Interview with British LGBTIQ London based singer, producer and writer, Reeta Loi Shaw. Check out her music on her LOIAL SoundCloud here!
- Reeta, welcome to our interview, please would you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hi Siddhi, I’m a London born and based Indian artist.
- As a musician, please would you tell us about your songs and what inspires you to write this music/lyrics.
I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I started using writing as a tool to understand my own emotions in my teens. I then began to concentrate on poetry and songwriting. I’ve used poetry as a way to connect with myself and understand myself for so long now that I sometimes find I write something that I don’t fully understand until many years later. It’s as though I’m given myself this wonderful insight and gift. Growing up on Hindi classical and 70’s Bollywood music has also influenced the way I write. I don’t tend to follow western song structure when I compose, despite also growing up listening to a lot of western music.
The body of work that I’ve just released has helped me to heal from the process of coming out to my family. So it’s incredibly personal, but something I had to make in order to move on.
I also write to share my experiences in support of others. To fight the isolation and loneliness that I’ve often felt and that music has been a powerful healer for in my life.
- You identify as LGBTI British Asian- how did you come to accept your identity?
I always knew I was attracted to the same sex and felt quite ok with that. My biggest challenge has been how my family have reacted to it and the fear of losing them that I grew up with. In reality it has been even harder than I expected but having come through it, I realise how much happier I am now that I can be myself.
- How did the South Asian community respond to you coming out?
It’s been varied. I have the most incredibly supportive and loving friends, two of whom are South Asian and have become closer to me than my family of origin over the years. But I’d say the diaspora is vast and people greatly vary in their response. For example, my local dry cleaner is a South Asian Muslim man and actually thinks I’ve made up the fact that I have a wife. Meanwhile there are support groups like Sarbat Sikhs where I’ve met a likeminded collective of open hearted LGBTQ souls.
- How did your family respond to you coming out?
When I told my mum, she broke down and cried. It just didn’t compute for her. I had wondered if they ever had any idea I was gay as I was such a tomboy. Anyway, they hadn’t! So it was a big shock to them both. I told my mum after I’d met my girlfriend and now wife, Sophie. My parents are very traditional and I was expected to have an arranged marriage, like all my cousins and relatives before me. Consequently, I didn’t tell them about any relationships I’d had up until I came out. I felt I’d met my soul-mate and the person I wanted to spend my life with, so it was time to tell them. I hated the lying and secrecy, the double-life that I think most Asians relate to. Mum begged me not to tell dad so I waited another year before telling him. He was actually surprisingly ok with it. Shocked but ok. However, once he found out I planned to marry Soph, his attitude completely changed. I’m not sure if it’s because he thought it might be a ‘phase’ before, but the decision to marry was something he couldn’t accept. We spoke on the phone and he disowned me. That was ten years ago and the last time I spoke with my dad. Of course Soph and I discussed not getting married if it meant losing my family. I thought hard about this and came to the decision that here was someone that loved me for who I am versus people that didn’t. That made it an easier decision to make as it allowed me to embrace the future life I wanted rather than the past. Mum was still challenging me and I realised I would have a lifetime of her trying to make me ‘change’ as she put it. I know it’s hard for them and I’m not angry with them. They are victims of a culture and society that has made it feel impossible to embrace their own child, they are hurting too. I guess this is why I try to centre my work on what I can do to help people in my position but also in theirs.
Now, 10 years later I feel I’ve healed, but it’s been a difficult journey, but also a necessary one that I’m grateful for. We need more support services for LGBTQ Asian women in the UK. I’ve been lucky with support from my friends, my in-laws and of course Soph. But being in a mixed ethnicity relationship means I’ve had to find my own connection with my culture. I use Indian vinyl samples from my childhood in my music and I run a website called IndianRubies.com to share traditional Indian recipes passed down to me by my mum. These are just some of the ways I stay connected. We’re from a rich and complex culture that is extremely family-oriented. When we lose that there is a huge space. Conversely though, we get the freedom to choose what and who we fill that with, which is incredibly exciting and empowering. There are a number of support groups and organisations that we can turn to for help today which is so crucial. I feel excited and proud to be able to see this change and to be a part of it.
- Do you feel expressing your experiences through music has helped you and how?
I feel that creative expression of any kind helps people to deal with personal difficulties. Singing, music and writing have worked best for me so far. I stopped making music for a while and it was a very low time for me. I’ve found that my own mental health has greatly improved through creative expression.
- Please would you talk about your new EP which has just been released and the journey it takes?
This latest single “Kuri” (meaning “Girl” in Punjabi), is about the innocence of childhood, the hope. I wanted something dreamy and layered, like a lullaby in some ways. I distorted the sound of a musical wind-up toy to re-create the sound of one I had as a girl. I try to use audio memories in my music, including sampling old Hindi film (Bollywood) vinyl from the ’70’s that I nicked from my Dad’s record collection. Bollywood music and the films themselves formed a beautifully vibrant backdrop to my childhood. I’ve always sung for as long as I can remember and used to perform jazz and blues standards. I like to use my voice as an instrument, not always needing recognisable words or lyrics but instead to create emotive and human reference points.
“Beginnings” is about love but it’s also a parallel story of how we reconcile the opportunity and privilege we have against the struggle and sacrifice of our foremothers.
“One Day” is about my relationship with my dad and speaks for itself.
The next single is called “Ride” and I’m using some edgier production techniques and looking forward to Djing that on some big sound systems.
8. You recently did an interview for the BBC Asian Network about the need for more gay Asian role models, please would you summarise this discussion and the views it uncovered?
The question posed on the BBC Asian Network phone in was “Do we need more Asian role models?”. I found this question infuriating and said my piece which in summary is “Of course we do, we are hugely under-represented and this is affecting the mental health and well-being of generations of vulnerable people in our community.”
9. Why do you think there are so few Asian gay role models out there?
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that was implemented by the British when India was under colonial rule, still criminalises homosexuality in India today with life imprisonment. This is an out-dated law that needs to be repealed. Indians can’t come out while it exists and I believe it affects the judgement on British gay Asians and our ability to come out in the UK.
We often pay a great price for being our true selves with threats of being disowned of other forms of emotional, verbal or physical abuse from within our families. Thankfully there is more support today than ever such as charities like Jeena, who I work with to provide support for BAMER LGBT+ people.
My personal experience has been that the more I am me, the happier I am. I understand it’s hard to come out, but if we can provide the right support systems for people that exist outside the family or shame they are made to feel, then I believe we can make it easier and safer for South Asians to come out. Building our community is so important. I’m part of the team Gaysians+ putting together what we hope will be the largest group of British Asians marching at London Pride this year. Let’s show we’re here and we’re proud!
10. What do you think could be done to promote acceptance of LGBTI people in the South Asian community?
We need to find spaces and means to connect with one another. I felt very alone for many years. We come from a highly family-centric culture so it’s important we feel able to keep our culture alive in other ways if we lose some or all of our family. There also needs to be a lot of work in the communities themselves. I believe that seeing what we have in common with other people is what connects us and kills off ignorance. I always try to talk to people that I think are prejudiced towards me because I’m a woman/brown/queer and I try to find things that we have in common. I love it when we connect and I can see I’ve broken down a barrier in them. I love that. I want to find bigger ways of doing this so we move towards difference and not away from it.
You can listen to Reeta’s music at loialbeats.com