tool to tell stories, to inspire change and to create a movement.
What inspired you to make the new album?
I wrote and produced Rainbow Riots India featuring India’s first openly LGBTQIA+ singers and dancers. I wanted to create something completely new, and mix my musical roots of Western club music, rap, pop and soul with Bollywood sounds and classical Indian influences. I wanted to break new ground and smash stereotypes, to widen musical landscapes, expand horizons and open minds.
I came to India without knowing anyone. I just had to go out and find people. It was one hell of a journey. Now that it’s finished, so much has changed. A revolution for human rights has taken place. When Section 377 got struck down I was right in the middle of it. All the energy has gone into the album and music videos. This is the sound of India‘s rainbow revolution. It feels amazing! I want people to see that we as LGBTQIA+ people are everywhere, in every culture. But ultimately we are human beings. And like all humans — we need love. Because love always wins.
How successful do you think music has been in eliminating the prejudice against LGBTQIA+? What are the biggest challenges in the way?
We as LGBTQIA+ people have always used creativity to fight against discrimination. We fight hatred with beauty. Music and creativity are extremely powerful weapons because they change the most important thing — people’s minds.
But the battle for full equal rights is not over yet. The abolishment of Section 377 was just the beginning. Now India’s LGBTQIA+ people have to fight for equal marriage rights, protection against discrimination, etc. People are still afraid and hateful of people who are different. It’s a human flaw. A complete change isn’t going to happen overnight. But it will happen step by step.
Who are the musicians who have inspired you and influenced your music?
I find new inspiration all the time. The old and the new. I listen to everything from old blues singers like Bessie Smith to Swedish electronic pop music, gypsy music, Indian sounds, Brazilian funk. Basically, music from all over the world.
What do you do when you are not making music?
I eat a lot! Especially Indian food. I’m a sucker for it. Food is a wonderful thing, and like music, it brings people and cultures together. I’ll be hanging out in Mumbai for the launch of the album in June, so when I’m not busy with the album launch you can find me stuffing my face with all the wonderful Indian dishes in the local restaurants. As the title of this publication says, Indulge, that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll see you there!
Rainbow Rights India to launch next month. Check out his music on YouTube.