Located in northeast India is the state of Nagaland. A forgotten land — except by its people, who are strong, passionate people with warrior mentalities — Nagaland consists of ethnic tribes who have gone through various waves of occupation. India refuses to recognize Nagaland as an independent state, even though that’s what it was before the British came along.
A descendant of Naga, Abigail “Seysei” Nakhro is bringing the pain and poetry of Naga's people into the DNA of her pop performances. Born in India, near Bombay, Seysei is the daughter of a Naga father and Indian mother — the product of a forbidden marriage.
“I call myself an Indian pop artist, but it’s more complicated than that," Seysei says. "The history of Naga is very war-torn. The British used it as a battle ground in World War II as allies with Naga. We were left alone at the end. Today people are going through oppression. Indian culture is very conservative. I’m also Christian, a pastor's daughter. Being a pop star is not on the menu when you’re growing up. Usually, it’s just, ‘Which one do you wanna be, a doctor or engineer?’ I wanna be a pop star. I’ve always been a people pleaser, but I grew out of that. This is my passion.”
Onstage she goes by her middle name, Seysei, an homage to her ancestry, which is filled with symbolic acts of rebellion.
“My dad was always really out of the box," she says. "As he grew up and matured, he had the Naga warrior mind-set. He wanted to create a new identity through revolution; he decided to do that by marrying an Indian woman.”
Her father became a Christian preacher, even returning home to run for public office in Nagaland. His revolutionary views drew ire in his home state, a place Seysei says is rife with corruption and chaos.
“My dad is a visionary and I carry a lot of that in me as well," Seysei says. "I wanna be rebellious and stand for truth. There’s so much change that needs to take place in my home state. He’s a pastor, but now he’s a social activist. When he chose to run, he wanted to run a clean race. People broke into his house and threatened him to step down. Calling the cops here and calling the cops there is not the same thing.”
Seysei says her parents have been supportive and aren’t the typical Indian parents. Even though she says there’s always the underlying need to have a stable job in India.
“It's about keeping the family name intact,” she says.
Nevertheless, Seysei holds fast to her conservative, Christian background, which could easily be seen as a handicap in an industry that lives by its own secular code.
“My father’s struggle can’t be a coincidence," Seysei says. "Because I have a platform and have a gift, I can use it to one day speak up about certain issues. We have been hearing recently of many overdoses and suicides in the industry. Those things can happen when people don’t have a real sense of self and identity. They get lost in the cyclone that is the pop music industry. It’s a monster. Having convictions and aligning myself with what I wanna do as a mental practice is important before I step into that. It’s hard to stand up for yourself; it takes work. A lot of it is upbringing. It’s easy to sway left when the current is flowing right. It’s easy for me to have accountability because I have all of India watching me. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Seysei might be a novice to the Dallas arts and music scene, but she is a seasoned pro back home when it comes to performing and cultivating a fan base. She has been performing for years in India, where at 17 years old she went on tour. Her first show drew an audience of 4,000.
“The natural strategy for me is to plant my feet in Southeast Asia," she says. "Get that fan base and then bridge it back to the U.S. The great thing about India is if you get your show together, people will come. That mile marker I had in my younger days made me realize I’m capable of anything. That propelled my drive. It’s different there. People don’t have a 30-second attention span. They appreciate entertainment to get away from what they’re dealing with.”
While Dallas has a rich music scene and supportive community, Seysei has found it difficult to break in to. She has had to rely on her background and strong, inspirational message.
“It’s the hardest, harder than national or India," she says. "Dallas is such a great melting pot. I still feel like there's not a proper support or platform for pop music, but everyone listens to it. They don't expect pop acts to be around. My strategy is to let people know I’m here. Have all the content out, represent Dallas, and make as many connections as I can.”
