Nihal Arthanayake: How the multi-talented DJ rising to the top of mainstream radio
Arifa Akbar meets the DJ who is not afraid to tackle the issues of race and religion
Monday 14 January 2008
Though it is fair to say Nihal Arth-anayake is not yet a household name, he is has risen inexorably to become one of the most important presenters in the Radio 1 schedule and the most high-profile British-Asian broadcaster.
Not only does he host the Radio 1 breakfast show every weekend, the slot Chris Moyles fills Monday to Friday, he also has his own specialist music show on the station every Tuesday night and works for four days a week at the BBC Asian network.
As one of the few Asian DJs to have broken through ethnic radio and into the mainstream, Nihal (he uses his five-syllable surname only for official purposes) celebrates his differences rather than trying to underplay them. "I have always been proud that my name is not easy to pronounce and that as soon as you see it or hear it, you know it's not English," he sayd. "I get texts from listeners saying it's great to hear a British Asian voice."
Nihal's prominence increased when he stood in for Moyles, in a "baptism of fire" just more than a year ago. "It was the scariest thing I've ever done. If you listen to Chris Moyles every morning, you want Chris Moyles. Then this joker from Essex turns up, who you've never heard of and whose name you can't pronounce. It was quite daunting. A lot of people would text the show to say they didn't know who I was. Every 15 minutes, for literally two weeks, I got texts telling me I was rubbish, to get off, who the hell was I. I don't have a thick skin. When I stopped looking at the texts, I was all right. At the same time, I felt it was a very big opportunity to step in for Chris Moyles; people were showing faith in me by asking me. In the end, I had fun."
Nihal, 36, also been asked to stand in for Scott Mills, Edith Bowman and Colin Murray but in October, with the arrival of his weekend breakfast show under his own name, he really arrived.
He has a broad hinterland, having hosted speech radio on the BBC Asian network four days a week since 2005, Nihal has never shied from culturally sensitive topics such as racism, immigration and political and religious violence. His discussions on the Asian Network have ranged from debating the darker issues that lie within the British-Asian community such as abortion and child abuse to interviewing The Sugarbabes, Bollywood producers, Ghandi's grandson and the former cabinet minister, John Reid. He also interviewed the late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan.
"Just because I wear a hoodie doesn't mean I'm not comfortable talking to someone like John Reid," he says. "I remember when Benazir Bhutto came on and started slagging off the Taliban, and I challenged her on it, saying that the Taliban first emerged under her watch. It is my job to challenge people. I have to have an argument with someone every day on the Asian Network. It is just part of the job."
The row over Morrissey having made comments that were interpreted by some as racist gave Nihal a chance to give the issue of immigration what he sees as a healthy airing.
"It is only when we address these issues head-on, when we stop hiding behind political correctness for fear of causing offence, that we can live in a more honest, integrated way," he says. "The people who discuss immigration are not necessarily racist. There are just as many Asian people who have a problem with immigration. It shuts the discussion up if you just brand him as a racist.
"There are ordinary people who feel there are too many Polish people coming in, for example, and we have to be able to discuss this with them."
But though he is comfortable in any form of discussion, he came to broadcasting through music. Growing up in Essex, where he felt threatened by local skinheads, he was drawn experimental sounds of early rap music at the age of 11.
For him, rap somehow represented his hybrid identity as someone of Sri Lankan descent growing up in England. "Rap music is music of the excluded," he says. "It was born in New York but it gave me a sense of being a Sri Lankan living in London. I didn't feel excluded in Britain but it gives a lot of people a voice.
"It goes back to being an Asian kid in a largely non-Asian school. I didn't feel I belonged to any one group, I was looking to find that group and it was through hip hop and rap culture that I found it. It gave me a sense of belonging somewhere here.
"Suddenly, hip hop made having pigment fashionable. Suddenly, the icons that kids were dancing to all had brown skin, they were African Americans and they were very cool. It helped me to feel proud of who I was. There are all kinds of cultural hooks speeding past you as you grow up, and you grab on and hang on to whatever you are drawn to when you are looking to find something that gives you a sense of your own identity and where you fit in in the world."
He was a music promoter, then a journalist then a DJ before finding real success as a music PR, working for artists as diverse as Nitin Sawhney, Judge Jules, Mos Def and Elton John. While representing the groundbreaking Asian record label, Outcaste Records, he promoted Badmarsh & Shris acclaimed Signs album, securing their appearance on Later with Jools Holland as well as Sawhney's Beyond Skin.
But radio has been the making of him. "I love doing it. I love the medium of radio. I happen to be a genuinely noisy person who is also a music junkie so radio is perfect for me."
Nihal presents the weekend breakfast show at 7am-10am on Radio 1.
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