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Punjabi Munde and Urban Lovers: Transcultural Masculinities on the British Asian Music Scene

Published onJul 18, 2022
Punjabi Munde and Urban Lovers: Transcultural Masculinities on the British Asian Music Scene
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Abstract

Punjabi Munde and Urban Lovers: Transcultural Masculinities on the British
Asian Music Scene
Julia Szivak, Birmingham City University

This article discusses the star image of Jay Sean and Juggy D, two of the key performers of the British Asian popular music scene in the early 2000s by locating their star personas at the crossroads of South Asian diasporic culture and mainstream popular culture. By looking at a selection of audiovisual texts, I seek to identify the various threads that led to the development of a new image, exemplified by Jay Sean. I suggest that by drawing on a variety of cultural influences from traditional Punjabi masculinities to contemporary trends in Bollywood, as well as American and British mainstream popular culture, Jay Sean established himself as a new kind of Asian pop star, and one whose influence is visible today. In order to substantiate this claim, I look at contemporary artists, such as Arjun and Mickey Singh, and suggest that Jay Sean and Juggy D were trendsetters in terms of star image construction.

Introduction

Even though British South Asian music has been researched from a variety of perspectives with regards to ethnocultural identity formation, relatively little attention has been paid to gender in British Asian audiovisual culture.1 Following Gayatri Gopinath’s discussion of the ways in which the homeland is depicted in relation to the patriarchal family, and Rajinder Dudrah’s analysis of the subversive possibilities of gendered bhangra song lyrics, it was Falu Bakrania who presented a detailed analysis of British Asian diasporic femininities and masculinities with regards to music production and consumption.2 In this article, I look into a specific aspect of the relationship of British Asian music and gender: I analyse the ways in which masculinity is performed by two British Asian singers, Jay Sean and Juggy D, and suggest that Jay Sean has created an innovative musical persona that was influential in the global South Asian creative industries. I make use of Philip Auslander’s concept of musical persona to grasp the way in which these artists live and perform the role of the “new Asian pop star.”3 I suggest that, in the figure of Jay Sean, the British Asian music industry produced a new image of transcultural masculinity that I propose to call the “Asian pop star.” The image of the urban Asian pop star builds on a variety of tropes in popular culture, such as the Latin lover, the Bollywood heartthrob and the Punjabi rudeboy, and it creates a very specific, diasporic South Asian star text.4 This type of transcultural masculinity draws on a hybrid of British and Punjabi masculinities and has had a global impact, as we can see in the ways that this image is reflected in other diasporic South Asian cultures as well. 

In order to do so, I first provide a short introduction to the socio-historical circumstances of British Asian music and its consumers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Following this, I analyse some of Jay Sean’s music videos through textual analysis and close reading, and juxtapose his image with Juggy D, his contemporary who followed more established notions of performance traditions, such as the figure of the “cultured hard boy,” as elaborated by Falu Bakrania.5 I then look into the images of contemporary South Asian diaspora male performers, such as Arjun Coomaraswamy and Mickey Singh. By establishing points of connection and continuity between the different generations of performers, I support my claim that Jay Sean has established a new image for diasporic South Asian performers that is still influential today. 

The Golden Age of British Asian Music

Jay Sean and Juggy D, singers and performers from a British Punjabi background, came into prominence in the early 2000s. Both were discovered by British Asian music producer Rishi Rich, the convener of The Rishi Rich Project, an ensemble of artists that has provided a platform for a variety of upcoming British Asian performers, such as Mumzy Stranger, Veronica, H-Dhami, as well as Juggy D and Jay Sean. Both Juggy and Jay’s rise came during what can be considered one of the golden ages of British Asian music and culture for many reasons: the mainstream visibility achieved by bhangra through the work of Panjabi MC; the bustling bhangra and Asian Underground scene described in popular and academic literature; the success of films created by British Asian directors, such as Gurinder Chadha; and government initiatives such as “Cool Britannia” provided unprecedented exposure for British South Asian culture.6 Many saw this as the “arrival” of British Asian culture and people into mainstream popular culture, and the birth of the definitive sound of British Asian urban music.7 Rajinder Dudrah conceptualised this period of British Asian music as “post-bhangra” that built on the earlier fusion nature of British bhangra but was more heavily inspired by British and American Black musical forms, such as hip-hop and R&B.8 

