How music helped me

embrace my mixed

South-Asian identity

hook journal1.jpg

by Anusha Persson

Image by Luci Pina

I remember finding out that Norah Jones was the daughter of Ravi Shankar, the renowned Indian sitar player. I spent a lot of time studying her album cover trying to work out the resemblance, and listening to her music, trying to establish an emotional connection. Whilst her music was, and still is, beautiful and well executed, I always felt slightly disconnected. Probably because I was only 11 and her lyrics about grown up love and loss were not intended for me, but rather a more grown up audience. 

Throughout my teenage years, music always felt like a bit of a minefield. At home, I was happy listening to my Mum’s soul music, nineties Bhangra and old school Bollywood. Even now, the whispery notes of Lata Mangeshkar’s voice make me feel deeply nostalgic, and any Chaka Khan will send me straight to a dance floor, both artists emphasising my Mum’s experience of growing up as an Indian-heritage immigrant in London’s East End. 

Things were more complicated around my white peers. Of course, we can listen to music made by people with different backgrounds. But, it is still heartening and exciting to feel a shared kinship with the artists you’re consuming, the sense of shared community becoming an established language already laid down as you listen to their music. 

I never really felt like I could see myself in the music popular in the 2010s. I could never locate myself in, for example, Taylor Swift’s albums about heartbreak—I never really felt like ‘Teardrops on My Guitar’ spoke to me and the optics of her flowing blonde hair, and Boho ball gowns never became my own fashion blueprint. I found trying to relate myself to this music complicated, and preferred to listen to the music I had grown up with, finding it to be more comforting. 

It felt like South Asian representation in the music scene was relegated to people finding out that Jay Sean was actually a Punjabi boy from Hounslow, hearing Jai Ho in a dance class warm up and everyone staring at you, or someone putting on ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ at a house party in some odd attempt at flirting. None of that helped me understand myself better, and I found my mixed identity to be awkward when deciding how to express myself and understand my position in the South Asian diaspora through music. 

Now, there seems to be a wealth of artists representing the new South Asian identity in its full complexity, showcasing mixed ethnicities, like mine, and challenging mainstream stereotypes associated with South Asian culture. Instead of just being confronted with the struggle of overbearing parents, these artists are sharing emotions about the hang ups of relationships, the celebration of family and the pain of love. These artists show the multiplicity of our experiences, touching on taboo subjects of mental health, sexuality and domestic abuse. We have to remember there is not one way to be South Asian. There is not one experience and therefore, listening to a wealth of music is an incredible way to connect ourselves to different diasporic experiences. 

The first artist who helped me start to reconcile my mixed identity with the music I listened to was Leo Kalyan, whose stunning lyrics and classically trained voice, reminiscent of Lata Mangeshkar, broached the duality of his identity. Raised in London, but with Pakistani heritage,  Kalyan’s grounding in ​Indian classical music makes him ‘sonically bilingual’, and he signals this by mixing his modern sounds with typically Bollywood riffs. He is also refreshingly outspoken, calling out the commercialisation of rebelliousness and the failure of the music industry and important platforms ​in adequately showcasing South Asian talent. 

Hearing Kalyan’s song ‘Fucked Up’ for the first time  it resonated with me so much. It's angry, raw and sums up how I have felt - confused about my sexuality, how it intersects with my racial identity and feeling like I am inherently ‘fucked up’. He sings, ‘If I could fight my nature/ If I could break this wager’, evidencing the seemingly impossible task of trying to unite these two parts of his identity. Yet it doesn’t lack hope, and the music brings in these old style Bollywood riffs, which add a redemptive element. In this, he creates duality in his music, reminding me that these two parts of my identity can exist together. 

Another artist that I am kind of obsessed with at the moment is Joy Crookes. Her mixed Bangladeshi-Irish identity instantly called out to me and she has also been brought up in London. Her warm voice feels like the musical equivalent of coming home. Her music brings up pertinent issues, especially surrounding the theme of mental health. On instagram, she’s explained music’s therapeutic effect on her mental health, while discussing her song ‘Anyone But Me’. The artwork for the track features Crookes in a lengha wearing the ornate South Asian style jewelry, staring defiantly at the camera. The song’s searing, emotive description of her struggles, singing “there’s a voice inside my head that controls me”,  makes that image even more heartening, and is an important reminder that South Asian communities can and should discuss mental health

However, the South Asian diaspora is located globally and it’s not just British artists who have helped me embrace my heritage.  One of my favourite artists is Raveena, a Northern Indian-American artist.   As an artist, she is soft where Joy Crookes is fierce, and her references to her culture and identity are less searing than Leo Klayan. But, her softness is so tantalising and her vocals and lyrics so memorable that she is incredibly special in her own right. Her album, Lucid melds references to the soul artists she grew up with and her own references to her culture. Her DIY videos are also incredible, such as for her song ‘Honey’. With sunflowers, a beautiful Maang Tikka, mehndi and featuring other creatives, such as journalist and activist Simran Randawha, Honey is an incredible example of Raveena’s talent and skill at representing the South Asian diasporic experience, showing its diversity and the breadth of the creative skill which our culture has instilled. Her lyrics are poetic, her visuals are stunning and all of it is underscored by beautiful music which instantly transports me to another world. 

These artists featured are by no means a definitive list, rather those that crept up onto my playlist and who I have personally found myself in. Their striking talent only serves as a reminder of how much the music industry misses when it focuses on pale, male and well, stale, rather than fully embracing the diversity of voices, and therefore, talent, that exists in the world.  

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