Nikesh Shukla (otherwise known as ‘Yam Boy’) is a solo and collaborative rap artist from North-West London. His work has been showcased on BBC2, Radios 1 and 4, and he has performed at numerous festivals, including the London Mela, Big Chill, Respect and Glastonbury 2005. He also writes prose fiction and performance poetry, and has been involved in community outreach projects designed to promote poetry “as a medium for communicating what it means to be young and Asian in Britain today”. He reads frequently at live slams, and has just completed his first collection of short stories, I’ve Forgotten My Mantra, alongside a full-length novel. His first solo album, Gujarati Yam Boy, came out in 2004 to great critical acclaim in both the Asian and the hip-hop communities, and he has since teamed up with Birmingham based producer and beat-mixer Nurul Kabir (‘Goonda Raj’) to create two further releases : Maad Ethics (2004), and The Hunger (2006). They describe their sound as “World music with a twist of hip-hop and reggae and a dash of poetry”; “a huge melting pot of influences” that extends to embrace artists and genres as diverse as Rabindranath Tagore and Tom Yorke. Shukla also works and records with The D’Archetypes, a rap collective whose projects typically involve collaboration between a number of artists, and he is well known on the underground musical circuit in London. He is currently on sabbatical in Kenya, where he is working on a new solo album and completing a book of poetry commissioned by the Arts Council.
Shukla’s cultural background is African/ Indian, and his often irreverent lyrics are testament to the difficulties and complexities of growing up with mixed inheritance in an increasingly (if not always tolerantly) multi-cultural Britain. Identity is a central concern of many of the songs and, combining youthful outspokenness with an interest in traditional sounds, he has been described as “a spokesperson for the British Asian” – whether that be in terms of the slow, continuous awareness of roots eroding over the generations, or of more immediately urgent topics like race bias in the London Met. His songs are passionately up-front about contemporary war-mongering and the burgeoning racism of post-9/11 Britain, and they refuse to shy away from or give ‘polite’ treatment to the things that communal consciousness prefers to understate (‘If Only All Policemen Were Cuddly’, for example, details with often gruesome intimacy the experience of violent arrest on the basis of skin colour). But whilst his music is avowedly “experimental” and “uncompromising” – sometimes consisting of little more than a torrent of edgy lyrics accompanied by minimal beats – it also shows a deep love for and attention to the simpler facts of everyday existence as a British Asian.
Identity clearly has its thorny and confusing manifestations, and both Shukla and Kabir describe Maad Ethics – an album which “spans two continents and four different countries” and which, perhaps tellingly, was “conceived mostly online” – as an effort “to understand and contextualise their dual identities”; one kick-started, specifically, by first-time visits to India and Bangladesh, and the experience of being ‘Non-Resident’ natives in their countries of origin. But there is also a winning comedy and warmth to his representations of the familiar contours of the world in which he does reside – one which, however displaced, has as much right to be regarded as a real ‘home’ as any other – and a spiritual twist colours much of the work on which he has been involved with the D’Archetypes, a collective whose name and structure are in themselves indicative of the need for elasticity in the formation of identities. Shukla’s own lyrics spill over with the pleasurable exoticism of language sounds in, for example, the endless listing of foodstuffs, and he revels in the quirkier symbols of his own cultural heritage: “Ford Cortinas” rub up against and rankle with the shrilling of the East is East-esque “cousin Rita”, that irrepressible arbiter of ‘sticking with your own’; the relative who never thinks her relatives’ kids are ‘Indian’ enough. And the egalitarian principle of rhyme is exploited to often hilarious effect, as things as wildly disparate as “Teste davis cum sibilla” and a “council estate stocking filler” are yoked together with no apparent discrimination: the “treasures of the mystics” are “downloaded onto memory sticks” in songs which, unsure of their own cultural boundaries, are impishly disrespectful of the very concept of defining limits; of the possibility of things belonging in one fixed place.
If there’s an element of riotous confusion, or ‘chaos’ to this depiction of the post-modern inheritance, however – a sense in which we “know too much”, and in too scattered a way, “to be anything any more” – it also has its spiritual undertow in a voiced concern with both the limiting effects of perceived identity on consciousness in the present day, and, simultaneously, with the sense of drifting away from precisely those things from which emigration severs the individual, but which still form a significant element of his/ her historical self. Whilst the songs plead for breadth – for “religion”, rather than “fundamentalism”, and for a tolerance and making room for everything that co-exists in the modern world (or ‘Flexistentialism’, as one of the D’Archetypes’ songs dubs it) – they also hanker back towards those older inheritances which, although a vital part of the equation of selfhood, may often be seen to get ‘lost in translation’ and which, handled and appreciated properly, can actually serve as aides to, rather than deliverers out of, the mutual understanding so visibly lacking in a world of skin-deep comprehension.
Shukla’s rhymes fuse old and new: classical religious concepts jostle for space, and operate as part of an amorphous indivisible whole, with the comic perturbations of first generation Indian immigrants, ‘Fresh off the Boat’, eager to make use of the “finest education system in the world”, but yet appalled that its progenitors “wipe their arses with their left hands.” And in The Hunger (his most recent EP with Goonda Raj) and his collaborations with The D’Archetypes, haunting melodies played by classical violinist Dr Jyotsna Srikanth work in tandem with the more recognisably avant-garde (though no less spiritual) feel of hip/trip-hop instrumentals and backing beats to create a rich and appealing fusion suggestive of the possibility of bridging numerous inheritances.
Shukla’s work may focus mainly (though not exclusively) on the politics and issues surrounding the status of second or third generation British Asians – a territory which he rightly feels to have been insufficiently explored and voiced by contemporary art – but its message is by no means confined to this specific context, and its efforts should perhaps be seen as microcosmic paradigms of better modes of co-existing in general. As ‘Bush’ wrestles with ‘Al Qaeda’ for the top spot on the list of most over-used words in common parlance at the present time, it seems reasonable to suggest that we could all benefit from the power of a little (con)fusion.
Nikesh Shukla (Yam Boy) is a writer, rapper and Saved By the Bell enthusiast caught between the cityscapes of Bombay and the green and pleasant land of London. His writing and music have been featured on BBC2, Radio 1 and 4, Resonance fm, Tell Tales and he has performed at Apples and Snakes, Soho Theatre Royal Festival Hall and Glastonbury in his quest to destroy the perfect metaphor. He recently completed his first collection of short stories, I´ve Forgotten My Mantra, and records under the name Yam Boy, and with the group The D´Archetypes, alongside Shane Solanki. He has curated his own night at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton (Chapati), taken his acoustic material to the USA to perform in the Planet Hip-Hop festival and toured India extensively with the D´Archetypes. He has been funded by the Arts Council on various projects and has participated in the project Espirro!, a special commission for London Mela 06, alongside a visiting artist from Portugal. He took part in Stratford East´s 10 Poet Jam in 2004 and was featured on BBC´s British Asian cultural magazine show, Desi DNA. 2007 sees Nikesh taking a sabbatical in Mombasa, Kenya, the birthplace of his father, so he can finish writing his first novel and a collection of poetry.