how the immigrant experience is changing the face of london's clubs
While British politicians debate the effects of an ‘open-door’ policy on immigration in the run up to next month's general election, what’s the experience for young people from families that came through it? Kieran Yates reports on London’s DJs...
In the basement of a club in south London, Manara is mixing Kanika Kapoor, famous for her work on Bollywood films, into Jam City, whose radical take on deconstructing club music has put him at the forefront of electronic music's vangaurd. On the surface you might think they're two styles too different to come together.
Kanika Kapoor's bollywood banger, Baby Doll, was one of the biggest Bollywood club bangers of last year. Its euphoric bass thumps against the gluttonous beats of Jam City, getting excitable hands thrown in the air. For BBC Asian Network listeners, Baby Doll is a recognisable staple, but for this crowd hearing Kapoor being mixed into the slick electronica of producer Jam City is probably not an obvious choice.
For Manara, a British Pakistani DJ, the selections are a simply a reflection of her own cultural experiences. While she may not see her sets as overtly political, her presence is sending a powerful message - that her reference points have a place in mainstream club culture. It's pleasing to notice that playing non-English songs to a crowd of predominantly English clubbers doesn't seem to be a problem. While sounds from the West Indian diaspora have long been formed part of the UK's mainstream musical heritage, the musical styles of other minority communities are increasingly staking their claim to being a part of Britain's musical landscapes.
Manara explains, simply, that she plays "Desi songs because they bang." [Desi is a term for the wider Indian diaspora, whether Indian, Bengali, Pakistani or Sri Lankan] "I realised a lot of non-Desis are surprised our music has more to it than Mundian To Bach Ke by Punjabi MC," she continues. "I mean, I know it's not been cool to be Asian since the 90s, but come on. From old Asian garage to Bollywood and Dr Zeus bangers, there's so much power and pain to be harnessed from Hindi and Punjabi vocals and it makes everyone feel something in the club. It's all about how you mix it."
"My biggest inspiration is the god, DJ Xtreme. He shows that you don't have to disrespectfully cut up an immaculate Desi vocal for a shite Soundcloud remix, or pair it with a lame 'ethnic' visual signifier. If you know the music inside out, you know what other music to pair it with and make it bang for everyone."
For producer and DJ David Barseghian - aka Sweyn Jupiter - it seems obvious to represent the traditional Armenian songs he grew up hearing in his house in some way. "I'll DJ Armenian songs if they go with the sound, especially ones which are classed as "rabiz" in our culture. They're a contrast to our traditional music, which is usually made up of traditional instruments like duduks and flutes. Rabiz tends to have a more emotive vocal to me... it's Armenian party music."
For these DJs, what they're doing is more logical than revolutionary. A good example of this is DJ Work's recent Dosti Riddim, a pared back dance track, which mixes a sample of Yeh Dosti Hum Nahine, from the classic Bollywood film Sholay, and a twerk riddim. Work's merging of his nostalgic and present references is met with a shrug when I ask him about it. "I play this as part of a set filled with trap and people go mad. I'm not making some kind of statement about being Asian, I'm just playing club music." Despite these DJs playing down their contributions, catering for those people who have traditionally felt outside rave culture is a shift that's been a long time coming.
For many young people from immigrant backgrounds, feeling invisible in pop culture is a normal part of the British experience - particularly if you're brown. This might, in part, be due to coming of age in a post-9/11 landscape that created a damaging monocultural identity out of hundreds of different cultural and ethnic identities, that simply equated being brown with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Many young people felt they were to be feared and avoided. The message was that brown people were Muslim people, and neither of those things were welcome. The move to playing music that represents a range of brown cultures and styles is increasingly important for minority communities who have felt marginalised. Indeed, recognising difference and creating plurality in invisible minority communities is crucial.
Kareem Reid thinks things are changing. As part of the The Lonely Londoners - a small group of international creatives - he curates exhibitions that aim to tell a range of narratives. His new monthly night in London, called BodyParty is billed as "an intentionally queer and safe space for black and brown bodies; all bodies welcome" So do brown people need a safe space?
"Absolutely" he explains, (who identifies himself as Jamaican, Black British and Afro-European). "There's most definitely a kind of renaissance happening among my black and brown peers. BodyParty makes immigrant sounds the norm, because the cultural exchange we experience just by living and working in London shouldn't be excluded from nightlife."
So has the global awareness of Asian identity politics finally hit the clubs? DJs are increasingly uncompromising, and some think it's the listener's responsibility to learn about the culture behind some of the music they're enjoying, especially as the current BAME population accounts for 14% of the UK. Tuvshin Bolor, or 2SHIN, hosts a radio show called BBZ Azn Network - a pastiche of the BBC's Asian Network station on Radar Radio, an online radio station that transmits their take on British Values to listeners across the country.
2SHIN, who describes his ethnicity as Mongolian ("Khalkh, Buryat and Kalmyk to be exact") says, "The name is a running twitter joke I made about how South Asians should share the BBC Asian Network with East Asians as we don't have representation or a platform in UK media. I feel like that kind of sums the show up. It's fun and playful but underscored with serious implications." His show plays a mix of bashment, hip hop and electronica, so rather than being identified by playing Eastern sounds it is instead making visible DJs who consider Rabiz or J-Pop as much of a first hand reference point as Vybz Kartel. This act of cultural solidarity on the decks particularly resonates for anyone who might not socialise with others from their homeland on a daily basis.
2SHIN thinks that mainstream clubs have not been inviting enough of difference. "There's this prevailing idea that clubs are already safe spaces, a place for equal opportunity hedonism where the working man can escape the grind of the work week, but I'm not sure that was ever true. Perhaps it's true if you're white. Clubs in the West End of London are still astoundingly open in their racist door and music policies."
The immigrant experience has always lent itself to club culture even if outside the rave the rhetoric hasn't been inviting. Now that new narratives are being heard an immigration cap in the club wouldn't just harm the nights, it might destroy them. Immigrant club experiences have long existed in segregated spaces, and all started there. For that reason, it seems clear why it's important that DJs like Manara continue to educate new ears about different and new sounds.
The effect on the dancefloor is an emotional one, not because DJs crave the co-sign of white party-goers, but because it strips the shame that many minority people have felt at one time or another. For many people in the room, growing up and playing this music out on the street, loudly out of bedroom windows, or out of your family car would have been met with ridicule. These sets, which are the musical equivalent of bringing smelly packed lunches to school, are being embraced, and for a lot of clubbers who might have never felt fully represented in the raves, it's about time. These DJs aren't trying to swap their tracks for something less embarrassing, they're turning the volume right up.
As Kareem puts it, "I feel like it says something really powerful and simple when I hear a popular Bollywood or Afro-pop song in the club. It says, 'we're here'. It's more than refreshing. It's necessary."
BodyParty takes place on April 16 at the Ace Hotel, Shoreditch. Listen to 2Shin's monthly show on Radar Radio.
Text Kieran Yates