The Ninja Tune artist reflects on the prejudice she faced when she dropped her alter-ego Throwing Shade in favour of her real name
Throughout my life, certain questions have cropped up in my mind from time to time. Questions like: What does it mean to have brown skin and a name that’s not Laura or Jane? How do people see me? How do I see myself? Can I be the person that I am and still do the things I want to do? Will I be accepted?
My quest to understand who I am, and how my identity fits in with my music career, led me to make an important change recently. For the past four years, I’ve been DJing and producing under the name Throwing Shade. However, with the release of my debut album Weighing of the Heart last month, I shed that moniker in favour of my real name: Nabihah Iqbal. I wanted to be true to myself, and to make my identity as an Asian-British woman clear to others. Even though it felt like the absolute right thing to do, it was a very tough decision to make, and this took me by surprise. It made me wonder why I had been in such contention with my own name.
The thought process that got me to this point has been one of self-discovery. When I first considered the name change, I started getting feelings of anxiety that reminded me of how I used to feel at school, whenever a teacher was about to call my name out on the register. I’d get nervous because they would repeatedly pronounce it wrong, and it would be so embarrassing. I remember one teacher who would always insist on putting a ‘u’ after the ‘q’ in ‘Iqbal’ every time she wrote my name, and when I’d tell her that was incorrect, she’d reply: “There always has to be a ‘u’ after the ‘q’”. It would make me feel like there must be something wrong with my name, because it didn’t comply with the rules of English grammar.
I’d pretty much forgotten about all these incidents until recently, when I started getting the same anxious feelings about a possible name change. I couldn’t believe that I was getting these sorts of thoughts after so many years. I started wondering: Had I been conditioned to believe that my name was too different for popular consumption in British society? Apart from Zayn Malik, I couldn’t think of many other prominent Asian names within the current UK music scene, mainstream or underground.
The initial response to my name change, however, was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. But it has also caused some controversy, as to be expected. In a recent review for XLR8R, my debut album was described by writer Anton Lang as sounding “very white” and not like “the Asian-British experience that we are usually given”. I’m still trying to understand what the writer even meant by the usual “Asian-British experience”. We are not homogeneous. The fact that I’d cited Oasis as one of my favourite bands growing up was apparently “beautiful”, “unexpected”, and “rare”. This felt like a narrow, stereotypical view to me. It seemed like he was confounded as to how an Asian-British artist with a name like Nabihah Iqbal could be into Britpop. It didn’t seem to make sense that a person like me had made a guitar-focused record. Though the publication have since removed the review and apologised, the fact that it was even published in the first place made me think about how deeply ingrained these prejudices towards Asian-British people are in our society.
“Just because I have an Asian name, and just because of the way I look, that does not mean that my music needs to sound a certain way. My music is not defined by my race and my heritage”
Just because I have an Asian name, and just because of the way I look, that does not mean that my music needs to sound a certain way. My music is not defined by my race and my heritage. I’m a Londoner, born and bred, and I was exposed to much of the same music and culture as many other children growing up in London in the 90s, whether it was the Spice Girls, Britpop, or playing POGS in the school playground. So why do I come under fire for having passions and inspirations which aren’t overtly linked to people’s stereotypical views of “being Asian”? I wonder: Is Eric Clapton’s legitimacy as a blues guitarist ever questioned? Were The Beatles ever derided for appropriating the sitar? I feel like there are some serious double standards in place here, and not only in the arts and entertainment, but across other industries too. This creates obstacles for many people from ethnic minority backgrounds. As a result, our relationships with our own true identities can be eclipsed by decisions we feel we ought to make in order to be ‘accepted’, or to further our own careers.
Looking at popular culture more broadly, Asian-British people are few and far between. It’s almost as if we have to act out caricatures of ourselves in order to be accepted into mainstream British culture. I’m thinking of TV shows such as Goodness Gracious Me, Asian Provocateur, or Citizen Khan. I find these comedy shows deeply problematic, and also symptomatic of how Asian people are often regarded in the British media. Of course, individuals such as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and news reporter Krishnan Guru-Murthy provide important counterpoints to this, and are thus also key role models for us. They have proved that who you are or where you come from doesn’t have to matter. However, the dire lack of representation of Asian and other ethnic people within British arts and entertainment still prevails, and shows that we have a long way to go. This is exactly why we should be using our real names, and proudly. We shouldn’t be shy of who we are. We need to represent, and we need to prove that you can be yourself and still pursue whatever you want to do. It’s the only way that we can start to dismantle the prejudices and stereotypes that hold us back.
Nabihah Iqbal’s debut album Weighing of the Heart is out via Ninja Tune now