Sarathy Korwar grew up in Ahmedabad and Chennai in India. He began playing tabla aged 10, but was also drawn to the American music that he heard leaking through the doorway of his local jazz music shop and on the radio (Ahmad Jamal and John Coltrane were early discoveries).
Zia Ahmed grew up in North West London. He is a London Laureate, previously shortlisted to be the Young Poet Laureate, former Roundhouse Poetry Slam champion, Paines Plough Channel 4 Playwright in Residence, and toured his debut play ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ around the UK to critical acclaim.
Formidable and funny, the duo are now collaborating together on a new musical project. We spoke to Korwar about their new track ‘Turner on the 20’, diasporic music, racism, and transcending race as creatives who happen to be brown.
How did your collaboration with Zia Ahmed come up?
I saw a spoken word piece on YouTube. He was doing a piece called Mango. This was like 2018. I asked him if he’d like to feature on a couple of tunes on my album. At the time, I was making an album, which I put out last year. It was about showcasing various Asian voices, both from India and the rest of South Asia. It’s about diasporic voices, driving home the point that there is no real one brown voice.
I thought that Zia just really encapsulated everything I loved about the British diasporic experience of just being from London.
What was the inspiration behind Turner on the 20?
‘Turner on the 20’ is a track made in response to the ideas presented in an online review of my album More Arriving. It stated, “As a protest record, surprisingly enough, More Arriving falls short of its high standards due to bland generalizations, such as ‘which racist do you want on your bank note? ‘And not least because the English painter J.M.W. Turner – the new face of the £20 note – campaigned for the abolition of slavery.
People’s discomfort with questions like, ‘Which racist do you want on your bank note?’ and ‘Britain is racist’ shows an incapacity to admit and acknowledge one’s own privilege and complicity in crimes committed. We (Zia and myself) are challenging the notion that because Turner has been officially celebrated, we should no longer be calling out the racism that the economy of Britain has historically been built on.
This track is our effort to question the knee-jerk defence to today’s racist climate put forward by often well-meaning people. We hear this opinion too often – “We can’t paint the entire country with the same brush” or “We aren’t all racist, so don’t call Britain racist!”. The only position on this is to say – racism exists. It existed in the past. It exists now. This country was built on the back of racist policies. We need to continue calling it out and dismantling the structural racism that still exists.
The song also mocks the idea that “Things are better than they were before, so stop whining about racism all the time”. Now we are woke to racism, so things can’t be the same right? The notion that racism was a problem in the 70s with the National Front but now things are different (i.e. better) is misleading. For the most part, all it does is nurture the status quo and prevent any meaningful change from happening.
Can you talk us through your music making process, and working with Zia on that?
It very much came from the team and the lyrics. We knew what we wanted to say so it was about me then going into the studio and recording a bunch of drums and synthesizers, and just building a track around the lyrics. So much came from the theme of the tune that was already decided. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way, sometimes it comes from instrumental music and then the theme or lyrics develop from that. With other tracks I’ve done with Zia, there was already music in place and then he recorded his voice over it.
What is the message? If you could just sum it up in like one sentence.
The message is that structural racism exists more than ever. And it’s important to acknowledge it.
How do you want people to feel after listening to the record?
The fact that we’re having these conversations about whether racism exists is completely useless and a real waste of time, because we could be doing more important work. I hope people understand that. The pettiness of it and how ridiculous it is.
I think it’s important that South Asians or any people of colour take the conversation into their own hands and make fun of these kinds of ideas. That’s what I love about Zia, his humor, the idea that he doesn’t really play the victim in any sort of way, and he just takes it on and makes things funny, which I really appreciate. I think that’s very empowering. And to see other people, even just seeing brown people with a sense of humor is so important to us.
How crazy is it that you wrote this satire of racism and the 20th century, before George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matters movement, and now old British colonial statues are being taken down?
The track was made in March. We said we’d put it out on 5th June, but the week before that happened, George Floyd was murdered. And suddenly the communal conversation was going to police brutality in the US and Black Lives Matter. We’ve been in a position where the track was going to come out on the first Friday of the movement really gathering steam. I was in two minds about putting it out, because at one level I thought, yes, this is something that will maybe add to the conversation. But I also felt it could detract from the conversation. And with the emphasis really having to be on Black lives, I felt to stand as an ally would be to not put something out immediately, and let Black voices amplify the idea. I didn’t want to be seen as profiting from them.
Bandcamp donated their share of the money to the NAACP Defense Fund in the US, and we’re putting all our money into the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. We’re part of this and also complicit equally. Nowhere in the track are we really saying anything about South Asian racism. But there’s two brown guys in the video and we talk about race. It’s about that and it’s about our lived experiences. So, yeah, it is being very aware that the focus needs to be on Black lives right now, of course.
Before I moved to the UK, I come from quite a privileged background, athletic, middle, upper middle class, like Hindu upper caste background in India. Racism was very much anti-Black, expedient to whiteness and colonial legalism and the empire growing up in India. But it was never really part of my life. I grew up with brown people everywhere, so I was never a minority.
In the last 10 years, I’ve really understood my place in the UK. There’s a very interesting power dynamic to try and place myself within, understanding South Asians, and how they fit into the race game. Over time I’ve become more political with my music for two reasons. One is I’ve become more confident and able to share my story. It’s a survival strategy at some level. It’s like if you don’t talk about race, somebody else is going to talk about it, build your narrative for you. In a way, all the reading and all the thoughts you have about race in general are built on the fact you’re a minority in this country. The fact that somebody can say, why don’t you go back to where you’re from? And you have to answer to that, you’re constantly preparing a defense.
What else would you be talking about if you weren’t talking about race?
I love sports. I watch a lot of sport. I play a lot of cricket and tennis and football. That’s my guilty pleasure. It’s also a question of what would I have pursued. Like what interests would I have pursued if I wasn’t spending or dedicating so much time to understanding race or or spending time on survival strategies?
If you’re from an ethnic minority background, you become a spokesperson for your race which you never really intended to be. People come to me and ask: “What do you think of Black Lives Matter?” Why are they asking me? Stop and ask Black people. I just want for people to understand that there’s more to us than race.
And what’s next? What are you working on?
I’m writing a lot and I’m going to soundtrack this story that I’m writing, for lack of a better term, sort of Indo Futurist. If you can’t imagine a reality that’s better than the one you’re in because you’re constantly talking about race, then the focus needs to shift to envisioning futures that are possible beyond the realms of this very narrow idea that we live in. That’s the only way forward as artists. We have that facility to imagine futures, different paradigms outside of the one we live in. That’s what I want to spend my time and energy focusing on at the moment. Positive futures coming out of this whole thing.
You can purchase ‘Turner on the 20’ from Bandcamp Download Here
All proceeds from the sale of this track will be donated to The Stephen Lawrence Charity Trust. www.stephenlawrence.org.uk
Follow Sarathy for updates on live shows and new releases on his website www.sarathykorwar.com or on his socials.