Storytelling through art: Rohan Rakhit is the multi-talented creative uplifting dancefloors and communities - Music - Mixmag

Storytelling through art: Rohan Rakhit is the multi-talented creative uplifting dancefloors and communities

Rohan Rakhit shares a first-class mix and speaks to Fizzy Noor about juggling creative disciplines, growing in confidence, and reframing his artistic career

  • Words: Fizzy Norr | Photos: Lead and opening by Ryan Guinn, closing by Nards Rouhipour
  • 23 November 2023

A journey through Rohan Rakhit’s year reveals a tapestry of diverse accomplishments in the music world. From performances at Lost Village, We Out Here and Dialled In, to active participation in the Daytimers collective and learning at Rhythm Section’s FUTURE PROOF mentorship programme, Rohan has been making waves in the music scene, but beyond it as well. Also an actor and Creative Director of the Mehfil event series, he's a multi-talented artist who dedicates a lot of energy to uplifting those around him. At the heart of Rohan's creative pursuits lies a common thread – storytelling through art.

Rohan works to strengthen community bonds through collectives like Daytimers, championing the sounds, stories & voices of South Asian creative communities. Mehfil events are a bridge uniting South Asian voices in poetry with other creative disciplines, showcasing a unique intersection of cultures. He is also an active collaborator with Sister Midnight FM, a not-for-profit co-operative organisation campaigning for Lewisham's first community-owned music venue.

In this interview, Rohan opens up about the challenges of finding rest within the immigrant experience: juggling the trifecta of drama school, acting and music; the delicate dance between community passion and avoiding tokenisation; and reframing his artistic career. As a DJ, he blends styles ranging from energetic UK funky to stirring soulful house to exploratory nu-jazz and broken beat.

As Rohan shares his vision for the future, the accompanying mix serves as an auditory journey into his unique identity as a DJ. Check it out below.

You’ve done a lot this year - you graduated from LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), performed in Pygmalion at the Old Vic Theatre, you took part in the Rhythm Section's FUTURE PROOF mentorship programme, and you’ve been DJing alongside the whole time. How’s that been?

I don't think you clock how much you’ve been doing until someone actually lays it out like that. I read this really great essay called Rest by Kieran Yates, about the immigrant experience of rest, and how it’s such a difficult thing for us as children of immigrants to achieve. She argues that rest is a privilege. We were brought up told that we must work harder than our white counterparts.

I come from three generations of doctors on both sides of my family. My parents still work past midnight every night. They don’t understand the need for rest. I asked my dad to reduce his hours and he was like, “Why would I do that? I’m good at what I do, and I’m saving lives.” It’s funny how much we, as children of immigrants, embody that mentality. It’s been an amazing year and I’ve made some of my dreams a reality but it doesn’t feel excessive. I still feel like I can do more.

Let’s dive into some of the stuff you’ve been doing. You just performed in Pygmalion at The Old Vic - how did you get into acting?

A lot of people don’t know much about my acting because I didn’t really post about it before. After lockdown, I auditioned for drama school on a whim. My mate worked for an organisation that helped people of colour get into drama school, and he hit me up on Instagram like, “Hey, there’s a free audition at LAMDA. Do you want it?” Everything was still virtual at this point, so I just filmed myself monologuing in front of a blank wall, sent it off & forgot about it. But then they invited me to audition for the next round, then the next round, and so on. LAMDA is a really prestigious school, so I never thought I’d get in. But that helped because I felt no pressure, and I somehow ended up getting in. I spent two years doing the most intense conservatoire training experience, which was incredible, but also really difficult. I was funding it through my DJing. Those two years were the most relentless, crazy, but also affirming, of my life. I remember thinking on day one of drama school, “I’m not really an actor”, but now I definitely think of myself as an actor, amongst other things

That’s amazing. Seems like you’ve spent this year really cultivating your various crafts. You also did Rhythm Section’s FUTURE PROOF mentorship programme earlier in the year - what was that like?

