07 Jan 2018 18:42 IST

Brown, black and blues

Pop singer-producer Adam Bainbridge on cultural identities in music and India’s love for white DJs

Identity and otherness, two ideas that have dominated political and cultural discourse in 2017, hold a special sort of fascination for British alt-pop producer Adam Bainbridge. Growing up as a mixed race kid — his father is English, his mother an Indian exile from South Africa, the daughter of political prisoner Amina Desai — in the predominantly white town of Peterborough probably has something to do with it. Then, in 2006, he gave up on a promising career as a grime producer after an early encounter with homophobia and transphobia at the hands of a celebrated blogger who goes by the name Donald Crunk. “I was struggling with my identity and my sexuality at the time,” he said during a Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) talk in 2015. “And overnight, I just shut down. I stopped my music. I left London. I was scared.”

By the time he returned to the industry in 2009 — this time as musical magpie/singer-producer Kindness — he had made peace with the idea of being an outsider. This reflects in his music, which sounds more than anything like a celebration of difference (he called his second album Otherness). It’s also evident in his outspoken criticism of the straight white men who still control the music industry, as well as his explorations of the history and politics of desi music culture through a series of round-table discussions for RBMA. Early in December, Bainbridge was in Delhi to talk about British-Indian representation in UK music at the BUDx electronic music lab.

Edited excerpts of an email interview.

At BudX you spoke about South Asian identities in British popular music. When I interviewed Heems last year, we spoke about the lack of brown representation in US popular culture when he was growing up. One of the first Indian characters he saw on TV was actually a white man in brown-face. How different was it in the UK, where there’s more of a desi presence in popular culture?

Indians must think we’re completely nuts out in the diaspora! I’ve been reading critiques of identity issues, which talk about being overly fixated on the mainstream representation of non-white minorities in ‘entertainment’. I agree that it’d be nice to see more nuanced characters, and Apu (Nahasapeemapetilon) from The Simpsons is an outrageous relic from an era where culture was heavily centred around whiteness, but are Netflix documentaries about this stuff our number one priority? Dismantling caste in the diaspora or talking about domestic abuse in South Asian households is, maybe, more urgent than which actors are being overpaid on television. A more interesting analysis of television programming would perhaps discuss power and access to getting your art made. Access to programme making (in the UK) has actually gone backwards from its peak in the ’90s. There are now fewer black and brown faces on TV, and in positions of directorial influence than there were then. It’s true that a woke white liberal will literally William-Dalrymple you out of a job.

One of the obvious touch-points here is bhangra and the Asian underground, often represented as a ‘f*** you’ to British racism. During your round-table discussion for RBMA, Falu Bakrania did a great job breaking down the class and gender conflicts that played out in that space. But I noticed that none of you really touched upon caste, especially given bhangra’s association with jat pride…

I think that’s a valid criticism. When I look back to the radio show we did about desis in music in America, we did talk about how immigration policies in the US had been extremely narrow for decades, looking only to a hyper-educated professional class of workers from India. I’m as surprised as you now, reflecting that the word caste wasn’t mentioned during the show. The responsibility for that falls on those of us that spoke. I consider it a mistake, considering the dominance of Punjabi music, and pride in identity as a theme in US desi scenes.

In recent times there have been quite a few discussions about the fact that so many desi artistes and music fans have aligned with black culture, and whether at some point that becomes appropriation. There was also the controversy about rapper Nav dropping the n-word in his songs, especially in the context of South Asian racism against blacks. How do you feel about the relationship between desi and black culture?

I think this is a complex one for me because my work, like the work of many South Asian artistes in the diaspora, is hugely indebted to black American and black British music. It wouldn’t exist without it. At the same time, other successful desis are saying the most insane stuff about black culture and society as though it’s not straightforward racism and anti-blackness that they’re espousing. I’m thinking of MIA and her continued trolling of black British culture. That’s as harmful as using the n-word, because it’s more subtle, and more insipid. I think South Asian creatives have to just be very open to criticism and self-reflection, and be aware that black communities may be reaching a point of frustration with the parasitic nature of emulation. Even so, a respectful awareness of, and appreciation for black arts is vastly preferable to any ambitions for adjacency to whiteness. Let 2018 be the year that Eurocentric aesthetics finally die a death. Why does India love white DJs so much?

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)