Singer Zeshan B and Preet Bharara: Meet the Odd Couple Behind a New Album That Combines Classic R&B, Social Justice and Urdu Music

When Indian-American singer-songwriter Zeshan B takes the stage and begins to perform, it’s safe to say that the sound you first expect to hear is not classic, gospel-infused R&B with passionate lyrics about American social justice.

Nor, when you look at the credits for Zeshan’s forthcoming third album, “O Say, Can You See?,” do you expect to see the words “Executive Producer: Preet Bharara” — the former U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District renowned for taking on organized crime, terrorism and fiscal malfeasance; whose face appeared on the cover of Time magazine beneath the words, “This Man Is Busting Wall Street”; and who had the great honor of being fired in 2017 by then-new/ now-former president Donald Trump.

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But their interests converge on Zeshan’s third album — out July 26 — which finds the singer taking on the political and social-justice topics explored on his critically raved-about first albums — along with elements of classical, jazz and the Urdu music he grew up on — from a more-refined perspective that is due in no small part to his friendship with Bharara, who he first met early in 2022.

“Before I met Preet I felt a lot of rage over all the things that are going on in the world, and I think my earlier albums were a sort of sophomoric way of channeling that rage,” Zeshan says. “But my discussions and interactions with Preet allowed me to craft a more balanced approach: You know, yes, it sucks for people of color, but it also sucks for everybody right now. Everyone’s hurting, everyones’s feeling the loss of something, there’s an enormous income gap, and the big problem is climate change. So with this album, I tried to craft things that were more universal. Inside me is a burning, burning desire for something better for this human experiment, and if I used my voice for anything else, then I wouldn’t be doing justice to myself or the people around me.”

Bharara — who is currently hosting two major podcasts, “Stay Tuned” and “Café Insider,” as well as continuing to practice law — decided to get involved in Zeshan’s career after seeing him perform at a book launch event. Zeshan came with serious pedigree: His debut album, “Vetted,” combined originals with soul covers, hit No. 1 on iTunes’ World Music chart, he’s appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” performed at the Bonnaroo and Electric Forest festivals and at the White House for former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

“I was just floored by the music, I was floored by his voice, I was floored by the message in those songs,” Bharara recalls, “and we became fast friends right away. I have very musical family — my wife and my three kids are all musicians; I don’t play anything but I love music. Zeshan would tell me about songs to listen to and his thoughts about music, and we learned a lot from each other. He started talking about this album, and a few months later he made a proposal for me to executive produce, and I said yes, because Zeshan has a voice that is just out of this world. All this other stuff is great, but it’s undergirded with his magical, transporting voice and musicianship.”

Zeshan’s path to music has been an unusual one. “My parents met in Mumbai, and they’re quite the odd couple — the country boy and the city girl,” he says. “My dad was from a village in southern India — it bears our last name, Bhagawati — and moved to Mumbai when he was 16. My mother was from the city, and they both worked at a charitable organization that provided services to people in the slums. Anyway, they got married and had my older sister there, then moved to Chicago, where I was born.”

His parents played both Indian and American music around the house — “R&B, jazz, gospel” — and found a creative solution to a challenging medical condition Zeshan had as a boy. “It’s called echolalia, which is when you compulsively repeat things that people have said,” he explains. “It was problematic in many ways, but my parents found a way to socially reward me for it, because it turned out that I could imitate singing.” One of the first songs he can remember singing is Bill Withers’ 1972 classic “Lean on Me,” which ended up getting him not only accepted into “this entirely Black gospel group” when he was in high school, but becoming the lead.

One of his music teachers at school realized that Zeshan had a good voice for singing opera. “I knew how to lower my larynx the right way, I knew how to project sound and had the linguistic abilities as well,” he says. “And because of that, I got full rides to all the music schools I applied to. I got a bachelor’s and a masters in classical music, and was auditioning and getting hired by opera companies, but I think what reason I went back to singing R&B is because, strange as it might sound, that was more my roots.”

Not just the sound but the spirit of that music is in “O Say, Can You See,” which was written in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 election, the January 6th insurrection and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “I’ve learned a lot about the justice system through Preet,” Zeshan says. “I’d always admired him, even before we met, because I felt that he embodies something important — he has fought for justice and has paid the cost for it, and I think that that’s really the measure of someone: if you’re willing to speak the truth and do the right things, even when it doesn’t suit you.”

A natural question for both would seem to be, how does one remain optimistic in such times as these, when there’s so much to be angry and depressed and hopeless about?

“I get that question a lot,” Bharara says, “and I used to be in the business of focusing on and holding people accountable for the worst crimes humans can commit, including the killing of children, arms trafficking, terrorism, Bernie Madoff, you name it. And when anything bad happens, you could ask the same question: How can you have any optimism? The reason you do is when those bad things happen, like 9/11, you get to see the heroism of the firefighters and the police and the community. And when a horrible thing happens at a school in Florida, which was devastating for all of us and keeps happening, you get to see kids become leaders overnight — unfortunately, before they should have to. But whenever bad things happen, I think people have good will and good faith and the courage to come forward, and that’s what you take inspiration from.”

For his part, Zeshan says, “I don’t have the elocution of Preet, but the way I see it, everyone, optimists and pessimists, all die the same way — the only difference is, the optimists live a better life. Writing and singing this music is my way of engaging in that optimism, even if it seems naïve. So I might as well try to live a good life.”

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