It was amazing. I learned so much. And it came at a really good time for me. I remember the first talk that Bradley Zero gave (with Moxie): Bradley told us about how much power there is in being able to say “no”. At the time, I’d been saying yes to so many gigs to fund school, and Bradley’s words really resonated with me. I was like, “Maybe it’s time to reframe the narrative of what my career is.” The whole experience was great because I had all these people that I really admire encouraging me to think about who I was artistically, and then pushing me to reflect on why I was doing things or taking gigs that didn’t necessarily align with that. They just had this really strong, reassuring message: “You don’t need to do that. You’re going to stay relevant because what you’re doing is really great. Your art is good. Trust in that. Your art is your power.” To have that backing from Rhythm Section - especially being a non-South Asian space - was really affirming. I think it’s the push I needed to be like, “I do have a career in this, and I do have my own niche, my own sound & that’s enough.” It gave me new energy and reframed the understanding I had of my place in the industry.

Read this next: Touching Bass is empowering Black artists to freely express themselves

How do your creative pursuits overlap?

I think the root of it for me is storytelling. Obviously, theatre tells a story. Poetry is such a raw and visceral form of speaking from your soul. And I think music - whether it’s dance music, stuff from the Asian Underground, broken beat, or soulful house - is all associated with moments in time that tell such beautiful, vivid stories. All of these art forms speak about protest movements, resistance, and countercultures. So, I try not to look at all the different artistic stuff I do as entirely separate. I think there's a lot more scope for things to sort of breathe together and become something new. That’s what the team and I have been trying to do with Mehfil, the event series I’m the Creative Director of. It showcases the breadth & depth of talent within the South Asian poetry & spoken word community and offers a platform for artists from other creative disciplines outside of music.

Tell me more about your vision for Mehfil.

In the '90s and noughties, South Asian creativity was really being celebrated through the lens of music. Now there is way more visibility for other creative disciplines, but it doesn’t feel like there are enough spaces to foster those connections outside of a club environment. So much of our audience doesn’t drink, and what we’ve been building is a lot more intergenerational - so older people want to engage with this stuff or to bring their kids.

Mehfil, in my eyes, is the bridge between all these creative disciplines. We throw events that celebrate spoken word, first and foremost. I think it's such a great way to educate audiences on different people's lived experiences, and politics. Loads of different intersections can be represented, which I try to do in line-ups. We’re also running workshops and engaging with young people. We did a creative engagement program with Rich Mix in East London over the space of a month, which culminated in this group of young people facilitating their own Mehfil event and reading out their own poems on stage for the first time, writing songs, doing the set design, production, marketing, everything.

I feel a lot of the community work I do is just trying to give other people opportunities, which is what the people around me did when I was just starting out. I was the youngest person on the team when we were starting Daytimers and I learned so much from everyone around me. They really upskilled me.

Is there a different side of you that comes out in each of your creative disciplines?

There's a really great quote from Philip Seymour Hoffman. He talks about acting and he says, “Acting is placing your attention on your intention without any tension.” When I'm performing on stage or on set, I feel such a deep sense of relaxation, in a way that I rarely experience at clubs. Clubs are difficult environments for people like us to be in unless it's a night run by friends or promoters that I know have got me. So it's not a state of relaxation I'm in. I feel more like I'm treading water a lot of the time.

Do you want to tell me more about it being difficult to be in a club setting?

I've experienced a lot of microaggressions during my music career since my Boiler Room dropped. After that set, there was a steady influx of gigs - and there still is - which I’m very grateful for. But in that first six months or so post-Boiler Room, I had a promoter come up behind the decks while I was playing, and show me one of my South Asian edits like “I thought you played this sort of stuff.” I was just thinking, “Why’d you book me? You don’t even know what I play.” I was playing soulful house, UK funky, literally the same genres I was playing in the Boiler Room. But I played three South Asian tunes in that Boiler Room set, and I feel like my whole music career got pigeonholed. I feel like I’ve finally broken out of that this year. It seems like people are really digging my sound and I feel like I'm comfortable in that, so if I want to play South Asian tunes, I'm doing it on my terms, not when a promoter is telling me to do so.

