British, Asian and hip

Mainstream culture consigned their immigrant parents to the margins of society, but the next generation is ready to take centre stage
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN A packed and sweaty Liverpool club 1,000 twentysomethings are swaying to the in- fectious sound of a vibrant five-piece. Nothing unusual about that. Except that the lyrics are in Punjabi, the frontman is a young, side-burned Asian, and the crowd is mostly white. They have come to see Cornershop, the band that is breaking the ethnic mould of British pop.

With their single "Brimful of Asha" - a paean to an Indian actress - Cornershop are No 1 in the charts at a time when British Asians are emerging on a cultural scene that has barely recognised their existence, let alone talent.

What might pass as a fad is seen by many as a shockwave emanating from Britain's ethnic earthquake. Unlike the children and grandchildren of West Indian immigrants, the progeny of Asian families have not jolted the nation's cultural consciousness. Now all that is changing.

As well as Cornershop there has been the success of Goodness Gracious Me, a British-Asian comedy on BBC television, and the arrival of nightclubs such as London's Anokha, which mixes dance music with the sounds of the sub-continent and has attracted the likes of David Bowie and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker.

The new sub-culture has even generated its own press. Imran Khan, editor- in-chief of 2nd Generation - a magazine dedicated to black British style - anticipated the Zeitgeist. "You could see a whole set of young, talented people who had one foot in British culture and another in their parents'," he says.

Although uncomfortable with the term "British Asian", Tjinder Singh, Cornershop's frontman, does not dispute his heritage. Bought up in Wolverhampton, he attended the gudwara - Sikh temple - as a child, studied business information technology at Preston Polytechnic, and then worked for a "business computing thing" in Cheltenham.

This could easily be portrayed as standard Asian values: respect for your culture, a good education, professional career. But look closer and you find a dope-smoking iconoclast with a penchant for rock and hip- hop. After all, forming a punky, funky band is not exactly the career path Singh's parents expected. Until last year - five years after Singh founded Cornershop - his mother and father believed he worked for a record company. What do they think? "Not at lot. It is a bit like Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer. It will take time."

Singh is far from the image of the traditional Asian. The band's name deliberately plays on astereotype. "We wanted to take on the negative connotation of Asian people. I think Cornershop is a whole lot more positive."

The myth of Asians as depoliticised, middle-class family types has always been misleading. As long ago as the Seventies Asian women workers were striking at Grunwick, and a few years later their sons and daughters were rioting on the streets of Southall.

THE ABILITY to subvert prejudice is an integral part of this "2nd Generation" culture. Anil Gupta, the producer of Goodness Gracious Me, says: "I can take the mickey out of the traditional Asian family because I lived it. It is done from a position of security, not in a nasty or aggressive way."

The success for both Cornershop and Goodness Gracious Me seems to be that neither have to cut their cultural cloth in order to be sold to a white British audience. "It is like the phrase 'Eat my chudees' [underpants]. No white British person will understand it. But it has entered the language," says Gupta.

It is this ability to leapfrog the cultural divide that has interested big business, keen to develop untapped markets. Last year Warner Brothers signed an unheard-of teenage Asian singer called Amar - whose work is limited to a Hindi version of a Whitney Houston song - for a multimillion-pound deal.

Other likely stars include the rap-and-rock collective of Asian Dub Foundation and the dance sounds of Shri and Badmarsh. Pop pundits say the Next Big Asian Thing will be Black Star Liner (BSL). Signed to Warner Brothers and widely touted by the same organs - Melody Maker and the NME - who first feted Cornershop, BSL should make it to the CD shelves this year.

Providing evidence that ethnic minorities exist outside of London, BSL hails from Leeds. Like Cornershop, the band's name is provocative. Black Star Liner was the company formed by the Afro-American leader Marcus Garvey to repatriate blacks to Africa. BSL, too, have a primarily white following. "I would say that less than 5 per cent of the audiences at their gigs are Asian," says Simon Scott, who runs Tandoori Space, a record store in Leeds dedicated to the British Asian music scene.

FOR THE youth that make up brown Britain, the emergence of such stars is welcome. "What it says is there is potential for us to get involved in jobs that are not necessarily what your family had in mind," says Gursharan Minhas, a 24-year-old student.

Many might ask why now? The answer, say social scientists, is partly to do with patterns of immigration. The experience of British Asians is mirroring that of the country's Afro-Caribbean population, the first of whom arrived here 20 years earlier than them, in the Fifties. It was the Eighties before television - in the guise of the roughly hewn No Problem on Channel 4 - made some effort towards accurately portraying black people.

Henry Louis Gates Jr, the American writer, has also observed how much more visible Afro-Caribbeans have become since the Sixties. "Black culture simply is youth culture in London today. Bizarre as it first seems, speaking with a Jamaican accent has become hip among white working-class kids."

However, there remains one cultural citadel of British life that has been stormed by Afro-Caribbeans but not by Asian youth: football. Even here, the tribulations faced by black football players are instructive. Nowadays it would be hard to know how Premiership clubs could manage without them. Since Viv Anderson became the first Afro-Caribbean footballer in 1978 to play for England, dozens have been capped. But the Seventies were a time when football managers said black players were cowards or unreliable or "would never do the business at Middlesbrough on a cold February night".

So what of Asian footballers? There are none on the books of any Premiership side. A Football Association report which surveyed clubs in 1995 found that British Asian players were "not talented enough, showed a lack of interest in the game and had the 'wrong' physique".

Abdul Karim, who sits on an FA committee set up in the wake of the 1995 report to encourage clubs to take on Asian players, says that attitudes are changing. In fact, technically, one top club does have an Asian player. Manchester City's midfielder Georgi Kinkladze is from Georgia. Karim observes: "That is in Asia and nobody says he has the wrong physique."

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