Bollywood meets Beyoncé: ‘Brown artists can be mainstream too’

Club event
Image caption,The south Asian underground music scene is rapidly growing

By Yasmin Rufo

BBC News

Scroll through TikTok or go for a night out at the weekend and you could easily be left with the impression that South Asian music is booming. But despite seemingly being so popular, it is struggling to make an impact on the mainstream.

It is a Saturday night in a club in west London, and sounds, cultures and beats are being fused together by South Asian DJs who are going head-to-head in a musical showdown.

“This isn’t just music, this is a celebration of my culture and identity,” one young man shouts over the music.

As revellers dance to remixes of global chart-toppers, iconic Bollywood songs, bhangra beats and a whole host of other sounds, DJ D-lish says she is “pushing the boundary of what south Asian music means”.

The 25-year-old, real name Alisha, is just one of many South Asian artists trying to make their music mainstream.


Despite an underground music scene that has a cult-like following, Asian artists continue to grapple with the challenge of breaking into the charts. This is despite the fact that almost 10% of the British population are Asian.

While other musical subcultures such as Grime are having their heyday, Asian-influenced music seems to have been left behind.

In 2002, Panjabi MC released his bhangra hit Mundian To Bach Ke. It sold 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.

However, what could have been the start of a boom for Asian artists turned out to be little more than a one-hit wonder.

Two decades on, the problem persists – only a handful of British Asian artists have had top 40 singles and even fewer songs with an Asian-influenced sound have made it into the charts.

‘Judged before I opened my mouth’

Singer-songwriter Jay Sean tells BBC News that “people were confused” when he first started performing in the early 2000s.

“They would see a brown kid and immediately assume what kind of music I was about to play, I would be judged before I even opened my mouth,” he explains.

Jay Sean
Image caption,Jay Sean said people would always make assumptions about his music based on the way he looked

Best known for his 2009 hit Down, the British Asian R&B artist said even after he signed to a label, he would be asked “dumb questions” because there was “a lot of ignorance around South Asian culture and label producers didn’t always get it”.

Musician Naughty Boy, who has worked with Emeli Sande and Sam Smith, told the BBC he had a similar experience of being “put in a box because I was brown and Muslim”.

The artist, who had a UK number one hit with La La La and five additional UK top 10s, said he had previously been told to “dilute” his sound to “make it more mainstream and increase the chances of it charting”. He said he resisted doing so and has always been “unapologetic” with his music.

Both artists have different stage names to their actual names, but say that this is not to hide their heritage.

Naughty Boy
Image caption,Naughty Boy has been making music for over a decade

“I didn’t want to prove myself through my identity, so I use the name to not attract attention. I want the world to hear my music without judgement,” Naughty Boy says.

He and Jay Sean have set up their own record labels to give a platform to up-and-coming South Asian talent.

“I’m not going to rest until I see more South Asian artists being played on mainstream platforms – if Spanish music and Afrobeats can be mainstream for a British audience then our music can as well,” says Sean.

‘The media turns a blind eye’

As the South Asian underground music scene continues to expand, record labels are tapping into its popularity and a greater commitment is being made to sign South Asian artists.

Vishal Patel is the co-founder of 91+, an independent label that was created “to fill a void” and exclusively signs artists of South Asian heritage.

He suggests South Asian artists are struggling to become mainstream because “of the lack of infrastructure”.

“There are so few media executives who are of South Asian heritage that can operationally help us push this music. Most execs don’t understand our culture so they choose to ignore it,” he explains.

“It was like this once for black British artists, but they were able to come together and break through – it’s the labels, media and streaming services that have made Grime music cool. We need people in the industry who will champion South Asian musicians.”

Club event
Image caption,Music executives are using social media as a tool to find up-and-coming South Asian artists

Jasmine Takhar, a presenter of the BBC’s Introducing show on the Asian Network has given a platform to more than 500 South Asian artists on her show.

She believes that there is an “ignorance” around the type of music that South Asian artists make.

“The talent is definitely there,” she tells the BBC, “but how often do you hear South Asian artists on the radio or promoted on Spotify?”

Takhar adds that she has come across acts with millions of followers on social media but have barely any presence in the mainstream because “the media turns a blind eye”.

A new Asian sound

One group who has found social media fame is girl band Girls Like You, who were scouted on Instagram by Vishal’s record label.

Comprised of four women aged between 20 and 25 who are all of South Asian Heritage, the band have gone viral multiple times on Instagram and TikTok.

Girls Like You
Image caption,Girls Like You make music in English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi

Most recently the girl group had six million views on a remix of Bollywood’s Yeh Ka Hua and Ne-Yo’s R&B classic So Sick.

They say their music is a “fusion of cultures that mix languages and sounds”.

“We love to throw together pop music with bhangra,” explains band member Jaya. “It’s like mixing Bollywood and Beyoncé.”

Sampling Bollywood music is not a new concept in western music – many well-known pop songs have used snippets from India’s largest film industry.

Britney Spears’ Toxic sampled a 1981 Hindi song by Lata Mangeshkar, while the Black Eyed Peas sampled a famous song by Asha Bhosle in Don’t Phunk with My Heart.

Yasmin, another of the band’s members, said the group are “breaking down stereotypes of what it means to be a British Asian woman” and have a “completely global” following on social media.

They are hoping they will be able to turn their social media success into chart-topping hits, and they feel confident that now is the time for South Asian artists.

As well as social media helping artists grow, music festivals are also making an effort to increase the diversity of their line-ups.

Diljit Dosanjh performs on stage during the Born To Shine World Tour in Vancouver in June 2022
Image caption,Diljit Singh Dosanjh will be the first Punjabi language singer to perform at Coachella

Coachella’s 2024 line-up has been praised for its South Asian representation, with the likes of Mercury prize nominee Joy Crookes – who’s from South London and is half Bangladeshi – performing.

She previously told the BBC that it was very important for musicians from minority groups be given a “platform”.

Singer Diljit Dosanjh, the first turban-wearing actor to lead a Bollywood movie and the first Punjabi artist to sell out the O2 Arena in London, will also perform at the festival.

However, while steps are being taken to reflect South Asian music’s increasing popularity, Naughty Boy is wary that the music industry’s commitment is not seen as a “phase”.

“I don’t want labels to throw money at South Asian artists because it’s cool to be brown right now,” he says.

“I’m brown forever, not a minute, so while it’s refreshing to see this, we need a long-term commitment to change the landscape.”

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