How did you break out of that?

I think there is a lot of pressure for creatives to just take whatever they can get - whether that’s because of economic pressure or pressure to make a name for themselves. For me personally, the FUTURE PROOF workshop gave me the confidence I needed to be more selective with where I place myself. So I'm aligning myself with promoters I really like, and just learning to be okay with saying no sometimes.

In terms of the industry-wide view, though, I don't think there's a way to break out of that en masse. I think the only way is to push for individual success. I look at someone like Riz Ahmed, who literally was doing everything that we're doing now: platforming the Asian Underground scene, writing spoken word poetry, and of course acting, but in such a South Asian box. Now he has the privilege of playing a leading role in Sound of Metal, which is not remotely associated with South Asianess. I think the only way is to just smash ceilings and keep smashing ceilings. No one's going to do the work for you, so you've just got to do it.

A lot of your work promotes South Asian visibility. How do you balance your passion and support for the community with not wanting to be pigeonholed or tokenised?

It’s so difficult. I don't think there's any room for it in the industry yet really. I think if you're working as an artist of colour and are very visible in the scene and all your work is seen to be uplifting certain people, you might be indirectly putting off gatekeepers or white people from letting you into certain spaces. If you look at Daytimers, there have been people who were affiliated with us before and they’ve gone on to do really good things celebrating South Asian artistry on their own terms. But we don’t really have a clear figurehead or spokesperson. We’re not a PR machine, so a lot of that talent isn’t being celebrated. The Daytimers name is celebrated but no one really sees or cares about the individuals behind the movement. When there’s just “Daytimers takeover” on the line-up, it feels like a bit of a cop-out - like promoters aren’t reaching out to specific people within Daytimers to share their specific areas of expertise.

What’s your dream for South Asian representation within creative disciplines?

I want more of us in positions of power in organisations and I think that starts with giving people opportunities at this grassroots level. They upskill themselves and then feel confident enough to apply for jobs, which is what we’ve been doing with Mehfil.

Through Mehfil, I was working with Tara Theatre. They’re the UK's oldest South Asian theatre company, famed for having a building in South West London with an open door policy back in the ‘90s and noughties. They fostered creative relationships like the team behind Goodness Gracious Me - the sitcom that smashed ceilings for that generation of South Asians - who wrote the show’s initial sketches in that building. Their late Director Abdul Shayek, who tragically passed away very recently, wanted to work with Daytimers and I. They wanted to use their building and its history to create another hub for writers, actors, directors, movement directors, and facilitators. We were working on commissioning some South Asian artists to use the space over a couple-month period to produce new work. The idea was to get new stuff on stages, and hopefully foster connections that would enable people to build relationships and find spaces in theatre to create new work. I think TV and film are the biggest ways of changing things and I think we need to do more, with the reach that Daytimers/Dialled In has, to infiltrate those worlds. But Abdul Shayek passed away and it was really sad, so that project has understandably been put on pause for now. If it happens again, it happens, but I don't know. We'll see. Rest in power Abdul.

Tell me one of your favourite moments on stage.

My favourite moment was actually watching someone else. A poet that we booked for Mehfil called Zara Ahmad invited her family to the first Conway Hall event we produced. They had a whole row. We’re talking generations. She freely talked about her experiences with her mental health. To some of her family, that was the first time that she'd articulated so deeply what she felt and what she experienced growing up. I was paralysed, I literally have goosebumps now, just talking about it. I was sat right next to the row, so I wasn't watching her, I was listening to her, but I was just watching her family. The way her dad (or uncle) was moved and crying, I will never ever forget that look on his face. It was beautiful.

A lot of the joy that you talk about taking from your work is in seeing the emotion it brings forward in other people, or a moment of connection. Is that what music means to you?

