Visibility, appropriation and resistance


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Well, it seems like the funky days, they’re back again

Funky funky days they’re back again

And we’re in vogue again

Before the Gurkhas get called up again.

T. Singh Cornershop, Funky Days Are Back Again, Wiiija Records, 1997.


‘Ravi Rants Okay!’ The sitar star [Ravi Shankar] has finally come out and said what most of us have been thinking all along – that the White bands who try to be cool with Asian music suck!... The Maestro has blasted Kula Shaker for being unoriginal...

Thufayel Ahmed, ‘Tells you the way it is’, Eastern Eye, 8 August 1997.


Tejinder Singh’s lyric, ‘We’re back in vogue again’, describes the re-emergence of the hippy craze for things eastern in London. For us, this offers oblique acknowledgement of the ‘cultural reality’, why Singh’s band, Cornershop, was displaced from the number one spot in the British single charts by Madonna – with her new found passion for eastern music and philosophy, wailing in the tundra of the song ‘Frozen’. Never alone in her forays into new spaces for colonization, but always well-resourced, Madonna shares her interest in things exotic, Oriental and easy to ‘other’, with, for example, the British popsters Kula Shaker. A host of other white performers, various promoters and myriad clubbers seem intent on music which mixes in the sitar, on donning the bindi, and participating in a mad rush to claim retro 1990s fashion’s latest reworking of things from afar.

Kula Shaker and Madonna are singled out here as the most notorious and most commercially successful respectively of the artists involved in this latest groovy swing in the music industry. Both have been subject to considerable flak by the music press as well as Asian media for that old adage in the politics of representation, so often used in terms of music, ‘appropriation’. Reminiscent of controversies around Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album, these latest versions of sitars and guitars lead us to question just what their relationship is to the simultaneous emergence of a popular set of South Asian music, produced by British Asians themselves for an Asian diaspora.



Our concerns are twofold, first to explore the issue of appropriation as it applies to the big stars of white pop, but also as it is pointed towards those South Asian artists who have entered into some degree of engagement with what is politely called the mainstream. As a counterpoint to the so-called ‘appropriation’, we also move on to consider what is not appropriated or what is not considered digestible by the cannibalizing appetite of consumer capitalism, in its particular guise of music multinationals.

There is a significant layering that comes into play in wake of renewed interest in ‘Asian Kool’.1 A hint of ‘Asian-ness’ has become the ‘authentic’ reference point for a whole series of music-culture adventures into eastern terrain – from sources as commercialised as Madonna and Oasis, to the style and fashions of London’s West End designer magazines (2nd Generation), clothing stores (‘Khadi’) and East End internet cafes (‘Calcutta Cybercafe’). But when we ask if this media and artistic exposure has affected the social and political status of a racialised minority group, or whether the birth of Asian Kool, or even Asian being Kool, signifies the end of racial violence, discrimination or Orientalist visions of the Asian ‘other’, must our answers always be negative?



In some ways perhaps the music contributes to a progressive visibility of ‘Asian-ness’ and Asians in Britain but it is uncertain whether this visibility is a politically sufficient given the extent of the struggle required? Our counterpoint here is the less visible Asians – the mill workers of Northern English towns, the IT workers everywhere under verbal and physical attack, individuals like Satpal Ram, unjustly imprisoned for more than a decade, the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York City, and the progressive struggles in other parts of this all too often opaquely visible world.2

Can, or could, music be involved in social transformatory struggles to achieve redistributive redress and ‘payback’?3 These questions, and others in a more specific vein, are considered through a textual journey which entwines the presence of an Indic twang in the musical play of the West with the presence of immigrant workers and their cultural produce.



So why this contemporary rage for things ‘Indian’? Two parallel trends have come together to produce a situation where symbols traditionally associated with South Asia have entered into a British and global public sphere. The donning of the ‘bindi’ and a fad for rhythms and ragas from the East is part of the inexorable process of capitalizing on difference which marks the musical, culinary, design style and other forms of consumer production in the current period.

