Resurgence – An Homage To The British South Asian Music Scene

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Black radio photo
Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

British Asian music has been around for decades, yet it still does not get the credit it deserves. I want to rewind and appreciate some of the founding artists and talk about the new generation they paved the way for.

Humble Beginnings

The origins lie in a variety of genres. From Pakistani Sufi folk music known as Qawwali, Punjabi rhythm-based bhangra, to popular Indian Bollywood classics, it spans different instruments, range of voice, languages, and dialects. It encapsulates a subcontinent divided by Western-induced international borders, birthing different sounds and melodies which are still loved across its different countries and dispersed across the world with different waves of migration. 

These waves of migration to Britain in the 50s and 70s brought with them traditional ways of life, filling the suburbs in Yorkshire, the Midlands and London with a new sound, smell, and cuisine, giving vibrance to a stagnating grey postcolonial nation.

The thing about South Asian music which I love, is that it goes against its own innate culture. Asian culture, especially for us who moved to the west, is to accept things for the way they are; you work, and you keep your mouth shut, you don’t kick up a fuss. And then sometime in the late 80s the generations of immigrants dropped a match on some bhangra dhol fuel, setting alight the soundtrack for the next decade, kicking up a hell of a fuss amidst a backdrop of political instability and rife inequality.

An entirely new sound was born; combining western synths, turn-table scratching, auto-tune, and catchy lyrics to a satiating bassline. The fusion also involved a sound heavily influenced by old-school reggae classics, an homage to the black Jamaican communities which co-existed in the inner cities. Club nights (and days) were introduced both in the Midlands and in London, with desi youth sneaking out of their parents’ homes to indulge in a life unknown to them.

Takeoff

In 1996, the same year Bally Sagoo became the first Hindi singer to enter the British charts, BBC Asian network became a full-time radio show in both Leicester and Birmingham making the music accessible to many.

Sagoo, a Brummy himself, was one of the first stars produced from the new sound. In 1994 he became the first Indian artist to reach national radio, BBC Radio 1, with the classic song ‘Chura Liya’; a rework of a Bollywood song from the movie Yaadon Ki Baaraat, which would become a winning formula for Sagoo. He followed up with ‘Mere Laung Gawacha’ a grooving remix of reggae and Bollywood classics, becoming a hit in the UK, leading to an appearance on top of the pops

These achievements not only confirmed a new genre was real and here to stay, but also showed success in the arts was tangible for the South Asian community. Incredibly, the king of pop himself Michael Jackson was a fan of Sagoo and invited him to tour on his HIStory Tour in 1996. 

Sagoo would continue to make an impact and embed himself in both Asian and British history as well as pop culture over the years, a notable example being his song ‘Noorie’, another remix, being a memorable part of the soundtrack of cult-classic British movie Bend it like Beckham.

Things Can Only Get Better

The turn of the millennium marked a new start for Britain, alongside a new young government and the hope for better days following the turmoil of the decades prior, with British Asian artists hoping to build on the progress made.

However, the 2000s didn’t turn out to be the steady upward trajectory the industry deserved. Fear-mongering amongst British press post 9/11 and 7/7 meant the Asian community felt a new level of both overt and systemic racism for many years. From my own experience, it created an environment that allowed for the humiliation of our people, at no fault of their own. Again, stifling them back to the nature of what’s expected of Asian culture; quiet, controlled, subdued. 

The changing colour of the nation was touted and whilst not statistically adding up, it created a fear exacerbated by the media and weaponised by the BNP, UKIP and subtly by the Conservative Party. This leaked through to the creative industries. Once a huge hit “Mundian to Bach Ke”, and most likely what you think of when you think of Punjabi music, was ridiculed into a “ring-a-ding-a-ding” mockery that summarises the want for humiliation for the Asian British people. Similarly, to how most of us dealt with jokes about curry or accents or terrorism throughout school, it became another weapon in the growing artillery for hate; another easy target for white people to use to alienate the Asian community.

The noughties didn’t come without hits though, despite the animosity. Dr Zeus, a Punjabi DJ from Birmingham, released his breakout album ‘Under Da Influence’. He combined western drums, a catchy Hindi chorus along with rap from artist Shortie, sewed together with an iconic riff from the traditional Punjabi single-stringed instrument – the Tumbi, a catchy combination which is still an anthem now. And in Bradford blasting from subwoofers in second-hand BMWs, a group known as RDB, Rhythm Dhol Bass, combined the upcoming British garage music with Punjabi vocals.

The Sound Shift

The trio Rishi Rich, Juggy D and Jay Sean became leaders of the new school. Jay Sean is arguably the most successful British Asian artist dropping out of medical school, breaking stereotypes, to sign a record deal. His song ‘Ride it’ and later his hit single ‘Down’ whilst slowly drifting from the traditional sounds, are pop classics and lead to him signing with Cash Money Records, arguably the biggest American rap label at the time. 

M.I.A, a London rapper, once refugee and cult icon was one of the first British South Asian women to gain worldwide success. Her electro, jungle and dancehall sound is an evolution from the original urban desi scene of the nineties. M.I.A’s music heavily explores themes of the political and racial struggle of the 2000s.

Her hit single ‘Paper Planes’ from her second album uses a brilliant sample by the Clash, ‘Straight to Hell’, a piece on global affairs and Thatcher’s England with the opening line of the song telling immigrants to be more British – a satire of the time. M.I.A’s version shares the subtext; a social commentary on immigration on the treatment of minorities at airports at the time, taken from her own struggles to get a visa in the USA, taking back the power from the treatment during the post 9/11 era, and also showing how little had changed from the original Clash song.

Despite being less of a dance tune compared to some of her others, it is an undeniable classic, with its alt-hip-hop sound and recognisable gunshots and cashier sound effects. Paper Planes charted the top five in America, an incredible achievement given the song’s content, and went multi-platinum across the world. To add to this streak of success, the single was nominated for a Grammy.

The Next Episode

It’s fair to say in the 2010s, British Asian music went into hibernation. As songs became more commercialised and radio focussed, an amalgamation of dubstep beats or cheap rap songs with radio-aimed choruses, the desi sound struggled to keep up.

The pandemic and the rise of Tiktok did however allow people to rediscover their love for the music, and now it is back.

Jay Seans’ ‘Ride it’ was remixed by Kosovon DJ Regard, giving the classic a new lease of life to new audiences with over one billion streams on Spotify as of today, as well as charting second in the UK. DJs Jyoty and Yung Singh have taken advantage of the current wave of nostalgia in the music industry, giving the Desi urban sound a return to the club scene. Both artists have spread the music across the globe, at festivals and even cult club Berghain in Berlin. 

This reincarnation is creating a new era, using staple sounds from our childhoods, and I am both optimistic and excited to see how it evolves next. As in the past, these artists are proving once again, that no matter the political rhetoric and treatment of their communities, they can break down barriers through talent and originality.

Words by Ammad Butt


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