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How clubbing is helping young British South Asians explore their creativity and identity

Aneesa Ahmed explores the complex relationship bi-cultural young people have with nightlife, and how student societies are connecting South Asian culture and clubbing

  • Aneesa Ahmed
  • 10 September 2021

Embarking on your first night out is a universally renowned rite of passage for young people across the globe. Clubbing brings people together, providing opportunities for growth, art, and self-expression. A hallmark in youth socialisation, it is no surprise that the clubbing and music scene is formative in personal growth in every adolescent’s life.

South Asian youth often have a much less linear and far more complex relationship with clubbing, dance, electronic music and nightlife culture in comparison to their non-Asian peers. Blending both the British and the Asian elements of being a bi-cultural young person has made young people creative in the ways they party and interpret music, but has also complicated their relationship with both cultures. While not a homogenous group, the experience of being a young South Asian in ‘Western’ countries is multifaceted.

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Social stigma around clubbing, nightlife and the rave scene is prolific amongst South Asian communities. Going out and raving is prohibited for many South Asian young people while growing up and nightlife and raving as a concept can be seen as taboo or ‘haram’. In many cases, conservative parents disapprove of their children going out to sweaty nightclubs, far away from home, and are spiteful toward the culture of drinking, drug-taking, and hooking up that is associated with raving. Young South Asians who are interested in electronic music and the rave scene can often feel excluded from the community due to a lack of representation within the music industry and nightlife scene.

Historically, South Asian youth in the UK have had to adapt to this annoyance caused by a lack of representation and lack of opportunity due to strict rules enforced by parents. With these challenges they created the daytime rave in the late 20th century.

Daytime raves, where Bhangra remixes were played and the scene was heavily influenced by club culture, were held in London and a number of university cities around the United Kingdom. Different reasons led to such unique club cultures, depending on the demographics of the region. Whatever their origins, they provided a platform for desi youth to explore their identities outside of the confines of home, job, and school.

Read this next: What it's like to go clubbing as a British South Asian person

Daytime raves have now become a less prevalent marker of Asian youth culture than they were in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Many South Asian youths in the contemporary age have decided to defy stringent socio-cultural customs and have started going out clubbing and raving once leaving home.

When I spoke to some young South Asian clubbers, they told me that going out, meeting new people, and dancing gave them confidence and let them explore a new part of their dual-cultural identity. Many young South Asians feel conflicted about their identities and passions and feel pressure to place themselves within a society that has so many labels but not enough nuance to encapsulate the realities of a diverse body of individuals. I also spoke to two young South Asian DJs, who used dance music and their friendship to improve their personal understanding of what it means to be dual-cultural.

Kareena* has loved raving ever since she moved away from her family home in London to university in a northern city. Her parents do not know about her partying habits and she has had to keep it a secret. However, she enjoys clubbing and says that it has made her more sociable and has introduced her to new genres of music, such as techno, which she never had a chance to explore before.

“My parents have always had my best interests in mind, they never wanted me to be in danger. But their overprotectiveness and conservative views on clubbing, drinking and raving stopped me from exploring a lot of what it is like to be young in the UK.”

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Kareena described her relationship with clubbing as complex as it was a part of herself that she felt she could not share with her family or even some of her young South Asian peers. She hopes that one day she can show her family that raving is nothing to fear or be ashamed of and that it is merely another part of her bicultural identity. Clubbing has given her a new space to get to know herself and her interests away from social expectations.

Some university cultural student societies have adapted Uni nightlife culture to fit the British South Asian experience. Some university cultural societies also serve cultural foods, such as biriyani, at events that they host. Food is a significant component in socialisation and community building within the South Asian diaspora. Organisers at these cultural societies have said that they include food earlier on in the evening to bridge the cultural gap between nightlife culture and the South Asian family gatherings that young Asians are accustomed to.

Fusion Nights’ are club nights that run from 10:PM-3:AM to bring desi specific nights out to South Asian young people in cities and towns across the country. These nights are labelled ‘Urban X Desi’ and play a variety of music including Bhangra and South Asian influenced dance music. The events feature South Asian DJs, in a similar way to the daytime raves of the 80s and 90s. Fusion Nights have become increasingly popular amongst South Asian students, especially those who are involved with their cultural society and community.

