An exploration of music, race and identity – Saachi Sen on her new single, “Dark”
As a songwriter, I find talking about my songs to be an interesting and occasionally frustrating experience. I think that songs, with the combination of music and lyrics, get their meaning across far more effectively than I ever can using only words – no matter how many of them I write! That being said, the subject matter of my latest single is something I’ve long felt is incredibly important to talk about. What I touch on in my lyrics is only the beginning of a much wider conversation. One that I hope is opened up for anyone who hears this music.
I don’t think I need to convince anyone that people experience racism. Growing up in London, I have admittedly had the opportunity to live in a diverse city; but visiting places outside of London can make the experience of racism even more stark, and of course the news, littered with stories on Trump and Brexit, never ceases to remind us that there are people who will dislike others purely on the basis of their skin colour. Colourism may be slightly less familiar term, but it is also a problem that exists on a massive scale, where darker skin tones are viewed with distaste, usually within the same ethnic community. An example of this is the huge skin lightening industry. Unfortunately, the world overwhelmingly tells us that the darker your skin is, the less worthy and beautiful you are. As a child of a diaspora, when you realise this, it often prompts the question – why was I not born white?
I wrote ‘Dark’ in response to this very feeling. As a singer-songwriter, I work in an extremely visual industry, and have encountered many a competition or application where I’ve come to realise that a noticeably unfair outcome was influenced by the artist’s race. I also became increasingly aware that my main genre, acoustic singer-songwriter pop, had a typical “image” associated with it. Unsurprisingly, one I did not fit. This could make me feel pressured to try writing music that was more in line with my ethnicity, for example experimenting with Indian classical scales. Although I value this work highly, I knew that making such music wasn’t what I was solely passionate about. ‘Dark’ was a culmination of all of these feelings, that had been building up in my mind my entire life. The song felt incredibly natural, and came out almost like a personal reminder of all the following things - it expresses a desire to not be stereotyped, and an affirmation that racism does exist, and we aren’t imagining it. Above all however, it’s an assertion that if I did have a choice, I’d choose my dark skin again – because it makes me who I am.
It actually took me a very long time to play the song live at a show. This was because, despite me denouncing it in the song itself, there’s always an underlying fear that when talking about racism, I’ll be criticised for being too sensitive or ‘pulling the race card’. When I finally did perform it, two years after writing, the audience reaction helped me realise the truth of what I was expressing in my lyrics. As I realised that so many other people felt the same way. I thought maybe it was just because I had chosen that audience well (it was the Cambridge Hindu Society’s annual cultural show!), but playing it afterwards to other, less diverse, audiences has continued to show me how valid these sentiments are, with many wonderful people showing their appreciation for it and their solidarity with its message.
These reactions gave me the courage to record Dark in 2018. I initially struggled to get the sound right and wasn’t at all happy with the first mix I got; I even re-mixed at a different studio, but it still wasn’t perfect. Then, I met a girl my age, Filipino Indian who’d studied in Canada, in a queue for a music industry talk. As it happens, she was an engineer at Spotify Secret Genius, an alumna of Abbey Road Institute, and literally the best drummer I had ever met - and she loved the song. Together with her and another talented Abbey Road engineer, we re-worked it and ended up with the recording I have today, mastered at Metropolis Studios. I am incredibly proud of how far the song has come and so glad I shared the creative process, reminding me that it’s not all about me (the song, and life itself!)
It was only when playing the song at Pride in London, that I was reminded that while ‘Dark’ is most obviously about having dark skin, its message applies to everyone who has ever felt marginalised or made to feel less worthy than others, whether that’s because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, or any other of the myriad of traits that make up our individual, unique identities. It’s my hope that anyone who hears the song is reminded to be proud of who they are, and embrace the things that set them apart. Hopefully one day, this song won’t be relevant anymore - there’ll be no hatred, and no fear between people of different skin colours, and we’ll be living in the world of John Lennon’s iconic “Imagine”. Until we get there though, I suppose we’ll just have to keep writing songs.
‘Dark’ is out on all platforms on Friday October 11th. Find it on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/44m8c2ycAvaw72wbddQ4uq
Saachi Sen is a singer-songwriter of South Asian heritage, a recent (ish) Cambridge graduate in Engineering. She and her band ‘Saachi’ made it to the longlist of Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2019 and played Trafalgar Square for Pride in London to an audience of 10,000.
Find her on socials @saachimusic (Instagram) / @saachisen (facebook + twitter).