To take the obvious aspect of musical appropriation as the sole focus for a critique would be to miss the parallel and perhaps more interesting related phenomenon of the emergence of a South Asian diasporized space in the ‘mainstream’ music scene. We have here in mind more than Anokha, Cornershop and Nitin Sawnhey, collectively collated together as the ‘Asian Underground’,4 but also the ways cultural products are re-branded as Asian Kool, and people (sometimes) re-branded from ‘Pakis’ and other slurs to applauded participants in national creativity and British ingenuity. In this process Asian folk are collectivised even though their music, interests and styles cross multiple genres.

The Kool young things jiving away at the Anokha club are firmly based within a dance-club music genre, while Cornershop are in the intelligently Brit-pop mode (contradiction in terms here?), and Nitin Sawhney is a star in Jazz-crossover. Asian Dub Foundation are also increasingly lumped together with these artists, although their musical engagement and politicized rap content is considerably different. Aki Nawaz has gone so far as to distance what he and his outfit Fun^Da^Mental are doing far away from the new ‘Asian Kool’.5 However, these acts are all too readily classified and categorised in terms of hybridity and ‘newness’ reflecting a ravenous and ravishing desire for fantasy versions of the other.



It is no accident that these two phenomena have come together at the same time, even though their histories are at best mutually exclusive. Kula Shaker’s inspirations are less to do with the music of South Asia, then or now, than reversions of the Beatles and the essence of a timeless, mythologized ancient India.6 Indeed, ever since the Beatles made their magical tour, recurrent phases of interest in the mystical East have been prevalent in Britain’s popular music. A number of intermediate (and mediocre) examples might be mentioned – Paul Weller’s Parisian plunking would be a particularly twisted example7 – but today’s interest in things Orientalist really rests with the Beatles, the sitar/guitar and the unholy alliance with Ravi Shankar.



On the back of retro nostalgia for the 1960s, the sitar has returned to fashion and with it a whole host of paraphernalia – including bell-bottoms and flared jeans! George Harrison’s trek to India allowed him to ‘discover’ the authentic musician of the East: Ravi Shankar. The Beatles’ first encounter culminated in their sitarified song ‘Norwegian Wood’, about which Shankar expressed surprise that such sounds could be made on the instrument. Like so many other imperial travellers, most of the Beatles and their fans soon found this adventure becoming tiresome and uncomfortable (except maybe for George himself, who had learnt to cross his legs). The 1970s came and we all forgot about acid tears and hippy trips.

Meanwhile, the 1960s also played host to new shipments of Asian workers doing duty in post-industrial Britain’s last chance gamble to reclaim lost economic strength. These factory-fodder of the former colonial Empire and the current neo-colonies, began to settle, procreate and set up a diasporised South Asian presence in Britain, largely in the North. This socio-economic history which has been charted in detail elsewhere8 carried with it a cultural sphere which is only now being opened up to dialogue.9 This was a period in which the ‘Asian’ stereotypes associated with images of the ‘inscrutable’ other and the self-excluding ‘tireless worker’ came into formation.10

Even as the denizens of the sunset Empire came ‘home’ to offer yet more sweat to fuel British power, ‘culture’ began to be seen as something more than a domain over which Macaulay’s shelf of good books would promulgate English language, morals and superiority.11 The last night of the Proms and other national events played host to the ‘classical heritage of India’ even as South Asians were recruited to work for funding development in Britain, and as occasion for rhetorically smug declarations about the country’s future on the part of prominent social democrats.