Read this next: How daytime raves introduced clubbing to a generation of young British South Asians

Rina* explained that she uses club nights put on by her university’s Indian society as a way to make new friends who have a similar cultural background to her. She has attended a ‘Fusion Night’ in the West Midlands and described the experience as “exciting”. She has also been on ‘normal’ nights out in her university town but with a large group of other young South Asians. As someone who enjoys the scene, she wanted to meet like-minded people who come from the same ethnic background as her. She described these events as a fun way to feel at home due to the familiarity of the music, food, and the bonding over mutual experiences with other young people. These types of club nights allow her to start a new lease of life away from her conservative home environment. The familiarity of the music and dance helps her navigate this new way of life that she discovered upon moving to university.

Similarly, Jas said that these nights put on by the cultural societies helps her feel connected to her home culture whilst enjoying the freedoms of being away from home.

“I thought I’d end up being very homesick when I moved away from home. But meeting people from a similar ethnic background to me and having fun, partying, and making memories with them has reassured me that my culture will be with me wherever I go, I just have to look in the right places. Which in this case is the club on a Thursday night!”

Friends Rishi and Zain, both currently studying in Bristol, have started a dance music movement which they are calling ‘Brown Excellence’. The aim of this is to platform their love for dance music and show that young South Asians do have a lot to bring to the table in the dance music industry. What started as an idea brewed during a 4:AM mix session turned into a real concept once they started formally practising and planning the show. The duo, performing under the name ‘Brown Excellence’, will be playing at The Crofters Rights in Bristol this October. Tickets have almost sold out as many of their friends and other students in the city, both South Asian and non-Asian, are keen to attend and support.

Rishi always had a tense relationship with his bi-cultural identity. From listening to dubstep since his primary school days to mixing on beginner decks after school in his room, he has had an active interest in mixing and the underground music scene for almost his entire life. This interest in dance and electronic music was alien to his family and Asian friends who did not share the same interest. This made him feel somewhat isolated and therefore ashamed of his culture during his teenage years as he felt as though his culture did not provide the freedom to enjoy what he was inspired by. Being desi and liking dance music were seen as dichotomous opposites and not something that can be simultaneous.

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“In my head, I didn’t feel like I belonged to either the Asian community or the dance music community. In the Brown community, no one else liked dance music and in the dance community I never saw Brown people. The way Indian/South Asian people are portrayed in Western popular culture tends to be presented as socially awkward and dorky and that's how I thought others saw me, regardless of who I really am. I didn’t see anyone else who looked like me which is why I didn’t think I belonged.”

In his later teen years, Rishi would go to underground club nights and would immerse himself into the music. He liked being in a crowd and letting himself sink into the energy created by the soundsystem because it made him “feel like no-one.” “As in that moment, in the heat of the dance, the colour of your skin doesn’t matter. Only the music matters, and I revelled in that freedom”. It was only when he heard samples of South Asian instruments in a dubstep set during an event did he have an epiphany that his heritage is recognised and appreciated and that he should try and embrace the fusion of culture and music. The more research he did and the more involved he became in the dance music scene, he started to take inspiration from South Asians in the scene such as Za from White Peach Records.

Zain said that he had always been “incredibly proud” of his heritage and had a “cultural awakening” at an early age. He came from a family that celebrated its culture, heritage and art. He moved away from home and to Bristol with pride and excitement to represent his family and culture in a different place. He has had a passion for dance music for several years and that passion grew even more since he started university.

The name ‘Brown Excellence’ came from the Kanye West and Jay-Z song ‘Murder To Excellence’ from the lyric ‘Black excellence, opulence, decadence’ as the pair thought that this declaration of pride should be carried on into South Asian representation in the dance scene.

“There was no other name for it, Brown Excellence just had to be it. Brown has always been something that gets overlooked, especially in the music industry. We wanted to show that Brown people can be excellent and that there are people who look like us and do this sort of thing. Crucially, we aren’t saying we’re excellent, we’re just making the statement that we can strive for excellence”

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For this duo, their music is their way of showing themselves that desi people can enjoy rave culture and excel in the dance music industry. Mixing together and planning this club night has been a deeply personal journey for both of them as Rishi is learning to love his origin and Zain is being helped out by Rishi to express his love for his culture and his skills in dance music; something he always wanted to showcase but never had the platform to do so.

My conversations with these young South Asians proved that being a dual cultural young person comes with its trials, confusion, and challenges. Nightlife and dance music has been a major player in helping young South Asians understand their own identity and in many cases can offer them freedom from societal expectations and a platform to explore themselves and their creativity. It will be interesting to see how attitudes towards nightlife and dance music within South Asian communities change as youth party trends and musical influence shift as a new generation of Aouth Asians join the scene.

Aneesa Ahmed is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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