Tea Still Stays Brown, Futile AssimilationSabiheh Awanzai

How 9/11 changed the landscape of British Asian culture

Ahead of his new exhibition 2001: Pressure Makes Diamonds, artist and creative director Kazim Rashid recalls the seismic event and its aftermath, alongside four other artists

A couple of months before my 15th birthday, on what seemed like a normal autumn afternoon spent sharing cigs behind the school garages, I walked in to my house. My mum was ironing in her usual spot, watching the TV, my sister sat on the small sofa that we all used to fight over, her feet on the windowsill. Both of them were silent.

On the TV, two aeroplanes seemed to be flying in to two enormous buildings. The World Trade Centre, or the Twin Towers, were apparently two of the tallest buildings in the world, or so the TV told me. I’d never been to New York, nor had I ever l left the country. But seeing these scenes on loop seemed both totally unnatural and cinematic, while at the same time a totally conceivable end to the summer of 2001.

Earlier that summer, my home town Oldham had gone up in flames, part of a series of race riots which ran across the whole of the North West – Oldham, then Bradford, Leeds and Burnley. They were the worst ethnically motivated riots the country had experienced since 1985, briefly eclipsing the violence seen in Northern Ireland. In my town, white people fought brown people – all of whom were routinely called Pakis. I was born in Oldham, my parents and grandparents were born in Kenya, and my great-grandparents were born in a part of the world which used to be called India and then changed to Pakistan long after they left.

During the riots, cars were set on fire, shops were looted and the white boys at school got a lot more frightening. The violence soon became less abstract – my dad got attacked outside my house getting out of his car by a guy who violently told my dad to go back to where he came from. Go back to where we came from? But how, I thought, and to where?

“What I didn’t expect was how I would feel in the aftermath, how different the world looked and how everything and everyone that made me feel proud to be British and brown had vanished”

I’d spent the majority of the summer mourning my hero Prince Naseem Hamed’s sudden downfall. At the end of April, just as summer was approaching, he lost his first ever fight to Antonio Barrera on points after an unbeaten 31 KO winning run. The events that followed – although in hindsight totally shocking and epochal – at the time felt ordinary; it was hard to know in amongst the chaos just how important this summer would prove to be to me, and so many others. Naseem had been taken down, my town was set on fire, my dad was attacked, and two planes flew into two massive towers I’d never heard of.

What I didn’t expect was how I would feel in the aftermath, how different the world looked and how everything and everyone that made me feel proud to be British and brown had vanished.

Pre-9/11 was an exciting and inspiring time for British Asian culture. Everywhere you looked, something was popping. In 1993, Apache Indian won an Ivor Novello for Arranged Marriage and released “Make Way For The Indian” featuring the worldwide hit “Boom Shack-A-Lak” in 1995. Talvin Singh released OK in 1998 and won a Mercury for it in 1999. The same year Fat Les released “Vindaloo”, and a year later in 1999 Punjabi MC hit the top 5 with “Mundian To Bach Ke” (which later got a re-release in 2002 courtesy of Jay Z), followed by Nitin Sawhney winning the Mercury for his phenomenal, timeless classic Beyond Skin in 2000. In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared “Chicken Tikka Masala the official national dish.” An incredible synthesis of two cultures, from two opposite sides of the world, with a strangely complex relationship, had collided and synthesised something entirely new and exciting – a brand new language across music, fashion, food and film that had never been seen before.

Then... it just all dissipated, more or less. 9/11 happened, and what it means to be brown in the western world has never really been the same since. In advance of the debut presentation of my first solo exhibition 2001: Pressure Makes Diamonds, I caught up with a few pioneers who shaped that time and its output as well as some peers who, like me, came of age soon after, right in the midst of the now-infamous War on Terror.

TALVIN SINGH, MUSICIAN

The decade before 2001, London felt like it was the most vibrant and colourful city in the world. We had the most exciting music and arts club in Hoxton Square and helped put Shoreditch on the map by celebrating diversity in the arts. Between picking up the Mercury Prize in 1999 and 9/11 was overwhelming in terms of my success in the music industry. Everything had changed and the city was manifested with anxiety and confusion. The voice of the British Asian had to be muted. The music we were bringing into the underground and mainstream culture of Great Britain had to be diverted to broadcast channels like the BBC Asian Network. I have always expressed universality in my music, and that idea has only expanded my vision.