During this time The Rishi Rich Project mostly recorded music that was produced by Rishi Rich himself. Rich continued the long tradition of fusing South Asian sounds, rhythms and instruments with a variety of Western musical forms to create a genre that is sometimes termed “urban Asian” music.9 He claims that his sound grew out of the musical and social environment of the London of his childhood and upbringing, as well as the history of his family and their migration from East Africa to the UK.10 While creating his signature musical style, he draws on the popular genres of the soundscape of London, such as R&B, hip-hop and garage, while referencing his South Asian cultural heritage. He often uses samples borrowed from Bollywood films or Punjabi songs, incorporates South Asian instruments, such as the algoze or the dhol, and occasionally inserts Punjabi or Hindi lyrics. Probably the most iconic example of Rishi Rich’s musical style is the 2003 track “Dance With You/Nachna Tere Naal,” released by Jay Sean and Juggy D.11 The song reached number 12 on the UK singles chart which led to The Rishi Rich Project performing on Top of the Pops on BBC One, a prestigious music chart television programme broadcasting live performances of the most popular acts of the week.12 Their performance on national television gave the group and its “urban Asian” style a wider audience and, as such, the Rishi Rich Project have been celebrated for bringing more attention to the British Asian music industry.13 

Despite the celebratory discourse put forward by the musicians and the industry with regards to the success of this track, the relationship between the British Asian music industry and the mainstream has been far from uncomplicated.14 The British Asian music scene has long been caught up in debates around the tensions of ethnic authenticity and modernity. Early studies of British Asian music, such as the work of Sabita Banerji and Gerd Baumann, looked at bhangra through the dichotomy of tradition and modernity, and argued bhangra’s audiences were caught up in the tension between the world of their immigrant parents and mainstream British society.15 Although later authors debated this perspective and showed how diasporic youth use this tension productively and forge their identities in ways that surpass this dichotomy, the conflict between the mainstream and the diaspora has remained a salient issue, in terms of music production, as well as in terms of identity creation.16

While there had been a number of artists, such as Apache Indian, Talvin Singh and the indie band Cornershop who received mainstream acclaim, as Falu Bakrania has discussed, these ventures were perceived by many as sacrificing ethnic authenticity on the altar of mainstream popularity.17 Further to this, the British Asian music industry’s relationship to the mainstream has also been caught up in issues of gender and sexuality, as such ideas often stand at the heart of debates about community identity. If we take a closer look at the historiography of British Asian music, it becomes clear that the British Asian music industry had a fraught relationship with ideas of masculinities. Rajinder Dudrah, for example, documented and analysed the much-criticised costumes and stage appearance of some of the early bhangra bands such as Achanak and Heera, who merged the traditional costumes worn for bhangra competitions in post-Partition Punjab with disco-influenced costumes of Bollywood heroes, a fusion that soon became unfashionable and outdated.18 According to Bakrania’s research, the stylistic choices of the early pioneers of British bhangra were dismissed by later generations on two counts: firstly, for being too feminine (stylistic choices inspired by the erstwhile disco-era such as white trousers, permed hair and sequined shirts); and secondly, for looking too rural (the derogatory term used here was “pindu,” or villager).19 

Consequently, Bakrania identified two archetypes of masculinity in British Asian music that enjoyed community support. She termed these archetypes the “cultured hard boy” and the “lad-like boy band.”20 Her example of the cultured hard boy was Panjabi MC, who demonstrated a familiarity with black culture, but chose to emphasise how rooted he was in his own culture. This image, and especially the associated machismo, resonates with the description that Anjali Gera Roy provided of an idealised Punjabi Jat masculinity, also often referenced in British Asian music making, where she suggested that this type of behaviour emphasises “violence, aggression, courage, emotional restraint, toughness and risk-taking.”21 Such themes often surface in Punjabi songs and popular music, especially bhangra. Nicola Mooney, meanwhile, has shown that, as a result of the internal and international displacement of Punjabis, referencing Jat identity subsumes a system of nostalgic connotations related to agriculture, rootedness, and power: “the essence of being Punjabi.”22 The performance of Jat identity is often also associated with violence, and contemporary Punjabi music videos often valourise the Jat gangster.23 Similarly, Juggy D would often refer to his Jat identity in his lyrics (for example, in the lyrics of “Billo”), although at this stage of his career expressed violence was not present in his oeuvre.

