Writing this article for me is definitely not an easy task. I’ve started it a few times and not been able to follow through. Initially, I didn’t think being an ethnic minority affected me. However, the more I thought about it, the more I became aware of the implicit bias which I believe exists within the music industry today.
Many may feel it's too taboo to talk about. Being a young mixed race (half-English, half-Pakistani) Muslim woman growing up in London, I’ve always felt privileged to experience a mixture of cultures around me and in the music industry - but this got me thinking: could I be a subject of white privilege due to my skin colour, despite being mixed? Henceforth, this article is about the journey of understanding the subconscious messages in the music industry and how to conform to what’s viewed as commercially viable, whilst not losing who you are in the process.
My journey started when I was 12. I had an epiphany moment where I realised from a local music event that this is what I wanted to do with my life. Early on, a big motivating factor was that I could try to ‘make the world a better place’ through music and try to spread peace and love using the art as a medium.
I developed for many years behind the scenes and put out my debut single Spread the Love in 2016, co-written with Manovski which went to top three in the Music Week Charts and was debuted by Capital Xtra. Since then I have gone on to release two further singles and my debut EP coming out this year Unveiled, of which two singles are released already; Green Eyes and Outsider.
This year I have the honour of being a BBC Asian Network’s Future Sounds Artist 2020; it is great to have a world-renowned network supporting my ethnicity as a positive when in the past, I have experienced more negativity for being “different”.
From when I was 14 to around 18 years old I was making music that in retrospect, other industry officials wanted me to make. This was very much clean pop. This could be a case of professionals feeling it’s easier to break a new artist with a sound that’s been done before as opposed to something new. Some people don’t understand that and want to guide my music in the direction that they perceive me visually to make, or maybe just what they think will work like a formula for success - but it’s impossible to do that. Whilst it always takes time to develop your sound, I knew early on I wanted to integrate my heritage into my music, although that wasn’t really understood by everyone. I ended up leaving my old management as they said they “didn’t really know what to do with me.”
The new genre I’ve gone on and rediscovered my sound I’ve coined as 'Bolly Beats': mixed R’n’B with South Asian elements. Interestingly now I have a female ethnic minority for my A&R so this got me thinking, am I more comfortable expressing my ethnicity to someone who is also an ethnic minority, even though we are from completely different ethnic backgrounds?
In relation to appearances, there are famously many music artists who have used skin bleaching or lightening products and such like, to make themselves seem more ‘popular’ or fit within pop culture. Such products are very popular and common in South Asia which as I describe in detail in recent podcast by Raang (a charity trying to crack down on bleaching products), this is still a big issue within pop culture. However, I would like to believe in the age we live in these days, this it is more about hard work and persistence as opposed to looks and appearance.
The Japanese have a famous saying: that you have three faces. The first face you show, you show to the world. The second face you show to your family and friends. The third face you never show to anyone: this is the truest reflection of who you are. I honestly believe we have to try to stay true to our third face and embrace who we are and where we are from. Maybe it will be tougher for me now, being a South Asian artist breaking through the Western markets, but hopefully it will make it easier for generations to come.
All in all, I don’t believe this bias is something that’s being done on purpose. Ultimately, creativity is intertwined with originality so, to be able to make my own music I have to be truly myself. As a young dynamic artist, I need to not care how some people may view how I fit into the music industry due to my background. Even though I believe there is an implicit bias based on not necessarily being an ethnic minority but on how you look, this can be overcome with talent and hard work.
To learn more about Shaima, follow her on Instagram @shaima or check out her official website, www.shaimamusic.com!