Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Next Big Thing in Music... if only you’d give it a chance

As previously mentioned, Britain's urban music scene is a formidable cultural movement. Just put on any music channel, switch on the radio, pick up a magazine, or simply walk down the street; chances are you'll encounter the popularity of indigenous hip-hop in some form or another. It's humbling to see a minority underground movement that was once abjured for being too hostile is now a commercial success story many pay heed to.

That's great news for proponents of British urban beats, but what became of the UK 'desi' music scene? Why didn't it take off in the way some of us thought/ hoped it would?

Chances are you might not give a hoot, but it seems important when you consider that desi music pertains to the sounds created by the largest ethnic group in Britain: its Asians. That's right, black people may be ostensibly cooler than Asian people, but Asians love their music just as much. Yet the Asian creative community's music output has been  largely ignored, unable to penetrate the mainstream barriers that 'grime' music was able to conquer.

Desi refers to the peoples, cultures and products of the Indian subcontinent; increasingly linked to its young diasporas residing in Europe and North America. For over 30 years British Asians have created a desi fusion culture in which foods, fashions, movies and music of South Asian origin are amalgamated with elements of Western culture. This protean collision launched the desi genre of music; formed by the fusion of traditional Indian folk music and Western sonic styles. The genre has recognisable godfathers like Alaap and Kumar Heera who began paving the way for British bhangra music back in the late-1970s.

More recently desi music had momentary glimpses of success; most notably with hits like Punjabi MC's track Mundian To Bach Ke which was a top 5 charting song in 2002. Within the last decade desi acts like DJ Swami have played at the Glastonbury Festival; the Kray Twinz have produced songs with major U.S. rapper Twista; Rishi Rich has mixed tracks for Britney Spears; Punjabi Hit Squad got their Hai Hai video on to MTV; and buff Asian girl band Rouge almost managed to position themselves as Britain's answer to Destiny's Child. Also within the last decade Missy Elliott's Get UR Freak On was an international megahit that incorporated a wholesale desi spin. Even hip-hop powerhouses like Dr. Dre, Truth Hurts, Busta Rhymes, Method Man and, to a much lesser degree ― the Black Eyed Peas, have all toyed with desi beats, though perhaps only delivering evanescent popularity.

Despite the few successes mentioned above, desi music has lost its way and that's a real shame when you consider that at one time it looked like it could be the next most popular genre of music swinging nationwide. It would be more understandable if the desi music scene had failed anywhere else in the world but Britain, yet it hasn't. The growing demand in America for South Asian themed pop culture made MTV Networks launch their own desi television channel, imaginatively titled MTV Desi. In contrast, the lack of support for desi themed material in Britain has led to the BBC announcing plans to shutter its titular Asian Network digital radio station within the coming year.

Things look bleak for British Asian music and it's not going to get better anytime soon.

So who is to blame for this catastrophe? Why is it that the UK's Asian minority culture ― the culture that probably won Britain its Olympic bid by promising to liven up events through offering Bollywood sizzle instead of drab morris dancing ― is being so shamelessly undervalued by powerful music executives? Is it racism or is it something to do with British Asians not being able to develop their brands as effectively as what the urban black community has accomplished? Chances are that it is a mixture of all these things.

The biggest hint signalling that things were going wrong for UK desi music came in summer 2006 when Ian Parkinson, BBC Radio 1's head of specialist music and speech, moved Bobby Friction and Nihal Arthanayake's weekly desi music show from its primetime window to its current midnight-2am graveyard slot. Surprisingly, Bobby Friction and Nihal Arthanayake's audience always hovered around the half-million mark which was a fairly respectable number for its kind of show. Parkinson pontificated that it was important the Radio 1 schedule "keep[s] evolving to keep pace with the musical passions of our young audience," but his actions were a severe knock for the UK Asian music community. It was a blow because British Asian music had lost its biggest mainstream platform. As with any emerging music scene, it needed to reach a wider audience in order to grow and improve. Nihal Arthanayake told Asians in Media that Parkinson's decision was short sighted, saying: "You could ask the question whether the BBC had expected too much out of Asian music and then found it lacking."