The lad-like boy band resembled traditional bhangra bands in its setup and music but constructed a mainstream image by its physical appearance and sartorial choices. Bakrania argues that British Asian male artists were in a difficult position, as they were expected to be traditional, but not too traditional, because tradition was thought to be the territory of women. Breaking into the mainstream meant being accepted into the national culture, but also posed a threat of “selling out” and sacrificing ethnic authenticity on the altar of whiteness.24

However, Jay Sean’s image does not fit in any of these categories, as he symbolises a departure from the lad-like boy band, having been framed as a solo artist for the majority of his career. He also displays an identity closer to mainstream audiences than his cultured hard boy counterpart, Punjabi MC, despite the cultural context of his earlier songs. If we look at his 2004 song, “Eyes on You,” we can observe that the song is firmly grounded in the British Asian context. It is addressed to a “brown-eyed beauty” who appears in the video in the form of a young, attractive British Asian woman. The setting of the video showcases typical British Asian cityscapes and scenes. Shot in Southall in London, the video mostly comprises of Jay walking through streets lined with South Asian shops and vendors. He is thus placed in the centre of the British Asian community. Additionally, other members of The Rishi Rich Project make appearances in the video, thus suggesting that Jay is also embedded in the wider British Asian music industry, while his participation in global South Asian cultures is hinted at as he walks up to a stand and checks out DVDs of Bollywood films. The melody also appeals to a wider range of BAME communities as it features the hook of the Persian-language song “Boro Boro” by the Iranian-Swedish singer Arash.25

Video 1. Jay Sean - Eyes On You.

Jayseanwordwide. “Jay Sean – Eyes on You,” March 6, 2009, accessed April 17, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8uztB31eUw.

Despite rooting Jay firmly within the British South Asian community, the song lyrics diverge from content normally expressed in British Asian or Bollywood music as it is more open in its sensuality. In this song, Jay makes implicit and explicit sexual references that frame the woman’s body as an object of desire, and that speak about his insatiable sexual appetite in a way that reminds the listeners of contemporary pop boy bands, such as The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and Latin lovers, such as Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias:

It's about time to get rowdy

Know I wanna work that body

Come, work it over here

You can be my brown-eyed beauty

And I bet you see right through me

You can do anything to me

Oh-oh, you’re so beautiful tonight anything is possible

But you know I just can't get enough.

Interestingly, the video also seems to confront the two dominant ideas of masculinity within the same frame. At the end of the track, two avatars of Jay Sean get into a fight over the right to approach the woman in the music video (Figure 1). One of the Jays is carefully groomed and styled, whose look is complete with red highlights in his hair. The other Jay is dressed in an urban apparel that is more reminiscent of Juggy D’s style. In the course of the battle, the stylish Jay sings the R&B-pop melody of the song, and the other Jay raps his response in a more hip-hop style. However, R&B Jay dismisses hip-hop Jay by singing “if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be on this track in the first place.” This could be interpreted as a reference to the earlier avatar of Jay Sean, who could not achieve success through his hip-hop influenced music, and needed the visibility of the later, more mainstream Jay Sean to appear in a popular music video.

Figure 1. Screengrab from Jayseanwordwide, “Jay Sean – Eyes on You,” March 6, 2009, accessed April 17, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8uztB31eUw

Such was the environment in which Jay Sean and Juggy D found themselves, balancing on the verge of the expectations of the mainstream and the British Asian music industry. Although The Rishi Rich Project also produced a fusion of cultural elements, I suggest it managed to strike a balance between tradition and modernity by incorporating both the traditional Punjabi munda, Juggy D, and the sleek urban Asian man, Jay Sean. By maintaining this duality, The Rishi Rich Project could appeal to a wide range of tastes on the British Asian music scene, as well as achieve some visibility in the British mainstream. In the following section, I will examine the role that the new kinds of masculinities represented by the members of The Rishi Rich Project played in this the current day.

