Northwestern acapella group Brown Sugar provides an outlet for cultural expression, creative experimentation


Photo courtesy of Shailen Chugh

According to Aggarwal, performance is one of the most fulfilling parts of Brown Sugar.

Grace Knickrehm, Reporter

Brown Sugar, Northwestern’s premier co-ed South Asian Fusion a capella group, wants to change the way students view music. 

The group’s speciality is mixing Western and South Asian songs to form a sound that uniquely blends different types of music. One of Weinberg junior Uma Thachapuzha’s favorite pieces is a mashup of Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart” and famous Bollywood song “Desi Girl” from the movie “Dostana.” 

“These are sounds that are on a totally different part of a globe, but they just need to be shared with the world because that’s how beautiful they are,” Weinberg junior Rahul Aggarwal said. He describes Brown Sugar as “a celebration of the different types of music.” 

The group’s primary shows are in Winter and Spring Quarters, but it performs throughout the year at South Asian Students Alliance, other Northwestern events and occasionally at off-campus gigs. Recently, the group performed at the 75th birthday party of Indian sarod player Amjad Ali Khan during his visit to Evanston. 

While the group’s roots are in South Asian culture, being South Asian is not a “prerequisite at all,” Aggarwal said.  

“If you’re into music, if you like experimenting with new sounds and if you love performing, then this is the place for you,” he said.

Weinberg junior Rakin Hussain says some of Brown Sugar’s members have no singing experience before joining the group.  

New members are given the opportunity to cultivate their skills and eventually arrange their own music. Hussain said everything the group sings is student-arranged. 

With about twenty years of history, Brown Sugar has transcended beyond just music. 

“I didn’t realize how big a part of my life (fellow Brown Sugar members) would be,” Thachapuzha says. “We auditioned over Zoom. Now, in almost every aspect of my life, I consider them my closest friends.” 

When Aggarwal attempted to take a quarter leave from Brown Sugar, he said he missed his fellow members so much that he would sing out loud on his way to class. 

“I was like a madman walking down Sheridan,” Aggarwal said. “I felt like, ‘You know what? There’s a Brown Sugar-sized hole in my life, and I think I need to go back.’” 

Brown Sugar spices up its shows with choreographed skits built around a central theme, which lets members “let loose and have a little fun,” according to Hussain.

It doesn’t always go perfectly, however. Last year’s spring show involved unexpected buffer time during a costume change, so Aggarwal improvised. 

“I said on the first night, ‘How are we doing tonight Evanston?’” Aggarwal said. “Nobody responded. It was so funny watching everyone stare back at me like, ‘Is this dude off his rocker?’” 

By the second show, Aggarwal said the group was able to work out the kinks and focus on vibing with the audience. 

Brown Sugar’s members come from different schools and majors, from engineering to economics, according to Thachapuzha.

“It’s really nice to have a big group of people you can get close to, but then also it’s not one little bubble,” Thachapuzha said. “We’re all bringing such different perspectives and different interests.” 

After they graduate, alumni go on to work in diverse fields and become role models for younger Brown Sugar members, Aggarwal said.  

While he says it’s sad to watch some of his closest friends leave the group, he looks forward to when they visit campus again to perform the official alumni song: Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” mashed up with Bollywood hit “Chand Sifarish.” 

As much as the group cherishes its past, however, Brown Sugar looks to the future. 

“We’re learning on the go, and we’re figuring out what our sound is supposed to sound like,” Hussain said. “It’s only uphill from here.” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @GraceKnickrehm

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