In 1974, the cultural parallel to workplace ‘multiculturalism’ stretched as far as Lata Mangeshkar playing live at the Royal Albert Hall, London. The event was hosted by Michael Foot, then Minister of Employment. A quote from his speech is ironic given the state of South Asian workers under the then Labour administration:12 ‘Lata Mangeshkar told me just before coming up on the platform that she arrived in this country just as the lights were going up in London and the country was returning to work (clears throat, muted applause), so that her arrival here was a symbol of the future.’13



Despite these occasional public surfacings, sitars and guitars were mostly kept apart through the 1970s. It was in the next decade and with the next generation (note, not necessarily ‘second generation’14) that a disaporized youth-led South Asian presence in Britain opened up its own musical spaces. Bhangra dance music and associated forms were, alongside reggae, among the primary musical styles to attract media and popular British attention in the 1980s, but only as the next big thing not about to happen. Periodically there were articles penned in the mainstream and music press which expressed an impending sense of Asian music finally ‘arriving’. There was Monsoon’s top ten hit ‘Ever so Lonely’, critical acclaim for music from the film My Beautiful Laundrette, and the persistent Bhangra air play of John Peel on Radio One – yet all this never really amounted to anything other than curiosity stories, documentary spots on Bhangra bands with funny (sequinned) costumes, and a role for Geeta on East Enders.15



The musical successes of Asian bands were tied to record companies desperately trying to jump on the bandwagon of small but prolific Asian specialist labels (the recently expired Multitone is the premier example of such a label). But mainstream label promotion and the offer of ‘success’ usually had the corporate publicists asking artists to drop the Panjabi lyrics and sing ‘real’ pop tunes in boy groups. Bhangra was seen as a marketable commodity, but most bands could not come at the required compromises and were not willing to trade away their brown faces for fame and fortune.

At the beginning of the 1990s a certain sophistication entered into the record industry with the appearance of Apache Indian, followed by the million pound signing of Bally Sagoo with Sony Records, heralding what could have been the emergence of a new dance music genre. But in the high profile bracket, what can’t be controlled is often not kept on, and with both Apache and Sagoo falling out from the ‘flavour of the month club’, the major companies withdrew support.



After the success of the No Reservations album, Apache had presented a Reggae series and a travel series for MTV. Bally Sagoo’s hit singles ‘Churaliya’ and ‘Dil Cheez’ had some chart success, but Sony were dismayed at the thriving ‘black’ market in bootlegged copies that ate away at their profits (but spread Sagoo’s fame still wider – remix work such as his is known as Bally Sagoo music in India16). After these more fruitful, but halted, forays into the high street stores, it was time for the emergence of trinketisation versions of Asian Kool and takeover by Madonna, Kula Shaker and the like of trendy things South Asian.

As a slight detour, the point we are coming to which takes firm hold only in the early 1990s also coincides with the opening up of the Indian market to the forces of what is euphemistically called globalization – read multinational capitalist exploitation. One of the central tenets of this project is the capture of media and cultural industries worldwide. This is a larger and more complicated story than can be documented here, but includes diverse phenomenon such as the extension of satellite television provision throughout Asia and the Middle East, as well as to diasporised Asians living in Europe; translation and dubbing of Hollywood hits like Jurassic Park into Hindi so as to compete with local Bollywood dominance of the cinema market; penetration of telecom, multi-media and semi-conductor processing or computer service industries in the subcontinent (selected class and regional segments only); and many other examples.

In our particular frame, Sony’s involvement with Bally Sagoo is necessarily complicit, and it is no coincidence that much of Sagoo’s follow up promotion work took place in India.17 After the release of the single ‘Tum Bin Jiya’, Sagoo was a regular presenter on MTV Asia. In other market share related ventures, Apache Indian’s successful tour of duty as a British musical export to Delhi was followed not so long after by the triumphant arrival of the Spice Girls dressed in saris, making sure that geographical South Asia too bought the hype. In the new semi-feudal, cyber-colonial infotainment order, visibility has never been so high, or extracted so high a price, for Asia.