“Dance With You/Nachna Tere Naal”: A Close Reading of the Aural and Visual Text

In order to substantiate the claim that Jay Sean signalled a shift in the creation of diasporic South Asian masculinities, we should turn our attention to The Rishi Rich Project’s first big hit, “Dance With You/Nachna Tere Naal.” 

To make sense of the construction of new Asian masculinities in the music video, I use Phillip Auslander’s methodology of analysing musical personae in music videos as elaborated in “Framing Personae in Music Videos.”26 There, he seeks to grasp the ways in which musicians create and perform their identities in music videos. Auslander takes a variety of issues, such as setting, manner and lyrics, into consideration and suggests that music videos are a productive field of enquiry if we seek to understand the musical persona of a certain artist, as the artist and their creative team have full control over the way the artist is presented that would not be possible in the case of a live performance as a result of a variety of external factors having a potential influence over the final outcome. 

We should begin the analysis by considering the setting of the music video. Auslander suggested that the “setting” - that is, the physical location of the performance depicted in the music video - reinforces the impression the artist seeks to project to the audience, which is further emphasised by the “manner” or behaviour of the performer in the framework of the music video.27 The video starts with the depiction of shabby-looking, locked-up shops, and security cameras surveying the deserted streets. It is Rishi Rich and the two singers who bring life to the scene when they set up the equipment and start playing their song. Black, brown and white youths from the neighbourhood congregate on the street to join them, and they dance and groove together. Jay and Juggy are the centre of the attention, performing as if they were participating in a cypher: standing in the circle of the onlookers, they deliver their lines in a dialogue-like way, hyping and supporting each other as the crowd cheers them on.28 Another scene further emphasises the centrality of the singers and the party: an expensive sports car passes through the neighbourhood during the party, but it is put in reverse, returns to the location and two attractive women emerge from it. One walks up to Jay purposefully and dances with him as if answering his call in the lyrics for a woman to dance with him. Later, Farid Abbas, the famous British Asian freestyle football player also appears and showcases his skills, which inspires awe in the onlookers.

Video 2. Dance With You/Nachna Tere Naal - Rishi Rich Project.

Faizan Khan z. “Jay Sean – Dance With You 720p HD,” June 11, 2011, accessed April 17, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15yeBLjFOR8

I suggest that the representation of the physical location of the music video is in line with the rhetoric of Cool Britannia, and establishes the London of the early 2000s as a melting pot of various communities.29 Moreover, the people who populate this scene reinforce this narrative. The fact that it is Rishi, Jay and Juggy who reinvigorate the empty streets suggests that British Asian music has the capacity to bring together other communities and can be the celebratory idiom of urban London cityscapes. Jay Sean and Juggy D’s personae are central to this image, as the way they are portrayed as central figures has bearings on the way their cultural product is represented. 

This is reinforced by the reception of the music and musicians in the video. The audience portrayed in the video, a racially diverse crowd, encourage Juggy and Jay as they participate in the cypher and perform Punjabi dance moves in the middle of a circle. In addition to channelling the vibes of an urban street party, the scene can remind Punjabi audiences of the traditional festivities in which men dance together and playfully compete on the dance floor. Later, the onlookers join in by imitating Juggy and Jay’s dance moves, thus placing Punjabi dance within the mainstream, urban culture. They then fuse the Punjabi steps with breakdance, demonstrating the compatibility of Asian moves with established genres of street culture. 

Examining the choreography of the music video is noteworthy from another aspect, as it adds to our understanding of Jay and Juggy’s relationship. Throughout my reading of the song, I suggest that each performer represents a contrasting side of British Asian masculinities. Between Juggy and Jay, it was Juggy’s appearance and star persona that drew on a more traditional perception of British Asian masculinity and could be categorised as the “cultured hard boy,” with his hoodies, sneakers, jeans, and spiky hairstyle reminiscent of the popular urban styles of the time (Figure 2). Apart from his steel bracelet, or kara, nothing alluded to his ethnicity or religion; he did not wear a Sikh turban or any other traditional Punjabi apparel. Nevertheless, his preference to sing in Punjabi, and his Punjabi folk-influenced singing style marked him as deeply rooted in Punjabi culture.

