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British Asian Culture

By Henna Butt
May 23 2013





Last week The Festival of Asian Literature at Asia House brought us this panel discussion featuring poet and playwright, Siddhartha Bose, TV chef Ravinder Bhogal, DJs Nihal and Bobby Friction and chaired by journalist and author, Satnam Sanghera.

With a discussion so broadly defined, Sanghera didn’t stand much of a chance in terms of keeping it on course but this was, nonetheless, a fascinating opportunity to eke out what is meant by the idea of “British Asian”.

The panel itself showed quite sharply who tends to identify with the term “British Asian”, whilst Nihal and Friction, born here in the seventies, define themselves in this way, it wasn’t the same for Bhogal or Bose who were born abroad.

Friction suggests that the term was specific to a certain time, when the few South Asians in the country banded together against “a white monolithic mainstream culture”. He and Nihal noted with regret that younger generations have fragmented from this umbrella term, identifying instead by region or country of origin, or religion.

For whom, then, do media such as Eastern Eye or BBC Asian Network cater when younger migrants’ children don’t aggregate to the British Asian group? Perhaps just contemporaries of Friction and Nihal?

Friction cited how in the nineties, US Asians praised the confidence with which their British counterparts “fused cultures”, whereas Nihal claims that current views of British Asians abroad tends to be one of being extreme, “going on about how desi [they] are”.

For the Asians that grew up during the same period as Friction and Nihal, though, there was a strong and united Other against which to form the British Asian identity. Coming in at the tail end of that, even I remember the euphoria of recognition that came of hearing “So Contagious” by Truth Hurts in a public space. Friction told us “I DJ-ed because every cell in my body wanted to go out screaming against the mainstream culture.”

Friction grew up in the seventies when Asians were still sparse, for him British Asian culture started off as just what his family did “secretly” at home. He expressed this identity through art, atomized through university, until he found the “Asian underground” music scene.

Rather than Nitin Sawney or Talvin Singh, Nihal cited artists such as Juggy D, Ri$hi Rich and Jay Sean as the first artists to really resonate with British Asians, suggesting the prior only appealed to the “intelligentsia”. Conversely, an audience member argued that Jay Sean was simply “stealing someone else’s culture” and that true British Asian music was much earlier Asian Dub Foundation drawing authenticity from how closely influenced the music was by South Asian styles.

Nihal defended Jay Sean as an Asian artist though, which sat awkwardly with his own comments earlier, when he said of Mani from the Stone Roses, “he’s Asian, but how much does he rep Asian-ness”? The iteration of Jay Sean that attained the number one spot in the Billboard chart with “Down” was one completely disinfected of the Asian influences that had made him so successful in this niche during his early career.

The discussion turned to how British Asian music artists fail to address social issues such as forced marriage or religious extremism in their music. This is an endemic paradox around migrant minority subcultures which is amplified in an environment of multiculturalism. The conservative mores which have been transported from a South Asia of the sixties and seventies by migrant parents are rarely challenged. Progressive lifestyles are often hidden from families leading to a lack of overall support for outward-facing openness.

For example, migrants’ anxiety to move into the middle class constantly sees them foisting children into the professions.

Whilst the panellists all had diverse backgrounds, most could unite on their parents’ disapproval with regards to their careers in creative industries. Bhogal found her family didn’t understand her previous work as a fashion stylist. A problem alleviated by her move into cooking which was better received, harking back to her youth in an “Austen-esque household” where the four sisters would gather to cook. Only Nihal didn’t suffer the same problem, his parents, both professionals, were happy to see him do something different.

Of course, question of “what is cool?” came under close examination. Friction described how in the early nineties the mainstream media seized the idea of “The New Asian Cool”, writing articles and following the pioneers of the scene. Nihal described parallels between this and the current Afrobeat trend amongst “Guardian-readers”.

The BBC sitcom, Citizen Khan does well to demonstrate that the motifs of British Asian culture that were moulded during that early phase remain the same assumptions used to describe British Asians today. These stereotypes have led to a fatigue in the appetite for the “garden-variety” of ethnic minority; British Asians are familiar, homogenous and unchanging. If cool, then, is novelty, this well-known flavour of British Asian culture had its heyday with “Mundian To Bach Ke”, the only bhangra track you’re likely to encounter in a mainstream club even now.

At the same time there’s the anxiety that comes as a hangover from colonialism, are we measuring our cool against criteria defined by the “dominant culture”?

Nihal described his wife’s reaction to how mainstream society views Asians in this country as an American Sri Lankan, “I get the impression that they don’t like you here.” Perhaps this is why younger generations of Asians are defining themselves outside of the bounds of the British Asian identity – to escape the baggage of the chicken tikka masala and the host of other assumptions that come alongside being brown and British in the eyes of a mainstream media trained by Goodness Gracious Me.

Over recent years there have been threats that the BBC Asian Network would be cut. Friction, though, claims that this cannot happen due to the demographic changes over the coming forty years which will see the Asian community grow hugely. If this purpose is to be fulfilled the BBC Asian Network needs to support British Asians to re-define themselves and grow as a community by being more outward-facing, less insular and exclusive. Moving towards eclectic and multi-layered identities and music like M.I.A. (curiously absent from the discussion).

Even the panelists felt that the term “British Asian”, or perhaps the perception of “British Asian” in the British consciousness, hindered them more that it helped. Bhogal said she felt “lassoed” by it and Friction felt that it was problematic because the mainstream looks at Asians through stereotypes. At the same time, as Nihal noted, the entire panel is successful today because of their British Asian heritage, “we’ve all played the Asian card”. British Asians are incentivized not to develop and change, by their families, communities and by societal expectations, but Asian media and Asian artists have it in their hands to change these perceptions, although this might mean letting go of an old fond identity.




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