Youth Culture Against Racism: Why Britain needs the revival of the Asian underground movement


The interpretation and understanding of racial identity for ethnic minorities in Britain has been a prominent socio-political issue in Britain ever since the influx of immigration from the Commonwealth that followed the end of the British Empire. For British South Asians of Indian, Pakistani Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan descent, this has become ever the more pertinent since Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and the subsequent rise in racial hate crimes and islamophobia that has penetrated our society, our mainstream press, and our politics. As a result of the 42% rise in racial hate crimes in the month following Brexit, there has been an alarming feeling of an existential crisis for British Asians as we are being made to feel unwelcome in a country many of us were born and raised in. 


But can we look the past to solve the growing issues of the present? Outside of the white British community, little is known of the Asian underground scene which developed in the 1990s. In the scenes early years, daytime parties during the weekdays were set up, primarily because night club owners were unwilling to host Asian nights at the weekends. Second generation Asian kids, feeling constricted by their more traditional parents, skipped schools to attend the ‘daytimer’ raves, and flocked to London from every corner of the country, and a new generation was introduced to bhangra, garage and hip-hop. But the Asian underground was much more than an expression of teenage angst; it was a cultural outcry, uniting against the growth in anti-Asian racism in the 1990s. This had been expressed during the violent rioting in Dewsbury in 1989, the growth of the BNP and the continuing prominence of the National Front, whilst in continental Europe extremist parties such Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National were making significant electoral gains. Furthermore, beyond the highly publicised racially aggravated murder of Stephen Lawrence, a number of British South Asians were victims of suspected race related murders from 1991-1999, which have since been collated by the Institute of Race Relations.[1] As a result, a rebellious youth culture was born which transcended the religious, cultural and national divisions which had prevented ethnic unity within the British South Asian communities.


Dewsbury riots 1989: Asians and Whites brawl on the street


And as the scene grew, so did its effect on British youth and nightclub culture. As the decade progressed, bhangra evolved into post bhangra, predominantly a dance music scene which incorporated elements of hip-hop, drum and bass, house and garage, whilst maintaining the infusion of traditional South Asian music. Importantly, the post-bhangra genre was much more inclusive to non-Asian youth communities as it became less focused on Punjabi lyrics and infused western beats. The beginnings of post-bhangra were primarily due to the works of Talvin Singh, whose ‘Anohka’ night in East London’s nightclub Blue Note became a hub not only for British Asians, but of young people of all ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, Asian infused punk and hip-hop groups acts such a Fun-Da-Mental and the Asian Dub Foundation kept the scene politically charged as their lyricism challenged the racism within British society. Minor achievements such as Bally Sagoo first appearing on Top of the Pops and British-Asian house duo Joi winning NME single of the week were followed by Conershop’s single Brimful of Asha topping the charts in 1998 and Talvin Singh winning the coveted Mercury Prize in 1999 for his album Ok.[2] Singh’s victory was followed by collaborations with Bjork, Massive Attack and Madonna, and as Britain entered the new century, the scene seemed to be on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream.


Asian Dub Foundation


However, despite its seemingly upwards trajectory, the scene began to lose momentum. Riz MC, the rapper and actor famed for his lead role in Four Lions, has described the devastating events of 9/11 as a decisive factor in scene’s decline in popularity,[3] as Asian youth culture lost its inclusivity and communities were treated with hostility and suspicion. The major record labels lost their interest in the Asian underground movement, and the club nights which had sprung up in London, Birmingham and Manchester were soon replaced. Furthermore, the solidarity cultivated throughout the 80s and the 90s was lost, and the South Asian community fragmented along the religious lines of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The very same cultural and racial divisions still exist in our society today, exemplified by the racial undertones of Brexit. 


In Britain, our political climate is swinging invariably to the far-right, columnists in national newspapers have referred to dark-skinned migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and celebrities are being demonised on social media for expressing genuine humanitarian concerns for the crisis in Calais. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as the U.S. President, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe has seemingly legitimised racism and xenophobia in Western culture. It is difficult for a Briton of South Asian descent not to feel threatened. Liberal activism is failing, and people are succumbing to the sensationalist tactics of the press and the scaremongering of politicians. So how as a youth culture, how do we fight back? For decades, British youths’ greatest form of rebellion has been music, and now it’s needed more than ever. Just as various Britain’s musical genres of the past have seen revivals and reinventions, the Asian underground scene is due its own.



Distinctions and parallels can be drawn here between the influences of Afro-Caribbean music on Britain since the arrival of Caribbean immigrants in 1950s, and the influence which the South Asian community gained and subsequently lost. Caribbean migration had a profound effect upon British music, as Jamaican ska and reggae developed throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s and eventually developed into the present-day dance culture of jungle, grime and garage. Whilst South Asian and Caribbean culture have undeniably affected wider British culture in their own unique ways, the latter has undeniably had much more of an impact on youth culture, due to its impact on music, and the intrinsic ties between music and youth culture.


From the 1950s, the Jamaican sound system’s various offshoots have helped to contribute to the assimilation of black Briton into society. The second and third  generations of South Asian Britons, had been determined to break the precedent of what historian and politician Rupa Huq has called first generational ‘Asian invisibility’[4] set forward by their parents, but found their own assimilative youth culture curtailed by the political stigmatisation of their communities. Of course, black Britishness comes with its own hardships that spans way beyond music and nightclub culture, and comparing the racial hardships faced by different ethnic minorities is always a daunting task that requires a degree of caution, however it needs to be stated that youth culture, principally through music, is needed for British Asians to rediscover their sense of identity, and to be accepted in an increasingly hostile world. We want back our own youth culture, our own expression of our British consciousness through more than just spirituality, cashmere and curry.


As a writer of mixed Asian heritage, I have a vested interest in discovering music that furthers my personal sense of identity. But simultaneously, I believe that a reintroduction of Asian-infused music into the mainstream and underground scenes can help tackle the growing racial divisions within this country.    


words by Jack Seal



[3] Noisey. 2016. Ye Olde Englistan: Riz Ahmed On the Pride and Struggle of Being British and Asian. [ONLINE] Available at:

[4] Huq, R., Beyond Subculture (Routledge, 2004)


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