Figure 2. Album sleeve of Juggy D’s debut album Juggy D (2004).

Whereas Juggy’s image was fashioned along the lines of established modes of representation of the cultured hard boy, Jay Sean represented the new, English-speaking, R&B-singing Asian pop star. Jay Sean is lean, sleek and dreamy-eyed, and is reminiscent of the singers of contemporaneous band boys such as the Backstreet Boys. Juggy D, on the other hand, is short, stocky, and presents a more playful and rakish image, in line with earlier representations of the cultured hard boy, such as Panjabi MC. The juxtaposition of the new Asian pop star and the Punjabi munda, or lad, could show an intent to cater both to those members of the British Asian diaspora who prefer mainstream pop music and the modes of masculinity associated with it, and to those who prefer the traditional Punjabi musical style and its ideals of masculinity. 

  The music and the video certainly suggest that these two models are not mutually exclusive and, if fused well, they can prove attractive to a diverse audience, as evidenced in the multicultural crowd seen in the video and in the song’s success at reaching number 12 in UK singles chart. Further, the dance sequence where Juggy and Jay dance together can be read as a symbol of how two eras of British Asian music, and their contrasting models of masculinity, coexist and inspire each other, with the artists imitating and encouraging each other throughout the choreography. While Juggy teaches his dance partner, a black woman, Punjabi dance moves, and Jay performs a slow and sensual dance with his love interest, they also dance with each other, showcasing a mode of homosociality familiar in both British Asian and non-British Asian circles.

Within music videos, Carol Vernallis argues for the secondariness of lyrics by taking into account that not only are they often composed after the music, but singers also often employ various strategies to modulate their performance, such as speeding up or slowing down the tempo and changing the emphasis of words, thereby making lyrics less intelligible for the audience.30 Despite this argument, I suggest that in this case they are worthy of equal attention. The lyrics of “Dance With You/Nachna Tere Naal” are bilingual, sung in both English and Punjabi, and describe Jay Sean’s feelings of physical attraction towards a young British Asian woman. Since women often perform the role of accessories in the discourse of Punjabi masculinities, this could be a familiar trope for British Asian audiences.31 Similarly, the lyrics and the music video of “Dance With You/Nachna Tere Naal” places no particular attention on the personality of the woman, the song could be about anyone and everyone. The focus is on how the conquest of the woman reinforces the prowess of the two men. The woman has no agency, and the emphasis throughout the song and the video is on the desire of the men. 

The English lyrics are quite simple and straightforward, and the Punjabi lyrics are a direct translation of the English original. Parminder Bhachu, who interviewed both artists on the process of creating the track, wrote that the song was originally composed and sung in English, but when Juggy heard it for the first time, he started singing along in Punjabi. She cites Jay Sean saying that “it was two different voices, two different languages, two different cultures coming together in this one song.”32 The lyrics, along with the musical and visual world of the song, emphasise the coming together of languages and cultures mentioned by Jay Sean. As we have discussed, fusing Western and Punjabi popular music has been an important feature of British Asian music; however, the way this track fused the two worlds was seemingly aimed at mainstream audiences, as it is mostly sung in English, but contains just enough Punjabi influence to signal its difference.33

The way the song intersperses the R&B sound with Punjabi instruments makes it easy to consume for those who are not acquainted with British Asian music. Yet, it follows certain conventions of British Asian music-making so as not to alienate those looking for more traditional content. The sound of the song draws on the conventions of contemporary R&B music and peppers it with Indian stylistic elements. The track is based on steady, programmed beats combined with a repetitive, pop-influenced melody, and the hook is played by an Indian flute, the bansuri. In order to provide a more pronounced ‘urban’ feel to the track, it samples city noises, such as sounds of sirens and vehicles. The singing style of the two singers underscores the duality of urban and Punjabi sounds. After Rishi Rich introduces the two singers in a manner familiar from hip-hop tracks, the vocals are divided between Jay Sean and Juggy D. Jay sings in a melismatic style typical of contemporary R&B singing, with a lengthy rap insertion. Juggy then follows the high-energy performance tradition of Punjabi folk singing and employs scales common in South Asian music. The juxtaposition is even more apparent when considering language, with Jay singing in English and Juggy’s lines exclusively in Punjabi.