NIHAL ARTHANAYAKE, DJ

The decade before 9/11 I was conflicted. It felt exciting to be working for Outcaste Records, as a PR for the label, watching our artists Badmarsh and Shri perform on Later With Jools Holland. I also remember going to see Talvin Singh support David Byrne at a tiny venue in central London and having Nitin Sawhney get nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. But I also felt that we were being treated as a fad, something exotic for a press looking for something new. It was so niche. The majority of Asian kids, who the press said were being represented by this new sound, didn’t seem to care. hip hop, R&B, bhangra and Bollywood still ruled the day. I felt that there was some snobbery towards those genres and as a huge hip hop fan I couldn’t relate to that snobbery at all.

It was amazing that Timbaland, Just Blaze and Dr Dre were using Indian samples but it still felt like it was a fad that wouldn’t last. I joined Radio 1 in October 2002. The only piece of music I really remember from that time was “Post 9/11 Blues” by Riz MC (better known now as the actor Riz Ahmed). I seem to remember the Radio 1 people being quite nervous about the lyrics but we played it anyway. It was such a powerful statement from a British Pakistani about what 9/11 had unleashed.  

Now it’s the best time ever. Now it’s not about “Asian music” but Asians making music. I don’t think they want that tag as it is difficult to break through if you are placed in that space. Producers like Naughty Boy, Steel Banglez, and Rudekid have really been a success and continue to grow. Now it has a wider appeal. Asian kids are onboard and experimenting in many different styles across music, fashion, tv and film.

OSMAN YOUSEFZADA, DESIGNER

I came of age in the mid 90s and it was an exciting time to be British Asian when I moved to London. There were many references from our South Asian culture that fed into the mainstream. We didn’t see it as something that was cultural appropriation at that time, but rather “Wow! we are included.” Somehow we were being recognised or slowly accepted into the dominant culture. On the catwalk, you had girls in Gaultier shows with Asian jewellery and nehru coats, and mughal inspired waistcoats, girls with Ganesh & Hindu god-inspired t-shirts, henna tattoos were all the rage, and Cornershop and Asha Bhosle were seminal moments for me on the dance floor, along with Talvin Singh. My references and culture that I grew up with were consumed by a wider audience. I felt included and part of something.

Post 9/11 I had experienced quite bit of racial profiling. The most crazy thing was when me and my partner were travelling to Paris on the Eurostar. I was stopped and interrogated for over an hour. I don’t know if someone had the same name as me, or it was my Pakistani visa in my British passport that had triggered me for extra searches at the immigration counter. I was taken to a room, and I was asked if i ever had been to the mosque. I was told I could be detained for 14 days without charge if I didn’t co-operate and answer their questions, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He asked me if I had paid my rent, how much money i had in my account, and if I owed any money to anyone. We missed our train, but they put me on another one. Yes, my experience post 9/11 has been more personal.

I feel in the present climate of diversity we should be able bring our head above the parapet. I feel some of my younger cousins have become less integrated and become more religious over the last decade, feeling that they don’t really fit in anywhere, and hence created sub groups that they feel quite comfortable and safe in. As creatives we have a lot to say and a lot to offer, so hopefully we can feel ourselves more represented in mainstream culture, and now we are back at a turning point.

SIMRAN RANDHAWA, WRITER, MODEL

Although I was young, I vividly remember my uncles blasting garage x bhangra remixes and their very individual styles – it was only post-2001 as I got older I really realised how much what the media created at that time resonated and impacted me. There has been a massive gap in culture which has lasted over a decade and is only now (last 2ish years I’d say) seeing a renaissance with people reclaiming their heritage. I think prior to this people felt policed, unable to express themselves and also conflicted because the War on Terror created/amplified internal community divides that people are only now starting to unlearn. The revival of british asian culture is incredibly exciting, overdue and completely different to that of the 90s. There’s social commentary wrapped up in the exploration of fashion, art, photography, film etc - it’s important to people to also be SAYING something, especially in this 9/11, Islamophobic, post-Brexit age. It feels like a resurgence of a culture that’s been put on hold for ages, that’s being driven by the younger generation.

2001: Pressure Makes Diamonds is at The Mezzanine, Rich Mix, London - September 11th - 30th.

Read Next
NewsWhat the hell is up with this sexy Handmaid’s Tale costume
NewsThis company wants to pay people $50 an hour to smoke weed
NewsWe sent three familiar faces on Tinder dates with fans and filmed them
NewsWatch Ben Schofield go on a pasta-making date with a fan