With the increasing circulation of these images, does the way in which South Asians in the diaspora are represented undergo any significant change? Or is this merely a slight shift in format from the 1960s to the present day, where the older curry/cornershop owner is of late joined by the young service industry shock troops of post-industrial commerce (known as the DIED – Doctors, Information Technology, Accountants, Dentists, the professions in which educated South Asians in the diaspora now predominate)? Where the unofficial England 1998 world cup song was a populist chant entitled ‘Vindaloo’, there would seem to be many continuities, though the excuse of ‘irony’ hardly complicates the pattern. In a situation where Tony Blair can applaud the South Asian presence in Britain as a contribution to the catering business this irony becomes obscene.

At a vote capturing dinner, Blair, with wife Cherrie in a vote-winning sari, said: ‘In some areas of cultural diversity you [Asians] have dominated. In areas such as food manufacturing, import/export, textiles and fashion, and in the world of cash and carry you have often led the way. And Britain is richer as a result.’18



Not so much Asian Kool as Asian Coolie. What we find significant is that as the same time that Asian Kool proliferates with its high visibility, in the forgotten corners of the diaspora, the IT factory floors, the late night violence at taxi ranks, the daily abuse of catering workers, spaces where police repression, racist violence and day-to-day exploitation remain a matter of course. We would indicate only the thin edge of another quite different Asian ‘Underground’ with reference to a case that has at least had some airplay in musical circles. Satpal Ram was attacked in an Indian restaurant by racists but was himself imprisoned for defending himself against a customer of Vindaloo.19 He has been in prison for more than ten years on an unjust rap. We will attend to the musical rendition of Satpal’s case below.

It can be argued that the latest phase of Asian music popularity has opened up, more prominently than ever before, a public sphere in which Asian artists playing ‘hybrid’ music can perform. That a new space in the wider/mainstream media and public popular culture has been created by these artists is not something to be dismissed because the greater money-bags of Madonna can cash in, or because the transformatory project which redresses the centuries of imperial theft remains incomplete. There is a strategic significance in celebrating the visibility of Asian culture in the metropolitan centre – even as, unfortunately, the marginal remains as distant as ever, only a tube ride away.



An opening up of space, however, does not invoke a mystical protection of that space by the force of authenticity, or imply that these spaces alone can necessarily challenge the stereo-types that continue to frame Asian identities. Indeed the fact that Madonna has been so successful in her use of the symbols and sounds of Asia implies that the opening up of a ‘space’, though necessary, has not achieved the required reconfiguration of the political-ideological constructions of a racialised group. There are at least two levels at which this process needs to be considered: the perspective of authenticity, and that of appropriation. Neither of these concepts can exist without each other, as there has to be – even in denial – a discourse around the authenticity of a certain object before it can be subject to appropriation.



To work with and alongside constructions of authenticity and to strategically locate a politics is necessary for progressive work. Music can play this kind of tune, even it if is always liminal and requires an accompanying set of organisational praxis to maintain the correct rhythm and tone. A clear example can be found in the efforts of ADF to publicise the unjust incarceration of Satpal Ram, as a section of the lyrics of the track ‘Free Satpal Ram’ shows:

Self defence is no offence

The Scales of Justice are weighed down on one side

Freemasons on the case you know you’re gonna get a rough ride

Hold tight, even if you know your rights

It’s just a piece of paper unless you’re prepared to fight

For ten years, one hell of long time

To rot in a cell when you’ve committed no crime

Another innocent man forced to carry the can

Free Satpal Ram

(Written by Das, Pandit, Savale, Tailor, Zaman. Published by MCA Music Ltd 1997. Asian Dub Foundation).

ADF are less a music group within the ‘Asian Kool’ or ‘Asian Underground’ category as they are a group of cultural workers who use music to express the frustrations and experiences of young Asian males in the East End of London, resolutely committed to reflecting ‘Asian causes from an Asian point of view.’20 It would be a cultural studies protocol to have some anxiety about discussing a performance product such as a dance track from ADF only in terms of a realist reading of its lyrics, but sometimes the case is urgent enough to dispense with philosophical sidesteps.