Through this analysis of “Nachna tere naal” we have observed the beginnings of the creation of a new musical persona on the British Asian music scene and its relationship to other figures on the scene. The Asian pop star personified by Jay Sean showcases a new set of skills and image while maintaining a friendly relationship with earlier modes of masculinity, represented by Juggy D. That Rishi Rich’s sound was in line with contemporary mainstream tastes and incorporated diasporic Punjabi elements helped him create this image. Moreover, the visual depiction of the members of the British Asian community suggested a new identity as well, one that placed itself in the centre of the narrative. The mainstream appreciation of the song by the multi-ethnic crowd in the video, as well as by the music world outside of the video, heightened the prestige of the song, the British Asian music industry, and by extension the entire British Asian community, as urban, cool and something to be proud of. The song and its diegetic and non-diegetic reception suggested a new understanding of what it meant to be a young and British Asian male.

New Asian Pop Stars Around the Globe

In order to throw light on the possibilities of new identity formations in both the British Asian and the global South Asian context, in this section I further analyse the image of Jay Sean through a close reading of his star image and music, and look at contemporary artists, such as Mickey Singh and Arjun, and suggest that they follow in Jay Sean’s footsteps.

Whereas Juggy D’s stage image was a continuation of the rowdy, boisterous Punjabi male stereotype discussed by Anjali Gera Roy, and was reinforced by the language of his lyrics and his off-stage persona, Jay Sean represented innovation, both in his artistic image and his musical style. During the course of his later career, his image shifted more towards what Georgina Gregory terms as “pop masculinity.” According to Gregory, male pop stars at the turn of the century tended to emphasise a variety of traits that would have been considered effete earlier. While describing various dimensions of pop masculinity, she highlighted certain traits that we can observe with regards to Jay Sean’s later musical persona, such as an expression of emotional vulnerability, a focus on the emotional side of romance as opposed to physical attraction, as well as heightened attention to his own physical appearance.34 We can observe striking similarities between his visual style and that of contemporaneous popular boy bands in the US and UK, such as *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Blue, that were immensely popular at the turn of the millennium. In addition to looking and behaving very much like a member of these bands, Jay’s fanbase similarly comprised primarily of adolescent girls.35 

Jay Sean’s lyrics contained frequent references to emotions and were often directly addressed to women. We can observe an example of this in Jay Sean’s 2004 single “Stolen,” where he sings about the pain he experiences as an underappreciated partner in a relationship. Interestingly, he is portrayed as the non-celebrity partner of famous Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu, thus subverting traditional gender roles. As he is shown to be subordinate to her both in terms of social status and celebrity, they conform to the trend of “cougars” and their young lovers becoming more visible in mainstream popular culture.36 Jay Sean fits the bill of the eye candy in the music video: he wears a designer suit with his shirt is unbuttoned, and his hair is carefully styled. In most of the scenes featuring Jay, we see close-ups of his eyes radiating pain and sensual shots of his lips, establishing him as the object of desire and a man with deep feelings of hurt. Nevertheless, the tension between traditional gender roles and the pop masculinity of the new lad is explored as he is not satisfied with his secondary role next to the successful woman. He takes revenge by cheating on her and reasserting his dominance over her on the battlefield of emotions.

Video 3. Jay Sean - Stolen

jayseanworldwide. “Jay Sean - Stolen,” March 6, 2009, accessed April 17, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUeTspHnymE.

While the song and the music video are in conversation with contemporary mainstream trends, they also place Jay Sean in the larger circuit of South Asian cultural production. Jay’s otherwise underplayed South Asian heritage is put in focus by his pairing with Bipasha Basu, the Bollywood actress.37 Moreover, he is positioned as a cultural insider, who understands Hindi, even if he replies in English. 

