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How the next generation is redefining South Asian creativity

How the next generation is redefining South Asian creativity
From festival takeovers to viral DJ sets, a new wave of creatives are celebrating their heritage while pushing leftfield and club music forwards in a cultural shift not seen since the Nineties. Tara Joshi talks to the musicians, broadcasters and promoters spearheading a movement

In the first week of August 2021, clips from a live streamed DJ set were being shared all over social media. This in itself is not especially noteworthy given that, over the years, the video platform Boiler Room has been host to many performances from across the global music scene that have become the stuff of dance music legend. But this particular event, curated by young British Punjabi producer and DJ Yung Singh and his Daytimers crew, was the first time that a group of young South Asian-origin DJs alone played club tunes to a euphoric audience of their peers. It was a moment that felt overdue. The crowd were arm in arm, screaming with elation and jumping up and down, wearing streetwear mixed with saris and sherwanis, pulling out gun fingers for house, dubstep, Punjabi folk songs, jungle and more.

For some, it felt like a moment in history not seen since the era of the “Asian Underground” in the Nineties, the umbrella term given to a loose collective in the UK who fused contemporary electronic music like drum’n’bass with elements of Indian classical, creating new and innovative diasporic sounds. Now it seems as if there’s a renaissance afoot but with a new generation of club music: brash cuts of UK garage, dubstep, funky, grime, footwork and more sit aside sweet, melodic Bhangra, carnatic rhythms and clever licks of Bollywood edits.

That growing awareness is reflected in the celebrations of South Asian artistry happening within the major spaces of British music, be that takeovers of spaces at major festivals like last month’s Lost Village, a special themed September issue of Mixmag, one of the leading dance music magazines or Joy Crookes, a singer-songwriter with Irish and Bangladeshi heritage, wearing a lehenga on the red carpet at the Brits last year.

Daytimers are one of the catalysts of this growing movement: a group of young British South Asian creatives from across the UK including Yung Singh, who mingle genders, sexualities, religions and regions, and formed just a year ago. Their name is a nod to the bhangra parties in the Eighties and Nineties that young British South Asian people went to during the day to avoid coming up against strict family rules and curfews. They have been instrumental in raising the profile of like-minded artists old and new, both in the UK diaspora and “back home”, over the past year through radio shows, events and some impressive and sonically vast fundraising compilations on Bandcamp, for causes like the ongoing farmers’ protests in India.

Nirav Chandé, who is part of the collective (and who, incidentally, along with yourboykiran has created one of the movement’s boisterous summer anthems with the track “Pani Puri Pirates”), explains that “it’s exciting and strange, but it’s also important that people don’t frame what we’re doing as ‘new’ – the people we picked up the baton from are still doing this, they’re still innovating.”

It’s important to them all that the current movement is rooted in what came before. Bobby Friction, a BBC presenter and DJ, certainly thinks it is: “They’re carrying on a long legacy of Asian electronic music,” he says. Friction’s own career spans the trajectory of British South Asian music – “the peaks and troughs”, as he calls them. He was a teenager when he went to his first day party, and was also a big supporter of the Nineties underground dance music scene, where regular club nights like Outcaste and Anokha, and artists such as Talvin Singh and State of Bengal, broadened the scope of what a British-Asian artist could be.

Previously, genres like bhangra and Bollywood had dominated but in the Nineties, British-Asian artists were setting the agenda for contemporary music and pushing it in new directions. They infiltrated the mainstream: Singh won the coveted Mercury Music Prize in 1999, Asian Dub Foundation had been nominated the previous year, and Nitin Sawhney was then nominated in 2001. The scene took up space in the spreads and covers of some of the country’s biggest fashion and culture magazines.

Post-9/11, however, the funding for many British-Asian artists seemed to dry up and many of the more leftfield Brown artists struggled to retain footing in an environment that was increasingly fearful of them, or simply didn’t know what to do with them. Artists like Panjabi-MC, who had the global bhangra smash “Mundian To Bach Ke”, were still enormous – although having to navigate the newly choppy waters of the internet and downloads – but others struggled, or disappeared. Anecdotally, South Asian-origin artists had a tough time getting signed to labels who did not know what to do with Brown artists (and many who were signed were quite quickly dropped).

There was a growing sense that artists who didn’t sound “Asian” enough to sell to a South Asian audience – or, on the flipside, were too outward with their Asian-ness to sell to a white audience – were shut out. Bishi Bhattacharya, a DJ, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, multimedia performer and producer who makes electro-acoustic sitar music, says: “As recently as 2019, I was being told by big media conglomerates that I had to appeal to white people to be successful.” Artists who have not neatly fit the boxes that whiteness associates with identifiable South Asian music have had to carve out their own paths – something that Bhattacharya is proud to have done, but should not have had to.

