Dance music collective Daytimers: ‘Brownness isn’t a hype – it’s who we are’

The dancefloor is rammed with people of all colours and creeds shuffling for space as the carnatic drum beat begins. At the decks, turbaned Sikh men and others in kurtas dance beside the outstretched hands of women wearing salwars, lehengas, bangles and sneakers reaching into gun fingers. A wheel-up is pulled in seconds.

This wild reaction was for a DJ set in early August by Yung Singh, who curated a lineup on the digital music platform Boiler Room with fellow members of Daytimers, a new collective of British south Asian creatives. To kick things off he played an edit made for the occasion. The sweet vocals of Panjabi MC and Sarvjeet Kaur’s Kori, a modern take on an old giddha – a type of Punjabi folk song performed by women at auspicious occasions – came first. Then entered Benga and Coki’s dubstep classic Night, which has one of the most recognisable lead melodies in contemporary electronic music. A clip of the drop went instantly viral.

“People were going crazy,” Singh tells me on a video call one week on. He is humble and reserved, but on remembering the euphoria he can’t wipe the smile off his face. Within 48 ure, Coki and Panjabi MC had reposted it on their Instagram stories. Dance music site Resident Advisor awarded him mix of the day – for the second time, after his Punjabi Garage mix back in October 2020 – while Brit Asia TV shared it on their social media channels. It bridged musical echo chambers, connecting native yet distant strangers.

“It’s people who don’t know about south Asian culture finding out about it, and south Asian people finding out about underground music,” Singh continues. “Nowhere else would I have been able to do that set. We grew up listening to those two worlds.”

The Daytimers’ takeover of Boiler Room could be a tipping point in UK youth culture, where a new generation of British south Asians have had enough of being overlooked by the gatekeepers – be they promoters, journalists or keyboard warriors – of underground music. “It was like a volcano erupting,” explains Riva, another DJ and core member. “It was this sense of relief. We’ve been dying for it.”

Over recent decades, the south Asian diaspora has helped to build DIY sounds such as jungle and garage while pioneering been-and-gone movements such as “Asian underground” and UK bhangra. DJ Bally Sagoo gained popularity fusing dub reggae and hip-hop with Indian music across the 1990s, producer Talvin Singh won the Mercury prize in 1999, and there was worldwide appreciation for Panjabi MC’s 2003 hit Mundian To Bach Ke (Jay-Z jumped on a remix of it). But despite these achievements, and societal progress elsewhere, many young children of immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh still struggle to fully represent their roots while navigating the most cutting-edge parts of UK music culture. Daytimers want to change that.

“If south Asian culture is on show, it’s often very stereotypical or gentrified,” says Yung Singh, who grew up in the Midlands. For decades, popular television shows from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum to Citizen Khan have rehashed damaging age-old narratives about south Asian immigrants being particularly docile or well-behaved, which Singh describes as a “cultural hangover” from British colonialism.

“It’s hard to be authentically south Asian, or in my case Sikh and Punjabi, without being seen as ‘other’, or pigeonholed; too often we’re painted as just hard-working people. And if we ever break from that norm – be it doing music, or rebelling against societal pressures – it’s seen as problematic. So this idea of navigating the creative industries for brown people is a balancing act: of being genuine and running the risk of being frozen out, or pandering to the white gaze and then not being genuine.”

“We are challenging that notion of the studious, soulless south Asian sitting at home listening to Bollywood tapes,” says Rohan Rakhit, an actor and DJ who was selected by Singh to play at the Boiler Room event. “Everything we’ve done to date is a form of protest, that’s the only way you can get to be on any sort of level playing field.”

Daytimers was born in the long, introspective pause of the first Covid lockdown last year. “I felt like I was on my own, that there wasn’t anyone who looked like me,” explains Provhat Rahman, a DJ and producer from east London, who founded the group. “Knowing that we all come from such a rich culture in the arts that spans back millennia, it seemed ridiculous.”

At the end of 2020, the collective released a compilation of music, DT001; in June, they released DT002, raising thousands of pounds for Covid relief in India. On top of promoting on Instagram, the team are managing their rapid growth via social media platform Discord and growing every week, met meer as 200 members from across the world. Supporters are mostly in their early- and mid-20s, from a spectrum of ethnic and religious backgrounds, as well as creative disciplines.