The music video thus establishes Jay Sean as a global South Asian heartthrob, something previously unseen on the British Asian music scene and something that was a novelty in Indian popular culture, as well. After the demise of the Indipop scene of the 1990s, the popular music scene in India had been dominated by Bollywood music, and the few artists who had maintained a presence outside of Bollywood projected a very different type of masculinity than the one Jay embodied.38 Sonu Nigam, for example, was more in the traditional image of a South Asian male singer. His singing style conformed to established norms heard in most Hindi films, and his image was also more of a platonic lover than the more sensual and mainstream image represented by Jay. The discovery, promotion and popularisation of Jay Sean by Rishi Rich created an archetype of masculinity that has since become a defining feature of diasporic music-making. This masculinity is closest to what Ajay Gehlawat termed as the aesthetic of the new-age Bollywood star, who possesses a “metrosexual masculinity – manscaping, muscularity and a more overt sexuality, among others.”39

We should also set Jay Sean’s image within the historical context of the developments in global South Asian culture, especially the developments in Bollywood. At the same time Jay was making this video, Bollywood was in the process of popularising a new kind of male star, best exemplified by Hrithik Roshan. His hairless, well-sculpted body that he showed off in complicated dance sequences offered a new depiction of masculinity to Bollywood’s audiences. Although Bollywood still used homosexuality as a source of humour - for example, in the film Dostana (Tarun Mansukhani, 2008) - appearances and behavioural patterns that would have been earlier considered as androgynous or feminine then began to be considered sought-after qualities.40

Consequently, the expectations towards other South Asian icons began to change, and even Jay had to adapt to keep up with this trend by putting increasing emphasis on bodybuilding. Whereas he had already broken with the image of the casually dressed Punjabi munda that he enacted during the early days of his career by donning shirts and suits in his early music videos, his image shifted towards more towards Latin lovers as he moved to the United States in 2008. From then on, he focused on establishing himself as a mainstream R&B artist and indicated no relationship to his South Asian roots in the majority of his tracks or in his artist persona. His global credentials were further reinforced by this to the extent that Parminder Bhachu contributes his success to “a new opportunity structure in [the United States] which he was not read as an Indian, nor reduced to an ethnic slot.”41

Therefore, I suggest Jay Sean represented a kind of transcultural masculinity on the British Asian music scene that could draw on a variety of cultural influences, such as new pop masculinities and the new Bollywood star but created a specifically British Asian masculine ideal. Jay Sean, the first British Asian pop star, could showcase the emotional vulnerability and stylistic choices of mainstream pop icons, therefore answering the call of the times and building an audience amongst South Asian women around the globe. I suggest that this created a new model of masculinity amongst the following generations of new diasporic artists. However, this did not bring about the demise of traditional modes of masculinities, and the dichotomy of the Punjabi munda and the Asian popstar still exist in today’s diasporic South Asian music production, as we are going to see in the next paragraphs.

In order to support the claim that Jay Sean established a new mode of masculinity in diasporic South Asian music production, we can look at two contemporary diasporic artists, British Sri Lankan singer Arjun, and Punjabi American singer Mickey Singh. I suggest that “Nachna tere naal,” together with its two competing images of masculinity, still serves as a role model in diasporic music-making that we can witness in the song “Tingo” (2019) by Arjun and Singh. The song is focused on the physical attributes of a desirable woman, the music video is set in a multi-racial environment, showcasing white, black and brown women as objects of desire, and it stars two male singers who represent a similar scope of masculinity as Jay and Juggy. Arjun has established himself as the emotional heartthrob. His tall, lean figure and muscular physique, combined with his sartorial and stylistic choices, make him comparable to a younger Jay Sean, and his stage image and social media persona are more in line with mainstream images of male beauty than South Asian ethnic features. His image reflects the neoliberal idea of beauty, with a toned, clean-shaved body that is put on display with deep cleavages and shirtless images, reminiscent of the new Asian pop star. All of his original songs have English lyrics that speak of his passion for girls or of his interest in partying, thus clearly focusing on a specific demographic of young Anglophone South Asian women.

