For many of us, the COVID-19 lockdown turned out to be an unexpectedly productive and inspiring period. This was certainly the case for 22-year-old Hana Irene, a London-based music artist of part Kashmiri descent, who could probably show the rest of us with up with how she used her time — to finally sit down, plan and create her own music.
Like for everyone else, the arrival of the pandemic came as a huge shock to the system but it also provided a fresh opportunity to experiment with new sounds and genres. Writing an EP from her bedroom using just an iPad and a microphone, Hana has done it all — independently producing, writing and self-funding her own music.
Fusing storytelling is “part of her DNA” and Hana cites how her mixed heritage and upbringing have made her appreciate how cultures can blend and universal themes like love, sadness, longing, nostalgia and hope are expressed in both to tell a story. The lifelong influence of Bollywood has also shaped her creative output. She tells me:
When I was little, my grandma used to have on all the classic Indian films like “Hero” and “Laila Majnu,” which were all dramatic love stories that also placed a heavy weighting on music and dance to push the narrative along and emphasise a character’s love, pain or anger.
The “A False Story of Love” track, from her first EP “for the night drive,” which was essentially a club-style song, with sitar sounds included, that pays homage to the Indian cinema influence and is inspired by one particular iconic singer:
One artist I couldn’t get out of my head was Lata Mangeshkar — I just fell in love with her voice. When I was a little older, my mum showed me the 1960 film “Mughal-E-Azam,” which features a song called “Mohabbat Ki Jhooti Kahani Pe Roy” which explores the idea of a false story of love.
Beyond childhood inspirations passed down by her Nani, Hana’s Western musical cues are taken from summer lockdown evenings listening to The Beatles, Lana Del Ray and Hozier. The EP strives to capture the mood of a summer romance amongst the flowers, accompanied by portable vintage radios on picnic blankets.
Yet her music also pays homage to the more addictive habits that emerged in lockdown life; referencing her music artists Benee, girl in red and Surf Mesa, all of whom gained huge popularity via social media app TikTok:
If it wasn’t for lockdown, I wouldn’t have downloaded TikTok or had all this time to get inspired and want to try something new musically.
Social media is of course becoming an increasingly important aspect of our lives, particularly for an independent artist who relies on people sharing her work. Hana says she is lucky to have hugely supportive followers who lift her and her music up, as did the Twitter music community:
The pandemic did help in a weird way — more people were online every day and had the time to listen to things.
On the process of making music in her bedroom, on her iPad, Hana explains that she creates the music and base before writing the lyrics; trialing out drum kits, guitar and a range of new sounds to capture the indie mood of her work:
Once the music is done, I then have the timing sorted and the song-writing comes naturally. It will perhaps take me an hour or two to write the song.
Hana grew up writing poetry, so flow and rhyme feel second nature to her. She sends her final draft to a musician friend for the final polishes (all currently conducted virtually). Constantly experimenting with sound and genre, her musical mood changes according to the season and weather.
Before “Days In The Sun” in December 2019, Hana released “for the night drive” alongside two singles (all available on Spotify). This earlier music was inspired by artists like The Weeknd and Alina Baraz, taking on a more alternative R&B soundscape that is more melancholic to suit winter days, compared to the upbeat, lighter tones of her summer lockdown tunes. Hana has big aspirations for her music yet:
I would love to have my music featured on a Spotify Editorial Playlist or on BBC [Music] Introducing because I want to grow my audience and connect with people. I am also looking to do a few collaborations with other artists in my circle (a lot are from my time at university or friends of friends who are on the same path as me in that respect). Ultimately, I would love to be able to earn a living from making music and to perform live someday — just to grow more confident with this — and to understand how that side of things works logistically.
After graduating, Hana began working for an investment management company, combining her business acumen and creativity by doing marketing and SEO. But she also loves blogging and writing about music on her website (when she’s not exploring London or watching Netflix) and dreams of writing a novel or screenplay one day.
