Jay Sean: Between two cultures

Does Jay Sean feel British or Asian? Is he R&B or hip hop? Alasdair Lees finds out why the rising star is having it both ways
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Made In Britain, a play by one of the best young British-Asian playwrights, Parv Bancil, is about a young British-Asian musician, Bally Bangra, who cashes in his artistic integrity by signing a lucrative record deal to become Billy Indian, an overnight teenybopper sensation performing ironic songs about his Indo-British identity. By the end of the play, he comes to regret the Faustian implications of his success.

Made In Britain, a play by one of the best young British-Asian playwrights, Parv Bancil, is about a young British-Asian musician, Bally Bangra, who cashes in his artistic integrity by signing a lucrative record deal to become Billy Indian, an overnight teenybopper sensation performing ironic songs about his Indo-British identity. By the end of the play, he comes to regret the Faustian implications of his success.

Written in 1997 and restaged at the Birmingham Rep in March this year, Made In Britain was inspired by the experiences of Asian musicians such as Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney and Black Star Liner, who all suffered the consequences of being erroneously lumped under the bogus banner of a spin-friendly "Asian Underground" scene at the height of New Labour's Cool Britannia.

Fast forward to October 2004, and Kamaljit Jhooti, a 23-year-old Sikh from Hounslow, west London, has a £1m record deal under his belt and is three places away from the UK's No1 slot with his third single, "Stolen". Under his Anglicised moniker, Jay Sean, he has already reached No12 and No6 with his two previous singles, "Eyes On You" and "Dance With Me (Nachne Tere Naal)". The Jay Sean sound - put simply, poppy bhangra-infused R&B, created on his records by the west London producer Rishi Rich - is being fêted as one of the most jarring and authentic genres in 21st-century British: pop. The sound is being successfully exported to the all-important US market in remixes of superstars such as Britney Spears, Madonna and Mary J Blige. Domestically, Rich has also worked with acts such as Westlife and Misteeq, and even persuaded Craig David to sing in Punjabi on his single "Spanish".

From the whip-crack clatter of the dholak drums on "One Night" and the deep-house basslines on "Man's World" on Sean's album, Me Against Myself, Rich's is an electric, magpie sound, which represents the kind of music that young British Asians listen to. Recent chart success for Indian artists such as Panjabi MC ("Mundian To Bach Ke") and the Canadian-born rapper Raghav ("Can't Get Enough"), as well as the use of bhangra samples in the work of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and Dr Dre have opened the eyes of the UK record industry to the new genre's commercial appeal.

After a day spent in photoshoots and studio interviews for Q magazine and MTV Base, Sean is at the huge Virgin megastore at Piccadilly Circus signing copies of "Stolen" for his fans. He has a quick ciggie, then we retire to a cramped anteroom for a chat. Sweetly, he's clutching a strikingly good pencil sketch of him by one of his schoolgirl acolytes, which reads "We Love You Kamaljit xxxxx". When I tell him I'd seen him performing at City Hall to launch the Asian equivalent of the Brits a fortnight before, he quips: "The organisers of the Bramas [the British Asian Music Awards] wanted to take them over to the US, but I don't think the Americans were up for the Usamas."

Displays of satirical intelligence are not what you'd usually expect to find in a fledgling pop pin-up, but it seasons many of the tracks on his debut album, Me Against Myself, which is released on Monday. "I called it Me Against Myself because the media are so quick to pigeonhole a new artist and because people need to digest it. It's a bit of a game I'm playing."

For "new artist" read "Asian artist", and then consider the lyrics on the title rap track, on which he sends himself up as "the Asian Craig David": "It seems you sold your soul your soul to the game/ You're a fake, Jay Sean isn't even your name". This savviness about how pop stars are manufactured and marketed takes on an added poignancy - when you take his ethnicity into account - on "On and On": "Maybe I allowed myself to be consumed/ Turn my back on the only life I know/ I won't forget what it took to get me here/ How much I sacrificed" has more in common with self-conscious pop icons such as Eminem.

It's an articulateness that puts Sean in the same bracket as the smarter UK artists, such as The Streets, Amy Winehouse or Dizzee Rascal, or the kind of pop being produced by Brian Higgins's Xenomania production house for Girls Aloud and the Sugababes, or Richard X for Rachel Stevens. Hence the title Me Against Myself: for Sean it's a battle between success and consumption, ethnicity and the mainstream, avant-garde and pop, and between his two favoured musical styles, R&B and hip hop.

"I got signed as an R&B artist, but I've been doing hip hop for my whole life," he says. "Because I grew up with that and got signed as an R&B artist I didn't want to let go of that, I didn't want to turn my back on it. I can equally sing a love ballad with as much passion as I can spit a rap right now. Hip hop and R&B are like my mum and dad. It's two different parts of me, two different sides."

