I first came across KERFEW – a collective of Australian-South Asian individuals carving out a space for outliers in the Australian art scene – on Instagram. At first, I was intrigued by their distinct and colourful graphics (led by KERFEW members, Cardamom Boy and Neil Kumar) that referenced myriad influences from the collectives’ cultural heritage to promote their artists and events.
A good 20 minutes of scrolling later, I found myself bingeing all 8 episodes of their radio show on Nomad Radio. They discussed their many interlacing identities and how it impacted their artistry. They explored the distinct differences between being Bengali or Sylheti, community disapproval and being Muslim in dance music, love and coming out in religious families. They contemplated their differing opinions, played music and drew from a personal archive and experience incredibly unique to them.
It all started on a Whatsapp group chat, Sydney-based DJ and radio host Deepa explains. “The Daytimers UK stuff happened. I was sharing it. I could see other South Asians sharing it with captions like, ‘I can’t wait for this to happen in my city.’ I’d be replying to them, they’d be replying to me. And then, I thought that’s it. I added around 30 of these people to a group chat.”
Soon, a space for sharing gazelles and hardcore South Asian DnB tracks would eventually propel KERFEW into motion.
On October 8th, 6 months after forming, the collective officially launched 'NO KERFEW,' a rare sight for Australia’s dance music scene: an all-brown lineup.
“I was close to tears at some points. I enjoyed seeing a range of ages there, for some people it was only their first or second time out,” Brisbane-based Musician and DJ, Prianka (Scalymoth), tells VICE.
“It would have been such a special experience for them to dress up in their traditional clothes and party like they were at a club. We curated the outside space to be a party and inside to be quieter for people to sit down and eat or listen to a classical set. It was lovely. It wasn’t just about South Asians but about everybody.”
KERFEW was made for South Asians in mind, but ultimately, like Iti tells VICE, the basis of KERFEW is in not making things uniform.
“That’s precisely the opposite of what we want to do,” he tells VICE.
“We want to pluralize the space.”
Hip-hop musician Saieesh recounts a conversation with an event goer: “I was chatting to somebody who had Thai heritage and they were wearing their familial jewellery because, they told me, they saw the event ad and thought it seemed like a space they could safely do that.”
They tapped into something special that day. The group were going to exist in the dance music space on their own terms. Now, KERFEW are a syndicate of 13, alongside an ever-increasing network of collaborators, artists and patrons across Australia.
In today’s fleeting and trend-driven market, collectives like KERFEW and artists alike, are mostly highlighted for their interpreted “difference” in white-centric spaces to meet quotas or to gain likes and clicks.
Though conversations surrounding cultural identity and diversity plague our Twitter feeds and coinciding digital media outlets across Australia, misrepresentation and tokenization are rampant and discourse is stale. There are still very few “inclusive” and safe spaces for people to actually explore — and connect to — culture through music or nightlife in a community-centric way. Conversations tend to loop as a circle-jerk between friends.
“There were some artists at NO KERFEW that were 10 years senior to us, saying they’d never seen a space like this before and that they’d been struggling hard to try and bring about visibility and awareness for what they’re doing,” Iti says.
“There’s so many talented South Asian artists within so-called Australia, and so many South Asians that are looking for a space where they can feel celebrated and be safe. Art is a big part of our culture and often, with the way our parents came to this country, it hasn’t been a priority, but that doesn't mean it isn’t inherent to who we are.”
The Internet age, social media, and human nature’s incessant hunger for external validation means “being yourself” comes with its own set of chaotically regulated terms.
“When we have conversations about different things, we often talk about them being on a spectrum. But when it comes to race, it feels binary. Even the term ‘person of colour’ automatically makes a binary distinction against whiteness,” says Iti.
So, as my Amma would say, speak less and listen more, because KERFEW is a collective of artists who mostly indulge in music. If being South Asian comes with deeply specific spiritual, cultural and ideological nuances, their DJ sets and self-produced tracks follow the same abundant and ambiguous trajectory. Deepa’s mum throws it down to Madonna, Munasib’s parents fell in love over a shared tact for Bengali classical music, Saieesh’s father sways his hips to Bob Marley and Ria’s father is obsessed with the whimsy of Irish rock and currently, Charlie Puth.
An important aspect of their approach, Ria a.k.a DJ Brown Suga Princess highlights, is the way they showcase and platform culture as “coming from the position of settlers”
“We have a cultural dichotomy of not living in the countries our families are from,” they explain. “When we’re sharing culture, we’re sharing how we connect to culture, which is different to how culture was developed in the homeland. There are layers to our identity– as brown people who are settlers, on stolen land. There are layers to us expressing ourselves through culture.”
KERFEW’s space and music inevitably shift how we can think about culture itself, giving life to unforeseeable futures, narratives and meanings. “We want people to exist within a space with different ideas and be comfortable with that difference,” Iti says.
For lack of a better phrase, it’ss about finding beauty in the chaos.
Munasib and I met a few weeks after wrapping up the first interviews. She was on a layover in Malaysia while I was visiting family there. So we met up at KL Sentral for a coffee.
After an 8 hour flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, she was still so full of energy. The Sydney-based music selector told me she had moved around a lot in her youth. “The only friend that I ever really had in my life was music,” she said. “That's why I’m so full of energy now. Like, I was chilling with my bestie for the last 12 hours.”
Saieesh– now known for his hip-hop/pop music– grew up playing carnatic Indian music. He tells me about his journey from “not fucking with anything above 120 bpm,” to being a Triple J boy. Then, when he heard Rupa’s 80s disco hit, “Aaj Shanibar,” everything changed.
“Something clicked,” said Saieesh. “This is a song that I found in a space I considered to be not for my kind of hearing, and my taste, but from that point on, it's like: you can create whatever the fuck you want.”
Immersing yourself in sound isn’t confined to the composition, the structure or the lyrics. It’s about letting go – listening fully and feeling fully. It’s about orienting yourself in the creation of an individual’s experience. Music has the ability to work as a non-violent, transgressive agent of change. To quote Munasib, “Music really is that bitch”.
Visibility for — and safe spaces made by — minorities are important because they interact with and challenge the premise of cultural, social, economic and political exchange. In the way that Munasib’s musical journey began with a familial lineage of classical Bengali, and Ria’s was influenced by their father’s youthful encounter with Irish punk rock, music is the unexplainable connecting force.
As Saieesh puts it, a musician is the “conduit that allows people to experience something.”
“You want to take people on a journey with you. With the cultural stuff– I’m fucking Brown. That’s just me."
As published in VICE Au, 16th March 2023.