During the 1970s and 1980s there was a growing sense of permanence about Asian communities in Birmingham, as Asian children were growing up in the city and entering its schools. Asian people were here to stay.
While their early years were often tough, young second generation Asians still had expectations of life in Birmingham, and Britain. These were different from those of their parents who had grown up elsewhere and migrated to England. However, their sense of fitting in and feeling British often dissipated as they entered secondary education and went out into the world. The early teenage years inhabited the relatively sheltered surroundings of family, local community and school. In contrast, the late teens and twenties involved entering college, university, or the world of work (if work could be found!). This meant facing the social and cultural realities of the world at the time. Experiences varied but being different was a feeling that grew as many young Asians came into contact with the wider world.
Asian youth living in the inner cities experienced additional difficulties. Expectations of these young people within the education system were low, stifling their potential. Unemployment was high. Inner city youth often had few roles models. There were also growing tensions between respective Asian groups and between Asian youth and other minorities. For young Asians these were edgy times and growing up in the inner city was tough.
However, young Asians made efforts to progress: becoming educated, finding employment, getting involved in sport, or whatever else they could do to take charge of their own destinies. Importantly, some mobilised as activists to resist racism and prejudice. While life circumstances remained extremely tough, they were forging their own culture and flourishing in their own ways.
During this period, Bhangra Music was born. It was a unique, cultural form that combined Asian – specifically Punjabi – culture with the contemporary urban Birmingham experience. Bhangra was hugely influential, capturing the imagination of a lot of Birmingham’s young Asians. Asian youth also started taking an interest in other music genres and forms, for example, rap, hip hop and reggae, as well as British and Western popular music, from Phil Collins and Simply Red to the whole New Romantic scene. Famously, in the early 1990s, Apache Indian fused his Asian heritage with reggae. This was a big step forward for Asian youth and for minority representation within popular culture and media.
The 1970s to the 1990s were also characterised by activism. Radical political movements emerged, working to improve the circumstances of Asians and other people from minority backgrounds. Self-help and campaigning organisations, such as the Asian Resource Centre, developed. These provided advice about employment, rights and immigration. Other young Asians formed gangs to fight off the daily racist attacks, including ‘Paki-bashing’.
There were also groups devoted specifically to women’s activism and campaigning. For Asian women, challenges were two-fold: they faced barriers in the wider world as well as within the community. The ongoing work of activists – particularly women – within the Asian diaspora has been essential to improving the conditions and prospects of many Asian women.
During this time, Asian youth movements sprung up across Britain, including Birmingham. Activism linked Asian young people across the country.
Read first-hand accounts of what life was like in the 1970s-90s for young Asian people living in Birmingham.