Sean's two musical "sides" are evident on the make-up of the single: the A-side, "Stolen", is ruthlessly efficient R&B; the B-side, "Who Is Kamaljit?", is witty, reflective hip hop. On one side, he's lamenting lost love; on the other he's rapping about swimming around inside his father's scrotum and etching lyrics on to the walls of his mother's uterus. Goodness Gracious Me it isn't. " Goodness Gracious Me was satirical, but people were laughing at it, and I don't want to make that mistake. The funny thing is when we Asians get a chance to be on TV we take the piss out of ourselves and eventually if we're taking the piss out of ourselves, then everyone else will. This album is about the views, perceptions and experiences of a 23-year-old, UK-born Asian from west London and all that's he's seen. I want people to understand that this guy is Asian, but he's British, and he's just as proud of being British as he is about being Asian. He does the same things we do - he went to the same schools as we did, he grew up watching the same TV programmes as we did, he eats the same food as we did, he goes to the pub and gets pissed on a Friday, hangs out with his mates, shags birds. He's a normal guy.

"Asian stuff is trendy. 'Course I understand that. But there's some people who are clued up - certain journalists and magazines and newspapers who really know what is real, and who know which artist has a chance at longevity, which one is a pop phenomenon, which one is a fad, which one is a consequence of Pop Idol or Fame Academy, and they know who's going to last, who's got some integrity, who's got something to say, who's got a voice, who's got a brain."

As he raps on a track called "You Don't Know Me": "I'm still brown/ I'm still the way I was they declined me." Another verse runs: "Now the Asian scene is the place to be/ Ever since Goodness Gracious Me graced the scene/ What with Truth Hurts and Missy making Indian cool/ Who'd have thought I'd be taking Timbaland to Southall."

"It's these little stereotypes that we have to slowly abolish," he says. "I grew up in a school where I had a majority of white friends and I was one of their very few Asian friends, so I got to see what their lives were like completely, but they only had me to see an Asian life, so they thought whatever he does must be the way Asians are. I'm so happy that I finally have the chance to talk to people such as yourselves who are taking an interest in my culture. That's something I've got to appreciate. There were times 40 years ago when my parents and my grandparents came over and it was a big struggle for them to even make a living."

On "They Don't Know Me", Sean expresses his protectiveness over the use of his native tongue in his tracks, sung by the Punjabi singer Juggy D: "My language isn't a fad/ It's an honour". "By me putting some of my culture into my music is a way for people to understand what's going on. It's nice to have the opportunity to put my mother tongue into my music - it's a talking point. Our culture is getting the chance to be put on the map and be seen and viewed and understood by everyone. I want people to see our way of life the way it really is: not every Asian parent is strict; not every kid has to go into medicine, dentistry and engineering; not every Asian person owns a cornershop."

His newly acquired fanbase should ensure that his vision of a representative and authentic young British Asian identity is heard across the multicultural spectrum. "A lot of them are young girls. Young Asian girls are first, then it's the Asian guys, then it was the black girls, then it was the black guys and finally the white guys. There's a mixed crowd there."

Despite his obvious love for American hip hop and R&B, he also doesn't buy into the bling-bling culture which surrounds So Solid Crew, his stablemates at Relentless Records (run by Shabs Jobanputra, the former head of Outcaste records, home to many of the artists of the ill-fated Asian Underground). "In my video [for "Stolen"], I could've been riding in a convertible with six girls drinking a bottle of Moët and then going to a club and chilling in a VIP section. But that's not me. That's not the life I've lived. So I show it on the streets of Southall - I show them my environment, my people."

Having battled to get to where he is now, Sean is also determined to use his visibility to inspire other young British Asians to take their rightful place in UK popular culture. "I want people to understand where I've come from and the struggle I've been through to get where I am today. I want to see a change in that mentality," he states calmly, but forcefully.

It's a struggle that continues, as I find out when I speak to Sean's producer Rishi Rich a few days later: "Some people are still not playing the record - and there's no proper justification for why they're not playing it. It doesn't really make sense. It sometimes does feel that we could be encountering some racism."

But Sean is undeterred, as his first UK tour, which takes in Manchester, London and Birmingham, hits the road. In the future, he'll have a third persona to battle: the side that wants to make records in the vein of Coldplay. "So many people have a narrow window through which they see our culture. That has to change. But it isn't going to come overnight: it's going to be long, and if it's not me who removes a few bricks from that wall, then it might be the next guy, but eventually it's going to happen." Parv Bancil, and the world, take note.

' Me Against Myself' is released on Monday on Relentless. Jay Sean plays Academy 3, Manchester, tonight; the Scala, London, on Monday; and Academy 2, Birmingham, on Tuesday

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