Hana feels lucky to have been supported and encouraged by her family to follow a creative path and wants other brown girls to experience the same:
My mum is probably my biggest fan (how cliché!). She would always tell me to pursue my dreams and keep going no matter what and would take us to see live concerts and introduce us to classic films and cult films, so that we grew up constantly inspired by new forms of creativity; be it with art, music, film or theatre.
My family are all incredibly supportive as well. My grandparents request to have my music played to them on the speakers and my cousins always share my music on their social media and get their friends on board too which is wonderful. Overall, it has been very positive and I am so grateful to all my friends and family who have kind words to say about my projects.
Hana appreciates that not all South Asian households are as supportive as her own and is open to fellow artists reaching out for discussion and support (DM her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook):
I can only imagine how much potential talent is out there and yet, we are never allowed to witness it. My own household was unconventional for a brown girl I suppose. My sister and I did grow up in a single-parent household, so there was also a massive emphasis on female energy and being independent as a woman, which I think has shaped me as a person considerably.
For now, Hana is working on a full album, which she hopes to release next year, with a new song to drop very soon. Her advice for other brown girls wanting to follow a creative path is fearlessness, learning from your mistakes, networking and being smart with your money.
Not everyone will support you, like your work or help you but there will also be people who love it and give you the best feedback, which will encourage you to keep going.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
Emily Harwitz is a journalist, photographer, and podcaster whose work focuses on making the outdoors a more inclusive place. Coming from a background in chemistry and ecology, Harwitz uses her knowledge to tell stories about the environment. She has written for many publications including High Country News, Hakai Magazine, Mongabay, Chemical & Engineering News, and more. Harwitz is an ambassador for Girls Who Click which is a nonprofit that empowers women to forge their paths in conservation photography. Her creativity does not stop there as Harwitz is also the host and producer of the Save the Redwoods League podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go.” Harwitz has explored a range of topics such as forest bathing, skateboarding, and building an inclusive community in the outdoors. Her stories do not stop there as Harwitz is always on the move looking for her next story. Continue reading to learn more about Emily Harwitz’s journey.
The term inclusion when it comes to the environment and outdoors does not always go together. How can we make the outdoors a more inclusive place?
The outdoors is inherently inclusive because, the moment you step outside, you’re outdoors, regardless of who you think you are. What needs to change is how we think about who is and isn’t “natural,” or what’s a “natural” way to behave. The natural way to be is however you are.
How have your personal experiences in nature affected the way you look at the rest of the world?
When I’m in nature, I feel the smallness of my being in the context of the bigness of the natural world. But the amazing thing is, when I slow down to look around, smell the air, touch the dirt, I feel like I’m a part of that nature, too. It’s really comforting to feel connected to something so vast outside myself. I no longer think it’s hoaky to say that appreciating nature’s beauty is spiritual for me. It just feels so good to look at water sparkling in the sun, or a dusting of purple and yellow flowers in a gently waving field of grass. Watching how animals and other creatures seem to flow through their landscapes is also a spiritual experience. How perfect they seem! And wow, I’m an animal, too!
This brings up some important questions: In what context do I exist that effortlessly? How can I foster that feeling for myself in my daily life? How can I foster that feeling for others? And how can I connect other people to that feeling of “I love being alive!”? That fuels so much of my work—wanting to share the feeling of what I experience in nature with others.
As you have covered many stories for various publications as a reporter, is there one that specifically calls out to you that you would like to expand upon?
I just wrote a story about biophobia, or the fear of nature, for Hakai Magazine and it got picked up by The Atlantic. I’m pretty stoked about that because this is a really important topic. The story’s about how certain aspects of modern life, like urbanization and the ensuing lack of daily nature experiences, are driving people to feel increasingly disconnected from nature. This not only impacts conservation, but also human health because nature provides so many benefits to physical and mental health. Here’s a good article introducing a growing body of research about the health benefits of nature immersion. Nature also provides the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, which I believe is an important thing to experience.
As someone who is in the field of environmentalism do you feel this influences you to follow a vegetarian or even vegan diet which is more supportive of animals from all walks of life?