Figure 3: Screengrab from Arjun Coomaraswamy’s Instagram profile. (2 May 2022)


Mickey Singh, on the other hand, represents the cultured hard boy. He prefers to wear sneakers, hoodies, baseball caps and more “urban” outfits, and uses his social media accounts to post pictures of his cars and his physical fitness routine (Figure 4). These posts are contrasted with others of him performing bhangra routines, while most of his songs are sung in Punjabi.

Figure 4: Screengrab from Mickey Singh’s Instagram profile. (2 May 2022)


Arjun and Singh’s collaboration, “Tingo also displays this duality. Here, Mickey sings in Punjabi and performs bhangra steps, while Arjun sings in English. Although this is only one example, the juxtaposition of the Punjabi munda and the urban British Asian has worked in other contexts as well, for example in another Arjun song, “Suit Suit,” in which he collaborated with Guru Randhawa, an up-and-coming Punjabi singer. Bollywood has also seen fit to pair the urban British Asian and Punjabi munda on many occasions, as it did in the 2017 film Hindi Medium (Saket Chaudhary), which included the Arjun/Guru Randhawa song to demonstrate the coming together of the globalised and traditional India.

The care and attention that these artists give to their appearance in terms of physical fitness, style, grooming, and the way they then present themselves on social media platforms is a key element in the nurturing of their public images. All of them post frequently on Instagram and Facebook, and they often share images that are not strictly related to their musical output. For example, they may post pictures of themselves in their “outfit of the day,” which was carefully chosen to enhance their styled images and showcase their physical features.

Figure 5. Screengrab from Arjun Coomaraswamy’s Instagram profile. (2 May 2022)

Like Jay Sean, these artists align themselves with global fashion trends, and most often, even their music is shaped to follow the mainstream musical trends. Most often it is the language of the music that sets them apart from mainstream English-language pop music: Mickey Singh and British-Pakistani singer Zack Knight frequently sing in a mixture of Punjabi and English; Arjun sometimes mixes words like “habibi” into his lyrics that are directed towards his BAME listeners, and he sometimes collaborates with artists like Guru Randhawa, Tulsi Kumar or Vidya Vox, who sing their portions in Punjabi, Hindi or Tamil.42

Thus, we could argue that Arjun, Mickey Singh and their ilk follow the footsteps of Jay Sean and represent a new generation of Asian popstars, who are very much in step with the contemporary trends in fashion and music. They project the musical personae of globalised South Asian idols that represents the shifting identities within the global diaspora.

Conclusion

By looking at the image of Juggy D and Jay Sean the video for “Nachna Tere Naal,” I suggested that these artists represented a new type of transcultural masculinity that left a lasting impact on the way in which male diasporic South Asian singers construct their star images. Throughout the paper, I suggested that The Rishi Rich Project reinvented British Asian masculinity and created a new model for the Asian pop star. This process was exemplified by Jay Sean, who could be viewed as representative of a new kind of masculinity, one influenced by contemporary global trends in popular culture, especially by the popularity of American boy bands, the rise of Latin popstars, and the shift towards new masculinities in Bollywood cinema. In keeping with these global changes, Jay Sean introduced a new sort of British Asian masculinity that appealed to those audiences who wished to see British Asian artists following in the footsteps of mainstream pop icons while also appealing to the globalised notions of Punjabi identity and retaining an occasional hint of Indianness, a nod to his original audiences by collaborating with his earlier bandmates or appearing at British Asian events.43

This argument was also supported by our look at certain contemporary diasporic artists who followed Jay Sean and who projected an aspirational image, one quite removed from the traditional image of the bhangra musician, yet one that was transnational and transcultural. The fact that this type of male image is still popular within the South Asian diaspora leads us to believe that these transcultural masculinities have tapped into larger cultural processes, and that their lasting impact can be found in creating a globalised, mainstream and hip identity that remained in touch with South Asian roots, and yet also kept in touch with global, contemporary trends.

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Biography

Julia Szivak is an Assistant Research Fellow at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest, Hungary. She has recently completed her PhD at the School of Media and English at Birmingham City University, UK. Her thesis examines the transnational networks of Indian music production with a focus on the intersection of Punjabi and Bollywood music. Her research interests include South Asian cinema and music.


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