#RepresentAsian with Hussain Manawer

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

This interview took place on a hot summer’s evening, at the infamous London’s Jazz Café, where Hussain headlined his sold out show. Backstage at the Jazz Café, with no evident pre-show jitters, I sat down with the boisterously humble Hussain to get to know a little about his journey.

NM: So Hussain, thanks so much for meeting me before you head out on to the stage!

HM: No worries at all, I’m grateful actually, keeping me busy, awake, keeping the nerves at bay!

NM: You certainly don’t look nervous!

HM: Oh yeah? I gotta thank my barber for that!

NM: So, Hussain, been following your journey for quite some time, would love to know a little more about your background, where you are from, your upbringing…

HM: I’m from Ilford (brap). Originally I was born in East Ham, but grew up in Ilford. Both my parents were born here too, but my grandparents were born in Pakistan, Kashmir specifically. You heard of Mirpur? I actually try to go there a lot. It’s beautiful.
I spent my whole life here in London. Ilford is like, I don’t know, its kinda East London, not quite Essex, just somewhere in the middle. I got no plans of leaving here, I love it here. It’s home.

NM: So I’ve followed your journey, and you’ve always been really open on your social media and Instagram about the hardships of your journey. So can you tell us a little bit about how you got here? To headlining a sold out show at Jazz Café?

HM: Ah gosh, man, that is a long journey. I guess I started writing poetry when I was at school, I was reading pieces by people who I couldn’t identify with or relate to, exactly what you were saying, none of the authors we read or what we learned at school, had names that sounded like mine, so I just started writing on my own, writing down my own experiences. I started performing when I was at school, and again at University. I actually only went to Uni so I could make my parents happy you know? But I started to be more creative, I was the happiest when I was writing, I didn’t wanna work at a construction site, you know? So I put my art first, and ended up here.

NM: So when did you actually start performing? And how did you start getting an audience/following? Was it primarily through social media?

HM: No, no, social media came right at the end. I was always interested in performing live, even when I was at school. There’s a rush you feel when you perform live that you don’t get from anything else. I did so many live performances when I was at school and again at University.

NM: Tell me about your first one, and how old were you?

HM: (deep sigh) Ah man, ummm, I was 15 years old, and it was at Stratford Royal Theatre, I had 3 minutes to perform a piece about respect. From there I was invited to another show, and then another, and it all just started to roll from there. I think people have this misconception, especially the younger audience around ‘overnight success’. I worked for free man, for sooo many years, I worked for free, and worked hard because I believed in my art. People just assume that you’re making bare money, but it’s like, couldn’t be further from the truth, and it was never the focus point for me. I had a message and I just wanted to ensure that my message was being heard and was being put out there to the world. Putting my emotions in to words so that people could understand, could relate, I wanted to help people, and still want to help people. I talk a lot about mental health, grief and issues that we feel as a young generation, as young adults, as young men, as young British Asians, I think it is so important to have that dialogue, and conversation, especially, since we are always trained to brush it under the carpet.

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

Illustration by Sharan Dhaliwal

NM: At such a young age, where does that passion come from? What message could a 15yr old want to give?

HM: As a 15 year old you have to realise I’m not just a 15 year old boy from London. I’m British, I’m Asian, I’m Pakistani, I’m a Muslim, I’m a man, a Londoner and a millennial, I have to adopt and navigate through so many identities, I don’t even really know where to begin. Like, at work I’m someone else, at my aunties I’m someone else, with my boys I’m someone else, like you have to be so many different people to please so many people, whilst trying to figure out what exactly who you are or where you belong as an individual. It’s hard man. It’s draining, it’s exhausting. You end up losing who you are. Like, You know you’re either too halal for your haram friends or too haram for your halal friends!!

NM: LMAO. True, true.

HM: You feel me though right? I mean when you look at it, it’s actually a lot deeper than that. When you start breaking it down, it stems from societal pressures. Pressure to be Asian, a good Muslim, pressure to get married, to settle down, be successful, be respectful, be masculine, not to mention, especially in our cultures, you got to deal with even deeper issues, issues that we keep a secret or ignore, things like domestic violence, abuse, mental health, and the go to answer is always “chup kar” “fikhar nah kar” “forget it”. The go to is always to sweep it under the carpet, and more than that, to just accept it for what it is, without really addressing it. It’s issues like these that have spurned me to do what I do, to talk about it, to bring a voice, and more importantly, let others know that they are not alone, that they should talk about it.

NM: What’s the end goal here? Where do you see yourself eventually? I know you call yourself the ‘Originals Mummy Boy’ but to me, to me, I feel like you’re the Pakistani British Kendrick Lamar.

HM: Kendrick Lamar, raaah you know. I mean, what a genius he is too. His words and his message is so powerful. I mean the end goal definitely - is to be the first poetic/rock star. You know? The thing is my story isn’t different from anyone else’s out there. I talk about grief, loss, death, mental health, identity, race, I mean these are things that we as humans, deal with all the time. I talk a lot about my grief over the loss of my mum last year. Grief comes in so many different guises, it comes as depression, sadness, it affects you emotionally, mentally, and as a person, it can consume you. I talk a lot about my experience of going through counselling and therapy, which, again, as an Asian man, it is something that we do not talk about. So although I’m just speaking my truth, from my experiences, I hope that people that listen to me, or come to my shows, or hear my rhymes, can relate, understand, and find some peace in that. That really, to me, is the end goal, Touching lives, helping people.

NM: I think your message is really poignant especially in today’s climate. A lot of people just want to get ‘insta-famous’ how do you handle online commentary? Or shamers & haters?

HM: It’s so interesting you say that, because, the other day, I was doing my piece on my mum (RIP) for BBC Radio 1, and the commentary that I got, which by the way, was mostly from other Asian boys from London, saying things like, ah, my work is whack, its shit, makes no sense. Of course there are those that like and appreciate my work, but it’s funny, because, although I try not to, you always end up fixating on the haters. Like I was thinking, the people that are hating on me, the people that they are a fan of, are a fan of me. Funny how that happens.

NM: If you could categorise your ‘haters’ so to speak, who would they be?
HM: A lot of young people. They don’t really get what I’m doing, especially the ones that look like me, or are from my background, do you  get what I’m saying?

NM: What’s the one takeaway you want your fans or audience to have

HM: You know what, this is something that I see time and time again, and it always bothers me. But the biggest issue I have in our sub Asian culture, doesn’t matter if your Pakistani, Bangla, Indian, Sri Lankan, Arab, Black, it’s the same thing, I’m talking about SILENCE. Not talking about mental health, not talking about abuse, domestic violence, Islamophobia, profiling, identity, race, gender identification, sexuality, I mean the list goes on. You know when you look out in to the crowd tonight, you see people from all backgrounds, races, cultures, ages, and that to me is so powerful. I’m not trying to preach to just one demographic, I want my message to be heard across the masses. I want people to know that it’s okay to hurt, to be vulnerable, to be emotional, it’s all part of life’s journey, but we need to open to one another, accept one another, be supporting, loving and caring At the end of the day, we’re all equal. Every single one of us is equal. That’s the message.