Pilgrimage to India with MC Yogi

Pilgrimage to India with MC Yogi

Bhakti-hop innovator MC Yogi travels to India for an unwitting spiritual chiropractic adjustment—and artistic inspiration for his newest musical offering.

Photo by Robin Livingston

Nicholas Giacomini has traveled to India numerous times with his wife and creative partner, Amanda. But their most recent trip was a bit different. Nicholas, also known as MC Yogi, the modern musical alchemist who combines sacred Hindu chanting with urban hip-hop, was going to India to record a new album. Little did he know that the musical pilgrimage would include being temporarily crippled by a mysterious illness. Or that he’d be able to walk again after visiting one of India’s sacred sites.

“I’d been to India several times, but this time we recorded the album Pilgrimage,” he told S&H. “It was the most powerful trip I’ve had to India.” Nicholas was joined by Indian musicians to record Pilgrimage, the follow-up to 2008’s Ganesh-inspired Elephant Power, which grabbed the ears of yoga, kirtan, and hip-hop communities. He describes the Pilgrimage experience as “a dream come true.” Singer Mahesh Vinayakram, featured on “Pranam” and “Sun Light,” is the son of Grammy Award–winner Vikku Vinayakram, a percussionist with John McLaughlin’s ’70s fusion band Shakti. Lovely Indian flute played by Navin Iyer from Chennai, India, can be heard on the album, as well as the sitar of Deobrat Mishra, who began studying music at the age of five with his tabla-master mother and sitarist father, Pandit Shivnath Mishra.

For Pilgrimage, Nicholas and producer Robin Livingston captured recordings of street soundscapes and incorporated the textures into songs, bringing a unique aliveness to the album.

But recording the album was only part of the journey; Nicholas was magnetically drawn to Arunachala, considered by Hindu Shaivites as one of south India’s most sacred sites. Mythology holds that the mountain, circled by eight temples, was made manifest by Shiva during a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu. The story goes that a magnificent column of light appeared and was later transformed into diamonds and finally into a rock mountain. “I didn’t plan on going to the mountain. I didn’t even plan on calling the album Pilgrimage. We ended up getting pulled to the mountain,” Nicholas says.

He and his friends drove five hours to Arunachala and circumambulated the mountain, an eight-hour trek. He also walked barefoot to the top, only later being told that the area was home to a variety of poisonous snakes. “I’m so glad I didn’t know that,” he recalls.

Going to the mountaintop was a “peak experience” for the 33-year-old Hindu hip-hopper. “It feels like you’re standing on the center of a ray of light. The mountain pierced my heart and threw the doors open,” Nicholas says. “I could see that everything is orchestrated by one power.”

He took his insights and excitement back to the recording studio.

“We were overflowing with inspiration and started to get cracking. Then the cracking was released, actually. Out of nowhere I felt this excruciating pain in my hip. I collapsed onto the floor.” The next couple of days Nicholas could barely move. When he was able to stand again, his body was bent, “crooked like a snake.” The pain was so intense, he hallucinated. “One of the voices that came to me said, ‘You’re not finished—go back to the mountain.’”

Back on his pilgrimage, Nicholas returned to Arunachala. Still crooked and unable to walk on his own, he leaned on the shoulders of his friends. “By the time we’d come full circle around the mountain, I was upright and my back was fine.” Summing up the experience, Nicholas says, “It was a spiritual chiropractic adjustment. That’s the power of pilgrimage: you go to a sacred place and release your pain.”

The mysterious pain he suffered was “extreme,” Nicholas says. But not completely unknown; “I’ve been on the doorstep of death.” His teenage years were lived on the edge. “When I was 14, I was walking around with a loaded gun in my backpack,” he recalls.

Nicholas was born in 1979 and grew up in a San Francisco suburb listening to hip-hop, painting graffiti, and stealing cars. “We’d sneak out of the house with cans of spray paint and go to the city. We’d paint.”

He was arrested several times, put in jail, and kicked out of four schools. “It was looking like a dim future,” he remembers. “I realized that something had to change and that I couldn’t change in the environment I was in.” He watched as friends died, committed suicide, became addicts, or went to war.

A major shift came while he attended a boys’ reform school for three formative years until he was 17. “It provided the structure I needed.” But it was after a serious car accident that he discovered yoga. From his father.

Nicholas remembers his dad was driving and Bob Marley was playing on the car stereo just before the crash. “We rolled down this ravine and hit a telephone pole, and the car flipped several times. I climbed up the hill after getting out of the wreckage.”

He later learned that the accident was the catalyst for his father’s discovery of yoga.

“Often people come to yoga because of a trauma or injury,” Nicholas relays. “My dad started practicing yoga, but he never told anybody. He was more happy, relaxed, and calm.” His father took him to his first ashtanga yoga class. “The moment I put my feet on the mat and did that first sun salutation, that was it.”

Yoga culture introduced Nicholas to healing. And new music. “I started listening to Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, and the album Bhagavan Das did with Mike D of the Beastie Boys,” Nicholas recalls. “That’s what gave rise to MC Yogi.” Pilgrimage includes Krishna Das on the song “Jai Sita Ram.”

By 2001, Nicholas and Amanda had opened a yoga studio north of San Francisco in Point Reyes. “I call it the Point of Rays,” he says. The two teach yoga and enjoy the small-town atmosphere. “It’s close to the city, but it’s far enough away where you can unplug and recharge your psychic batteries.”

“I value being able to go for a walk in the forest, go out to the ocean, and just be quiet and meditate,” Nicholas says. In fact he takes a vow of silence every Monday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. “It gives me time to be introspective and calm the mind.”

Back in 2008 MC Yogi produced a song and video supporting Barack Obama for president. Asked how he feels about the endorsement now with Obama having bailed out big banks, continuing war, and overseeing drone assassination programs, he quickly answers: “It’s easy for many of us to sit in our armchair and judge the political system when we’re not fully engaged in it.” He adds, “War is inevitable. Animals eat other animals. Nature is consuming itself. . . . War means that we haven’t been able to use our intelligence to create dynamic solutions for a change in the world. War is like an ‘F’ on your test.”

Nicholas acknowledges, “Politics has been co-opted by corporations, lobbyists, big money, and the banking industry.” He sees spirituality as the key to social change: “The more that people become spiritually awakened, they’re going to be politically activated at the same time.

“The question I’ve been asking myself lately is, How can I truly serve the whole?” reflects Nicholas. “The thing that keeps coming up is ‘through my music.’ It’s something that really lights me up. The most political thing I can do is through music and putting out a sound that is going to bring everyone together.” Since the release of Elephant Power in 2008, MC Yogi has steadily gained fans, and he now headlines yoga conferences worldwide. Pilgrimage will surely cement his place as a modern innovator in bhakti-hop fusion.

“India is a photographer’s dream! Everywhere you look you see so much color, grit, and this beautiful decay,” explains Nicholas. “I met one yogi who said he was 300 years old. I got my fortune told by a little boy who used a parakeet to pull your cards. You see some of the most bizarre, wonderful sights in India. Especially when you’re on a pilgrimage.”

Nicholas clearly loves images and words. “Rhyming is a way of creating constellations in your mind,” he says. “The uni-verse is the one-poem that’s being sung to all of us. The mantra om is the hum of everything being heard simultaneously.”

About becoming MC Yogi, Nicholas offers, “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.” He loves where he’s at in life. And where he lives. The self-described “working-class mystic” says, “The Point of Rays—it’s where I’ll always be.”

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