One of the ways Seysei has elevated herself in the scene is to employ a pop element that’s been a tradition from the early '60s to the mid 2000s: back-up dancers. The trend has always been a part of the national pop scene but so far non-existent with Dallas-based acts. In past shows, Seysei has performed with two — now four — dancers who accompany her onstage with choreographed routines. One of the dancers worked for the Texas Legends; another is trying to reopen the famed dance studio, the Millennium Complex in Dallas.
“I love electronic dance music and I wanted something unique for Dallas," Seysei says. "Something they don’t see often. With dancers it comes to life. When I performed at HypeFest, everything was chill and laid back. As soon as you get dancers on stage, people turn their heads and walk up to the stage. It’s so fun to get that attention. We have such a good dance community and it’s so hard for them to get gigs anyway. I wanna give creatives that deserve that platform the attention.”
Before she was able to break into the Dallas scene, there were two years of misery. Seysei dealt with a failed marriage filled with physical abuse by her partner who battled a serious drug addiction.
“You’re so filled with passion, they can do no wrong," she says. "I was blinded in love. It was a difficult marriage, filled with his addictions and domestic abuse. He had gone to rehab and jail several times. Cops were coming over like it was a regular thing. Growing up, I was never exposed to these things so I didn’t know how to handle it. But I like to give things I’m passionate about 110 percent of myself. I lost who I was. That confident dreamer girl who had sang in front of thousands of people, she wasn’t there anymore. I was consumed with helping my husband at that time. I had to isolate myself, too. There was this cultural aspect. It was really embarrassing and shameful for me. I wanted to be my parents' pride and joy and not tell them what was going on.”
For the daughter of conservative, Christian Indian parents, divorce was taboo. Seysei was at war with the moral ideological convictions of her family and her heart telling her to do what was best for her.
“I’m the first in my family to get a divorce," she says. "In that sense, I felt like an outcast. But was I going to stay in a marriage for the sake of my family? There was repeated unfaithfulness. As a Christian and as an Indian, it was difficult. During my marriage I was struggling to hold on. I was trying to find myself again. It took a long time for my confidence to get back up. It’s so important to not isolate yourself in those times. Slowly but surely I started sitting at my piano again. I started writing again. Low and behold, it’s therapeutic. But I got tired of sad songs. That’s not who I was before I was married. I decided to be joyous about life again. I didn’t want to live in my past anymore. Every day is a struggle; I have to refocus on my vision. It took one and a half years to get back into music.”
Now recommitted to being a performer, she wants to inspire young girls in Dallas, and especially back home in India, on what their possibilities can be. Her newest single, “Call Me Baby,” is about breaking out of her old self and into a new phase. The song is upbeat, flirty and speaks to Seysei’s current mind-set.
“With the title, ‘Call Me Baby,’ there’s a connotation to pet names," she says. "When you hear someone is called a pet name, like baby, it releases endorphins. That’s why they use the word 'baby' in every pop song, ever. There’s something good about someone calling you baby and you owning it. Most of my next singles are about knowing my self-worth and being my own queen again.”
Seysei's goals seems to be far away from the contemporary narcissism that drives some people's musical dreams. To her, pop star and social activist should be one and the same.
“My mixed heritage, being a divorcee, my culture, it all makes me an outcast," she says. "I feel like I’m not a cookie-cutter pop artist concerned with being famous. I feel like music is my platform and what I love. But I wanna use it to achieve my purpose. There are young girls in India and the U.S. who have been divorced or in abusive relationships. My fondest memories are being in Bangalore, Karnataka and singing and dancing for young kids at orphanages. That’s when you see your gift being given, and received, at its most purest form. Putting a smile on a kid's face and them freaking out when you give them a hug later. The fact that I grew up in the U.S., I could have been that beggar girl in India. And for some crazy, universal reason I’m not. That perspective has given me gratefulness. Not a lot of people are given that exposure.”
A premiere party for the music video at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28 at WeWork in Thanksgiving Tower. There will be food, drinks and dancing. Tickets are $5.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.