This Monday, April 7th, our very own Vicki Virk will be talking with Falu Bakrania, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies at SFSU, about “Bhangra and Belonging: South Asian Music in the Diaspora.” If you’d like to attend in person, the talk is from 4:00 to 5:30 pm at 554 Barrows Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. In preparation, and out of a deep sense of curiosity, a number of us Dholrhythmers have been devouring Bakrania’s book Bhangra and Asian Underground: South Asian Music and the Politics of Belonging in Britain. What does the bhangra scene look like when viewed through the eyes of an academic? A lot the same, and a lot different, than what we experience on the ground in San Francisco.
Bakrania’s project is to examine how postcolonial youth negotiate their identity as both British and as South Asian through clubbing. I don’t know whether I’m impressed or jealous that Bakrania got funding to study clubbing in London for almost two years- probably a bit of both. She found the club scene in Britain to be a hotly contested site, with different groups jockeying to assert their notion of identity as important and authentic. In turn, ordinary club goers actively constructed a “hybrid” identity for themselves while at the club, blending British and Asian definitions of identity into something unique. This identity formation followed them out of the club, informing the way they perceived themselves in the rest of their lives.
In London during the 90’s bhangra went head-to-head with the Asian Underground, sparking intense criticism from both sides. Bhangra labeled the Asian Underground scene as culturally inauthentic, pandering to a white market by pulling classical Indian motifs and removing their context to make them easily accessible. The AU scene criticized bhangra right back as uncultured and unintelligent, also pandering to whites. I’m going to quote Nitin Sawhney for having the courage to go on record saying “But bhangra… is so simple, it’s unreal. Bhangra is four-four music, it’s perfect for Western ears, and that’s why it’s received such interest.” In the tumult Panjabi MC ended up labeled as producing black music, since “Mundian To Bach Ke” is primarily a hip-hop track. In the end the debate really didn’t matter; AU music died out as fans chased new trends and bhangra, in Bakrania’s argument, never fully crossed over to mainstream success.
Things are a little bit different in San Francisco now than they were in London. We’re a lot less violent; almost all the London clubs Bakrania researched for her book are now closed due to fighting. Sexual harassment still happens, but it’s a far cry at Public Works from what it used to be at the Rickshaw Stop. Because white patrons were often prevented from entering London bhangra clubs at the door, our San Francisco crowds are more diverse. Perhaps NonStop falls more along the lines of an AU club from the 90’s. With primarily female organizers and an all-female dance troupe, however, we seem to avoid some of the visual exoticization of South Asian women that was part of the decoration and ambiance of the AU scene.