Conversations about racial equality and decolonising the public sphere have become louder since George Floyd’s death last year. These have motivated many young British south Asians to support Black protest movements, but also to become “inspired by that to push our own progress as a people,” explains Provhat. This cross-pollination between the efforts of ethnic minority groups standing up for themselves is comparable to when Black Caribbean and south Asian communities united in the 1970s and 1980s, in the face of hostility from National Front skinheads and police-backed state violence. The era resulted in strong, collaborative anti-racist campaigns as well as shared musical and artistic subcultures that last to this day: Punjabi classic car collectors in the diaspora hub of Southall, west London, where race riots erupted in 1979, still blast dub reggae from their speakers as a sonic nod to the protests upheld by their ancestors alongside Black communities.

Daytimers’ name refers back to the daytime raves thrown in the 1980s and 1990s across cities including London, Birmingham and Bradford: a new social realm made by and for British south Asian music fans trying to evade the strict traditions of their parents and discriminatory door policies of nightclubs, where new identities could be freely explored. Many younger millennials and members of generation Z now have older siblings and cousins who attended them. They hold a pure and nostalgic, even folkloric, significance in desi households.

“They were a form of protest,” Provhat continues. “It is about fighting back against a space that has never really given us the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Farmer protests against new agriculture laws exploded across India in November, with an estimated 250 million people participating across the world – the biggest protest in human history. Pioneered by families in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, it gave added international impetus to Daytimers’ revolutionary spirit. In Maart, with no budget and only a few weeks of coordination, they organised a 24-hour livestreamed DJ set to raise money for Khalsa Aid, an organisation supporting farmers in India. It was listened to by members of the diaspora all over the world, who gathered in the comments section to share outbursts of appreciation and relatable stories.

“There is a level of questioning and challenging the status quo that’s not just external, about the underground music scene or the western world we live in, but internal, ook,” says Riva. “The cultures we are coming from are mostly conservative. Women are told to sit in a corner and not be celebrated; if you’re queer, you don’t have a place in our society. So there is an element of us looking introspectively and saying: reg, what are the best bits about our culture that we are going to carry forward? How are we going to create space for people who are being rejected?”

Acclaimed composer Nitin Sawhney, wie se 1999 album Beyond Skin was from an era when rave-led electronic genres like drum’n’bass and classic Indian instrumentation merged out of pre-millennium British multiculturalism, rejected the “Asian underground” label as a lazy suppression of the diverse art being made. The Daytimers team are similarly determined not to let their momentum be slowed by a music industry that has historically tried to box in artists like them.

Rakhit and Singh both point out that, in the days leading up to it, even the Boiler Room lineup was misadvertised as a “UK garage revivalist” night. “It was the music industry trying to pigeonhole Yung Singh, weereens, as being this UK garage god, but musically he is everywhere,” Rakhit says.

Op Saterdag 28 August the team celebrated their first anniversary. Volgende, they have paired up with events series No ID and media organisation Chalo – which also exist to champion British south Asians – to throw a day-and-night festival on 11 September called Dialled In. “We don’t want this to be a phase,” concludes Provhat. “We understand how this industry works, it will jump on anything that is a bit of a hype at the moment and play with it while it’s fun, then discard it afterwards. Whereas you can’t do that with an identity. Brownness isn’t a hype, it’s who we are. It needs to touch the community as a whole – that’s the only way it can stick around.”

Yung Singh finished his Boiler Room set by playing Dr Zeus, MC Shortie and Master Rakesh’s 2003 hit Kangna – a fusion of garage, hip-hop and bhangra, with a Punjabi singer and a Jamaican MC from the Midlands working side-by-side. Watching the live stream back, you can see Singh wipe tears of joy from his eyes, curl his moustache and hug other Daytimers members.

“It really means a lot to a lot of people,” Singh reflects proudly. “We’ve changed perceptions, and that’s … I can’t articulate how powerful that is.”

Dialled In is held on 11 September, Uplands Business Park, London E17.

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