Then again, perhaps the BBC realised that it had jumped on a sound and scene that is too niche in terms of impacting on the mainstream, discovering the extensive support needed just wasn't there. Still, one can't help but feel the powers that be have undercut the British desi scene by drowning it before it's had a chance to breathe. British Asian music has not had the access or the opportunities that other UK minority groups like the black community has enjoyed in recent years. The British media has ghettoised Asian talent and failed to promote key desi DJs, production staff and presenters in a way where there can be movement for them across a range of mainstream platforms. After all, you are more likely to see a cool black presenter hosting the weekly chart rundown rather than an Asian host who is not readily deemed hip enough for the job.

The British record labels are as much to blame too. It's comforting to read that Sonna Rele is being described by Zee magazine as the "Asian answer to Alicia Keys," with Universal Music signing the then 15 year old Sonna on the spot after hearing her demo (she's now signed to Sony/ RCA), but the industry's track record with Asian artists is pretty bad.

Universal Music dropped Preeya Kalidas from the label pretty much as soon as they had signed her on and Virgin Records regretfully parted ways with Jay Sean after the artist failed to score big with his desi sounds, though Jay Sean has now gone on to major Stateside success by signing up with Cash Money Records who realised the futility in trying to shoehorn Jay into making ethnic sounding records when what he really wants to do is sing smooth transatlantic pop songs.

Even British Asian hip-hop queen M.I.A. has found that the American market has been far more receptive to her inventive music than what the UK has, most likely because the UK sees her as a marketing nightmare: not street enough for the Brit urban crowd and not Asian enough for the desi camp.

Plus, it seems that the North American market has a better idea of the desi music framework and knows how to best market it to the broadest audience possible. After all, American desi artists like Nadia Ali and Das Racist are not pigeonholed by a particular ethnic sound, with the former nominated for a Grammy award at last month's ceremony and the latter featuring in Rolling Stone magazine as a band to keep an eye on

So what happens now? The desi scene still exists in the shadows and crevices of British popular culture but how can we get the average non-Asian punter to take it seriously? The truth is although mainstream broadcasters have not supported desi music as well as what they could have, the Asians who developed the scene have also failed by creating music that lacks innovation and freshness. The beats largely sound repetitive and stilted, with little progress made in terms of evolving its sonic style. Even some of the most successful crossover tracks attributed to the desi scene were produced by African American producers who were merely dipping their toes in the Asian beats as means of experimentation with no real intent on making it their signature sound.

In order for the British desi scene to have a real chance at flourishing, producers and artists may need to consider how they can make their sounds more tantalising for too cool for school hipsters desperate to latch on to the next big trend in music. British Asians are in an enviable position, sharing a dual heritage that's rife in colour, sound and texture. We can take the established music styles of the host nation and blend it with the sonic traditions of the old country, in turn, creating music trends the world has never heard.

Sure, Asians are not conventionally cool in the way that the UK urban black crowd is, but we have better educational attainment and greater affluence than the former. It's time to put those qualities to good use and think about creating and launching a new brand of commercial desi beats that will change British music forever. It will be a case of developing new production methods and business models that rely less on pernicious mainstream executives and more on grassroots support.

To put it simply: We need to think about how we can make something big out of thinking small.


  1. I've always adored Jay Sean and it's quite weird that he is now almost more popular in USA than in UK :(
    RIDE IT and STAY would be my favourite of his songs.

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  3. Honestly labelling of artists in music is on a precarious edge, saying someone is like someone is one thing, but then labelling them so that they are stuck with that label, i.e. saying Rouge was like Destiny's Child, is what causes problems. These labels suggest that the artists are stuck as being like who they have been compared with, that their music will not grow in a their way. Desai music needs to come into its own now, not stay in the shadows of what is Western Music and what is purely Asian music. Why do you think British Asian/Middle Eastern fashion and styling does so well? Because it mixes things up, invents and recreates aspects of multiple cultures, creating its own touch.