Absolutely. Animals from all walks of life, I like that! I eat a pretty pescatarian diet and try to use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to look up the seafood I eat. I feel strongly about what I put in my body and where it comes from. Beyond the sustainability and health concerns of factory-farmed animals, I am deeply disturbed by the conditions animals are subjected to in factory farms. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. If you do know what I’m talking about and you’re still eating conventionally-raised factory-farmed animals, I’d urge you to take another look. We all exist in systems, though, and I know it can be hard for people to totally overhaul their diets—especially with things like ag-gag laws in the US blocking the spread of information about the conditions farm animals are raised in. It’s a privilege to even be able to consider where I’m getting my food from, considering the vast food deserts in the US and how inaccessible fresh produce is for many. So, my hope is for a growing collective consciousness about our food systems that eventually leads to regenerative agriculture that’s healthy for all of us on this planet.
Are there any brands we can support which push the message of inclusion?
How has Girls Who Click empowered you to get into the field of nature photography?
Girls Who Click connected me with an incredible filmmaking mentor, Dewi Marquis, who is also mixed Asian American. In addition to practical advice for film shoots, we’ve talked about work and life as women of color and the importance of listening to our own intuition during the creative process. Dewi’s involved with some great filmmaking organizations that I think the Brown Girl Magazine community would be interested in: Asian American Documentary Network, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, and Film Fatales.
As you have explored a range of topics on the Save The Redwoods League Podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go,” what are your plans for the newest season and how can we help support?
Thanks for this question! This new season is all about building community outdoors—hearing guests’ stories about how they started and grew their awesome community groups and organizations. My hope is that people can hear these stories and then go foster their own communities, wherever they are. All of our guests started with the desire to connect more with nature and others who can relate to their experiences as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ2S+ folks in the outdoors. If you identify with either or both of those categories, this podcast is for you! It’s by us, for us. The best way to support would be to listen, rate us 5 stars (if that’s how you feel), and share with friends. You can also follow the podcast on IG at @illgoifyougopodcast.
What is the Emily Harwitz starter kit for going camping or hiking?
I love this question! For hiking, aka a big walk outside, I always bring: a least one 32 oz. water bottle, a thermos of tea (oolong or green), a notebook or sketchbook, a pen or pencil. Sometimes I’ll bring a book that I don’t end up reading (how can I when there’s so much pretty nature to look at?), a tub of strawberries or other in-season fruit, my camera (currently shooting on a Sony alpha 6300 and a G200-600 lens). One of these days, I’m planning to bring my flute and a field recorder (Zoom H5). For going camping, I’d say: Make plans with a friend who already has lots of gear and likes to plan camping trips! Or there are lots of organizations that host camping trips you can sign up for. One day, I’ll go solo-backpacking, but I really enjoy camping with friends.
If you could go hiking with anyone in the world who would it be and why?
My Chinese grandpa who recently passed away. He loved nature, especially flowers, and I would love to go for a hike with to appreciate the beauty of nature together.
Who are your conservation heroes?
Personally: my grandmother who worked as lawyer to protect the environment in Florida, where I grew up. She introduced me to the whole world of conservation at an early age and I have so many joyful memories sifting through sargassum weed with her for tiny little shrimp and crabs, or looking for monarch caterpillars in the garden.
Thinking globally: Indigenous peoples around the world who steward and protect the lands they live on—including 80% of the world’s biodiversity. There’s growing recognition of this, and I hope to see more respect, protection, resources, and political action dedicated to Indigenous peoples who are doing this important work.
Do you feel that we will see a change and more representation in the outdoors?
Definitely! It’s already happening. Social media has actually been really beneficial in this regard because people can form their own communities online and share media and resources relevant to them. The outdoors industry is moving slower, but I’m seeing more initiatives to diversify marketing and such. The industry will have to adapt to include the people of the global majority if it wants to survive.
What do you see as the future for the outdoors?
Biodiverse (including humans!), inclusive, healthy, thriving, accessible experiences for adaptive skill levels. I am optimistic!
The sweet smell of petrichor, a cup of tea, and the redwoods. What more could you ask for?
True! Maybe an animal in the bushes nearby and a human friend to share it all with :)
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.