Although we well know that dancing about architecture is the soundbite equivalent of thinking that writing about music exhausts it referentially, it is not for want of a deep analysis that the track Free Satpal Ram deserves a more straightforward treatment. Satpal Ram is in prison. His requests for appeal have been refused. Whatever we would want to add to the discussions of authenticity and appropriation is wholly subservient to the more urgent demand: Free Satpal Ram.

ADF’s song may not effect the release of Satpal Ram, but does bring to the public eye the position of waiters in restaurants that are visited on average once a week by the British population. So while the song Vindaloo became the unofficial anthem of England’s world cup campaign, Free Satpal Ram was the ideological other and contrast, the question, the incisive recall of a music that can work in the ‘mainstream’ arena but does the further political ‘work’ of inserting hard questions and demands in front of the high street customer. So while the complexity of authenticity debates are overly ignored or simplified by cultural critics, and Madonna poses as the Goddess Sarasvati in Rolling Stone Magazine, a much more urgent politics awaits to be organized around the sounds of the Asian underground.



1. Asian Kool is a term debated in the book Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, eds Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk and Ashwani Sharma, London, Zed Books, 1996.

2. For an excellent account of the history of working class struggles by British Asian workers see: Johal Sarbjit, Asian Workers’ Struggle for Justice in the Diaspora, London, Londec, 1997. For more on the Asian Taxi Workers see Ameriasia Journal (special volume), ‘Satyagraha in America: the political culture of South Asian Americans’, vol 25, no 3, 2000.

3. On the album Erotic Terrorism, Nawaz, talking about the hundreds of years of colonial plunder of South Asia, asks: ‘where’s the payback? Show me the payback? I want to see the payback.’ The British state did not ‘payback’ South Asian workers. By offering them jobs in the northern mills, or as restaurateurs or taxi-drivers, victims of deportation, immigration restriction and asylum exclusions – the experience of South Asian people in Britain and other ‘ex-colonials’ isn’t payback, it is the fluctuating interests of extractive capitalist greed.

4. See Koushik Banerjea, ‘Sounds of Whose Underground? The Fine Tuning of Diaspora in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Theory, Culture and Society, vol 17, no 3, 2000.

5. It is without question that the efforts of Nation Records, the label founded by Nawaz, himself ex-drummer of the Southern Death Cult and numerous other punk outfits, are in great part responsible for paving the way for the effervescence of this so-called ‘Asian Underground’. Out of a grungy basement on All Saints Road in Notting Hill, the Nation label released acts like Asian Dub Foundation, Hustlers H.C., T.J. Rehmi, Joi and carved out the space. As the liner notes for the double CD retrospective of Nation work says: ‘Talvin Singh, he came from nowhere didn’t he? Doubt that...’ ...And Still No Hits: Nation Records: The Story So Far, 1996.

6. A detailed but dismissive analysis of the ‘soft target’ of Kula Shaker’s Indian influences, as picked up on the backpacker tourist circuit, can be found in John Hutnyk, ‘Magical Mystical Tourism’, in Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk eds, Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics, London, Zed Books 1999.

7. Hutnyk’s chapter ‘Magical Mystical Tourism’ also provides a discussion of this twisted history. See his Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry, London, Pluto Press, 2000.

8. Avtar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities, London, Routledge 1996; Virinder S. Kalra, From Textile Mills to Taxi Ranks: Experiences of Migration, Labour and Social Change, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.

9. An initial attempt is Virinder Kalra, John Hutnyk and Sanjay Sharma, ‘Re-Sounding (Anti)Racism, or Concordant Politics? Revolutionary Antecedents’ in Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma, Dis-Orienting Rhythms, pp. 127-155 and Virinder Kalra and Navtej Purewal, ‘The Strut of the Peacock: Partition, Travel and the Indo-Pak Border’ in Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk, Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics, London, Zed Books, 1999.

