A playlist navigating identity

Image Description: Charli XCX performing at a festival 

It is sometimes said that while art is how we fill up physical space, music is how we fill up time. Music is a language that can say something individual and unique to everyone it touches. It is part of what makes us human. Recently I have been trying to come to terms with my perception of my identity as a mixed-race woman and how I often feel isolated in my position as a woman of colour: knowing full well I am not ‘white’ but also that I do not experience the same challenges that other POC face. So in a way to try and distract myself from this internal crisis, but also try and feel at home within myself, I have come up with a very haphazard playlist of songs by artists of Indian heritage that have taught me something about my identity. 

Charli XCX → Shake It Off (cover) and the whole of the SUCKER album (but especially Body of my Own)

The first Charli XCX song I heard was probably either ‘Boom Clap’ (thanks to ‘The Fault in Our Stars’) or her feature on Icona Pop’s ‘I love It’. Let’s just say I wasn’t instantly taken by her sound. I actually actively disliked those songs – I was going through my pop-punk ‘not like other girls’ alternative music phase.

Fast forward a year or so and I came across her cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ on the BBC live lounge and I was nothing short of obsessed. If you have not watched it then I urge you to instantly stop whatever you are doing (reading this article presumably) and watch it. Her all female backing band, the punk vibe she infuses into the bubblegum-pop original, her eclectic dance moves, ‘don’t-care’ attitude, and her wildly basic (maybe even bad?) vocals struck a chord in 15 year old me that I couldn’t quite fathom. 

I thought she was so so so cool. I listened to all of her 2015 release ‘SUCKER’ within a day. I went and researched her to learn about her and found out that, like myself, she was half Indian. I was taken aback. As a child I always felt that there was a lack of Indian representation in the music world. The only time I had ever previously seen brown people singing on screen was when they were planted on the X-factor for the audience to laugh at. I had never seen a woman of Indian descent in the music industry be taken seriously.

What’s more I also felt close to Charli because as a mixed-race girl I often felt as if I did not look ‘Indian’ enough to have my identity validated. Whilst I absolutely recognise the privilege that my white-passing or ‘ethnically ambiguous’ (ew) skin has given me, I always feel uneasy with calling myself Indian at the fear of being rejected from that part of my identity. Charli has the same colouring as myself, and yet is open and proud about her own Indian heritage, talking in interviews about her mother’s experience of settling in the UK. 

The only time I had ever previously seen brown people singing on screen was when they were planted on the X-factor for the audience to laugh at.

Charli has now cemented her position as one of the most influential musicians in the pop world (she has written a plethora of songs for other artists aside from herself). Her ability to speak openly and proudly about her Indian heritage without a) letting it be taken away from her and b) tokenizing herself as a representative for ‘all women of colour’ is something I admire a lot. Add that to her feminist, self-pleasure promoting anthems, and the kaleidoscopic electric-pop universe she has created is one that I could live in forever. 

Jay Sean – Dance With You (featuring Rishi Rich and Juggy D) 

Does anybody else remember Jay Sean? In 2009 he topped the US charts (and was number three in the UK) with his single ‘Down’ featuring Lil Wayne. It was, categorically speaking, a banger. I loved it for two reasons; it was catchy, and it was so rare to see a British Asian artist being successful in the mainstream media. I felt some weird sort of immense pride when I heard other girls at schools playing it through their iPods. 


But that isn’t the song I want to talk about. While the very success of ‘Down’ makes it important to my personal conception of my own identity, his 2003 track ‘Dance with You’ is the one that really sticks out for me. The song is an ‘Asian Underground’ track, a genre/movement that traditionally reflects the blending of cultural experiences of the South Asian diaspora; in this case that would be having lyrics in both English and Punjabi. 

Aside from the intoxicatingly catchy beat and the seamless transitions between English and Punjabi rapping, the music video is also a symbol of identity for me. The video is filmed in Southall, a suburban district in West London close to where I live. The area has coined the nickname ‘Little India’ due to its sizable South Asian population. Driving through the streets you are far more likely to see the residents donning an array of traditional South Asian garments than you are to see more traditional ‘Western’ items such as jeans and t-shirts. Seeing Jay Sean (and his musical collaborators Rishi Rich and Juggy D) make a low-quality music video in the streets of Southall is something that I never thought would mean so much to me, but is now a video I go to whenever I feel slightly homesick in Oxford. 

Oh also, if commercial success is also important, ‘Dance with You’ also reached number 12 in the UK charts when it was released – no mean feat for a song with a substantial portion of its lyrics not being in English… 

Traces of You – Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones 

Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones are two outrageously successful musicians in their own right. Shankar is a sitarist, classically trained, and Jones is a Jazz artist who has sold over 50 million records worldwide. There is nothing so far to connect the two musicians until you find out that the two are actually half-sisters, sharing the same father who is none other than Ravi Shankar: Indian-born sitarist who crossed over into the Western music industry with his influence touching The Beatles. 

Jones and Shankar’s styles are worlds apart on the surface. Yet, on this track (and two others on this album of the same name) they work together to create a piece which shows off their immense talents without comparing them. The combination of Jones’s soft vocals and Shankar’s artful runs and drones on the sitar create a melancholy and poignant wave of emotion. The lyrics lament the loss of a loved one and given the timing of the release and the collaboration between the two musicians it seems as if it is a tribute or ode to their father. 

The combination of Jones’s soft vocals and Shankar’s artful runs and drones on the sitar create a melancholy and poignant wave of emotion.

I know that there are far more musically complex things that somebody more versed and knowledgeable in music than I could say about this song. But the reason I place it on this playlist of miscellaneous tracks that I feel say something to me about identity is the partnership between Jones and Shankar. Jones is mixed-race and her father was not present for a lot of her life. Conversely, both Shankar’s parents are Indian, and she grew up with her father – of cou0prse it was him who taught her to play the sitar. I just find it incredibly touching that the two half-sisters came together to honour their father in a piece that combines both their shared, and different cultural identities without either trespassing across the other. I often feel in my own life that I am often treated as an outcast by the Indian side of my family as they do not see me as ‘Indian’ but rather a white woman, which to me feels like a rejection of my character. Jones and Shankar playing together in a piece that seamlessly mixes Western and Hindustani musical traditions speaks to me in whispers of acceptance, togetherness and love. 


Image Credit: NRK P3 via Creative Commons