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Kark1karan, Daytimes and Ynug Singh at Boilerroom

It’s notable that there have since been a number of prominent British-Asian artists in the charts, although they’re not often spoken about as part of a movement. In the early-2000s, the Rishi Rich Project and Rouge soundtracked rural English school discos. Later that decade, diaspora artists like MIA and Jai Paul would essentially invent their own genres (without falling into the confines of what was expected of Brown artists), pulling from global club music, rap and R&B and distilling it via wobbly, brash bedroom electronics; producers like Kindness would become integral to contemporary pop, working with the likes of Robyn, Jessie Ware and Solange; former One Direction-er Zayn Malik sang R&B tracks in Urdu; the glimmering sheen of producer Steel Banglez’ beats have formed the backbone for some of the biggest tracks in recent UK rap; Riz Ahmed has established himself as a multidimensional artist to be reckoned with.

But despite these successes, South Asians’ contribution to music in the UK hasn’t been archived with much reverence or within a broader context because, in general, it feels like the white gaze of the media and British music industry (in which BAME people are disproportionately underrepresented) largely lost interest. There was a sense that they’ve been shut out from the conversation about contemporary music, globally, their contributions to British genres under recognised. As Reju Sharma, who worked at BBC Radio 1 in the Nineties, and was one of the producers who helped build the Asian Network, is quick to point out, “most pieces [about South Asian music] tend to [focus on] the Asian Underground, bhangra and Bollywood mixes – less so about R&B, hip-hop, dubstep, drum’n’bass, grime, garage, house, dance and DJ culture across the diaspora”.

South Asian music has always continued to innovate but in the UK it certainly seemed as if there was significantly diminishing media coverage and awards nominations. Daytimers decided to change that. “Obviously we’re rooted in the musical and artistic movement that our name references, and the Asian Underground, but then there’s this 20-year gap where it feels like we weren’t getting in magazines or anything,” says Chandé, “which is one of the reasons we felt the need to create something like Daytimers in the first place.”

Others felt the same way, too, and online communities and new club nights were being built. In March of 2019, at a small bar in southeast London, a group consisting largely of young South Asians were gathered listening to some DJs from the community – Naina, Nabihah Iqbal, Noudle, and Ahad Elley (aka Ahadadream). It had an intimate, communal vibe, playing humid dubs and experimental dance. The night, founded by Elley, was called No ID.

I don’t want anyone to feel like it’s not a space for them

Ahad Elley, aka Ahadadream

“It was an experiment,” says Elley, “I wanted to see if there was a musical thread that ties together all these people doing amazing stuff. But they’re all really in their own lanes, and had been isolated – often, you wouldn’t know they were Asian. So that’s where the name ‘No ID’ comes from, this erasure of identity.” The expectation, Elley explains, is that South Asian DJs and artists must play music that’s in some way linked to that identity. “We want to get away from being pigeonholed. I don’t want anyone to feel like it’s not a space for them.”

Fast forward to the present day, and many of the people who met that night at the first No ID are integral parts of the thriving scene today. Along with a label called Chalo and the Daytimers crew, No ID are about to launch a new festival, Dialled In, which bills itself a celebration of the vastness of South Asian creativity. Artists and DJs from across the community, from different backgrounds and wildly different musical stylings are all playing (rock, industrial, dubstep, UKG, drone music, shoegaze, house, hyperpop and more), and it feels like a nod to the spirit of that original Asian Underground of nearly 30 years ago – albeit a more inclusive version of it.

In this Dialled In-era diaspora, conversations around caste, regions, class, religion, gender and sexuality are all happening under the umbrella term of ‘South Asian’, which, too often, has just meant ‘upper-caste North Indian Hindu’. “We’re doubling down on the ideals of inclusiveness and moving towards community and away from the individualisation of people as creatives,” says Chandé. “These are lessons learned from previous movements – we’re gonna stand together, and we’re better for it.” The community now is not only about rewriting the standard, white canonical narrative of music, but investing in and celebrating our own, and unlearning colonialist stratifications.

“I feel like we’ve matured as an artistic community,” says Friction, “We spent so long trying to get taken seriously, trying to please everyone else. But now we’re unapologetically Brown and South Asian, and we’re remembering we are actually from a glorious cataclysmic musical history, and we’re making music for us.”

Dialled In festival is 11 September at Uplands Business Park, London (http://wfculture19.co.uk/DialledIn)