10. The phrase ‘tireless worker’ is from Sivanandan, the editor of the journal Race and Class. There is, of course, only one major reason why peoples from the colonial theatre were brought into Britain, and that was the exploitation of labour power for profit, demarcated across racist lines.

11. Thomas Babington Macaulay, The Works of Lord Macaulay, ed Lady Macaulay, London, Longmann Green, 1866, p. 249. Also see Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1992 and Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, London, Faber and Faber, 1989. Macaulay’s notorious ‘minute’ reads in part: ‘we must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’. Macaulay, Works, p. 249. Note the ‘at present’ in Macaulay’s sentence – he suggested that the Raj had limited means at the time to educate the whole of the Indian population in the ways of English manners. Perhaps now, with the advent of satellite television, a class of English ‘interpreters’ like Kula Shaker shall educate India about its own temples and sitars!

12. Conditions were equally bad, if not worse, under Thatcher and Major. No one has convinced us that matters have improved with the advent of Blair.

13. Michael Foot, from the record of the concert: Lata Mangeshkar Live at the Royal Albert Hall, London. The Gramophone Company of India Limited, 1974.

14. The term second generation implies that favourite anthropological parable about mixed, hybrid and confused and conflicted cultures – the family romance goes wrong and ends in cultural clash and ‘caught between two ness’. See Sean McLoughlin and Virinder Kalra, ‘Wish you were(n’t) here’: Discrepant Representations of Mirpur in Narratives of Migration, Diaspora and Travel’ in Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk, Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics, London, Zed Books, 1998. Also, Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts On Asian American Cultural Politics Durham, Duke University, 1996, p. 63.

15. East Enders is still one of the more popular weekly television soap operas broadcast on British television.

16. A more detailed version of the Bally Sagoo story can be found in Hutnyk, ‘Magical Mystical Tourism’. An interview with Sagoo and the D.J. Radical Sista by Shirin Housee and Mukhtar Dar, ‘Re-Mixing Identities: Off the Turntable’ in Sharma, Hutnyk and Sharma, Dis-Orienting Rhythms.

17. Sony subsequently launched a satellite television channel in India which became available in Europe in 1998.

18. Eastern Eye, May-June 1998. From Blair’s speech at the Eastern Eye Top 200 Richest Asians in Britain dinner.

19. The details of his case can be culled from leaflets from the Free Satpal Campaign, and articles in the magazines Lalkar, Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism, Fighting Talk, and the Transl-Asia website;, make it possible to draw up a composite picture of the issue. Presently, Satpal Ram is in his eleventh year of imprisonment in the racist UK prison system. At a Birmingham restaurant in November 1986, Satpal was attacked by six whites, one of whom glassed him in the face. This attacker was injured as Satpal defended himself and this man later died after refusing medical treatment. In British law, self-defence is no offence, but Satpal was imprisoned for murder. An appeal was heard, but rejected, in November 1995, and the Free Satpal Campaign organised several lively demos at the High Court. Satpal was refused the right to speak in the court and was dragged out shouting ‘No Justice No Peace!’ Subsequent requests for appeal and review have been declined despite evidence that defence witnesses in the original trial were not understood – the judge saying he would translate despite being unable to speak Bengali, and the persecution of Satpal within the prison system – he cannot be considered for parole because he has not ‘shown remorse’ (for something that cannot be considered an offence). The campaign continues for justice for Satpal Ram. Asian Dub Foundation released the single ‘Free Satpal Ram’ late in 1997 and it has enjoyed success throughout Europe. In this way they have been able to both highlight the injustice of this case and note that across Europe the state authorities continue to turn a blind eye to their own outrages. The campaign address is: Free Satpal Campaign, c/o Handsworth Law Centre, 101 Villa Rd, Birmingham, B19 1NH England.

20. Eastern Eye, 13th March 1998.