British Asian Culture: Doomed To Be Uncool?
June 04, 2013
Are there certain values in Asian culture that inherently prohibit the freedom that coolness generally requires.
Is British Asian culture uncool? The event at Asia House in search of an answer was over-subscribed, suggesting it’s a question many younger British Asians still aren’t sure about. Are we cool?
Led by chairperson - self-admittedly un-cool journalist Sathnam Sanghera, the dubious panel didn’t seem too sure either. Radio presenters Nihal and Bobby Friction, cookery author Ravinda Bhogal and writer Siddartha Bose, the sole objective voice of the four, were all supposed arbiters of modern British Asian cool but their take seemed to be that the currency of British Asian cool has ebbed and flowed, the apex being the mid-late 90s scene centred around Talvin Singh’s Anokha club. Since then, it’s been largely left to hip-hop producers like Timbaland to take up the mantle (though this was over a decade back). Asians themselves have been out of the picture, reliant on black or white backers for credibility, whether it’s Jay Sean or MIA. Friction and Nihal waxed nostalgic over the 90s, displaying little enthusiasm for the Asian underground of today, Friction more excited about what’s happening in India.
That’s the populist arts. In literature and theatre, south Asian themes have been a trendy favourite, even if this hasn’t always extended to British Asians closer to home – but then perhaps Bollywood’s inclusion of NRI stories has negated the need for British Asians to tell their own. Much was made of how the UK’s Asian populous has splintered so that we’re more likely to define ourselves by whether we are Punjabi or Mirpuri, with the panel wondering whether this new micro-localism means British Asians are too stratified to produce anything that could satisfy everyone.
There was some mulling over whether certain values in Asian culture inherently prohibit the freedom that coolness generally requires. At least, cool as we know it – is there an Asian sense of cool? Questions of whether British Asians are too in thrall to the dominant, western, Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll definition of cool to acknowledge - or celebrate - a different kind went unanswered. Though perhaps they didn’t have to - Friction has a de-Asian-ised nom de plume while Nihal has lost his surname. It seems that even cool Asians have to lose some of those still-less cool ethnic signifiers to make it happen. So even if the panel’s definitions of cool never got much further than “not caring what others think” (though for a discussion that kicked off with Sanghera’s opener “what do your parents think about what you do?”, it wasn’t that surprising), in a world where individualism now carries a greater implication of selfishness, perhaps old notions of cool are in flux.
Curiously, when an audience member asked if there was any protest in British Asian music, the sensible panel disapproved that such songs would perpetrate Asian victimhood (never mind that Nihal’s childhood heroes Public Enemy specialised in underclass protest). He favoured the ‘work and don’t complain’ ethic of his parents while Ravinder preferred the respectable ideal of “empowerment” over ugly protest. They suggested that far from the lonely old days of feeling like the only Asian in the room, brown-ness is now a useful bargaining tool in media life (though these established, middle-class media professionals might not be best positioned to comment on the odds for all).
A quick glance at the media seems to confirm this – Asians have never been more visible. The UK’s biggest ethnic group, British Asians might can be spotted across television and radio networks, both behind and in front of the scenes, middle class Asian women in particular. Professional and hard-working enough to satisfy old values, but ‘different’ enough to provide novelty and the sense of a path self-defined, perhaps media professionalism is the new British Asian cool.