Absolutely. I was first introduced to music by my nanu [grandad]. My earliest musical memories are of sitting in his living room, with his records. He was such a well-travelled man with the most amazing record collection because he’d collect records in every country he went to. For every vinyl, he has a story. He’d slap on a record and I just remember sitting there and seeing him transported to a different place as he started telling me his stories. So I think music, for me, has always been associated with watching other people relive a moment or feel something deeply.

Who are your creative inspirations?

I've been really fortunate to have some amazing mentors throughout my music career. One of them is Errol from Touching Bass, who Bradley put me in touch with through the Rhythm Section FUTURE PROOF programme. I've been working with him since and he's been incredible. What he's built as an artist, fostering that community around Touching Bass, the label and music he's repping, I just really respect him. Marina Blake of Brainchild Festival is another person I really look up to. Tim Garcia, Robert Luis and Works Of Intent for their wisdom and support over the years as well. I really admire artists who are creating amazing work but also appreciate the importance of giving back. Producers and DJs like IG Culture and Ahadadream are great examples. Everything they represent in the scene through their unique sounds to the communities they’re responsible for inciting has been really inspiring.

And of course, Uncle Riz.

Read this next: Riz Ahmed: “Home is a place that we're creating through our art”

It feels like a chapter in your life has just closed: you've just graduated, you’ve changed your direction as a musical artist, and you’re closing Pygmalion. Where do you want to go next?

I really want to do a lot more great radio, because that’s where this all started, way back when I lived in Nottingham. There are so many community radio stations in Nottingham that trusted me, but they’re no longer there. Worldwide FM, City Beat Radio, Mimm Radio - none of them exist anymore. It’s such a shame. I feel community radio's in a really vulnerable time right now. There's no money in it and people don't have time for it, which is really sad. I feel like the industry hasn't really recovered or been able to get back to some of the great storytelling that it was doing through radio. No one’s really filled that gap. Creative industries are just suffering massively and we're losing a lot of diverse voices. That’s also why we started Sister Midnight FM - in an attempt to address that.

Tell us about your Impact mix.

I feel like, this is me, musically. This is what I’ve been playing at clubs recently, and on the festival circuit. It’s what I’ve been listening to in private. I want this mix to show ignorant promoters who I am. I'm repping the same sounds that I've always repped, and now I just feel so comfortable in that.

Fizzy Noor is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

Transcend M.E. ft. Melissa Browne - Afronaut [Apollo]
In My Bed (Bugz In The Attic Vocal Mix) - Amy Winehouse [Island Records]
Stutterfly - Phil Asher [Houseology]
Twyst This - Karizma [r2 records]
On Again (4x4 Dub) - Narc & Oveous [Atjazz Record Company]
Afrika My Dub - Aroop Roy [Lazy Days Recordings]
Ragga Dont Sweat - Piers Kirwan [Dance Regular]
Press Trigga - Z. James [ec2a]
Mausam Hai Gaane Ka (Jarreau Vandal x MadStarBase Remix) - Bappi Lahiri [264 Records]
Golpe Tuyo Calinda - Afronaut [Bitasweet]
One For The Brain - Kaidi Tatham [Yore Records]
Ventana Al Tiempo - Felipe Gordon [Noire & Blanche]
Golden [Dubplates From E14 Broken Beats] - Jill Scott [Dubplates From E14]
Salsa - Murder He Wrote [Rhythm Athletic]
Yemp Booty (Original Mix) - Landslide [Round The Houses]
Bruk Boogie Knights - Beat Wave [™Shall I Bruk It]
Sure Thing - Special Love (Nuff Pedals Remix) [Gutterfunk]
Ill Bent - Benny Ill Remix (Fat Larry's Revenge Mix) - FaltyDL [Blueberry Records]
Lovestep Theme - Daz-I-Kue [I-Kue Recordings]
Some Friday Flavour - Geode [Deep Heads]
Greed (Moonstarr Remix) - Moonstarr [Compost Records]
Supernova - GeeW [Colin Curtis Presents]

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