Jimi talks to BBC 5Live broadcaster, and former DJ and rapper Nihal Arthanayake, who takes us on a journey from Sri Lanka, to Harlow in Essex - via White Hart Lane and his beloved Tottenham Hotspur F.C.
Find out how Public Enemy gave Nihal a sense of belonging and why, despite being an avid football fan, he avoided attending games for 20 years. Plus, he reveals which of his family’s Sri Lankan dishes should come with a serious health warning…
Jimi Famurewa: Welcome to Where's Home Really? With me, Jimi Famurewa. A podcast where I get to explore a perhaps lesser known side to my guests from the worlds of TV, film, comedy, food and more. To find out what makes them who they are, and where they feel that they most belong. I want to know about their heritage, their culture, their background, and of course, where they consider home to really be.
We'll be finding out about that sense of home by asking them to reveal four key elements, which are... A person, a place, a phrase, and a plate. For me, and I'm gonna go straight in on the plate... It would be yam with a corned beef sauce, stay with me on this, and some scrambled egg on the side. And that is something that we'd always have at the weekends in my house.
And I had it pointed out to me that it's traditionally what you eat after church. So it was the taste of freedom as well as the taste of my youth. But enough about me, I am looking forward to hearing what my guest is going to go for. So let's find out.
Nihal Arthanayake: Two or three skinheads came up to me, who can't have been that much older than me, and said, are you a paki?
And I'd never heard the word before. And I looked at them and just went, no, I'm not. And then they looked at each other and they went, Oh, all and then just walked off. My first ever racist exchange was such an underwhelming experience for everyone involved. I think they were like apprentice bigots.
Jimi Famurewa: Today's guest is a broadcast star and author. You may know him from his daily daytime radio show on BBC Radio 5 Live. If you go further back, you might recognize him as MC Krayzee A, but I'm sure we will absolutely get to that during the interview. Born in Harlow in Essex to Sri Lankan parents, he started his career in the music industry as a journalist and music plugger before stepping in front of the mic as a presenter. At first with BBC Asian Network and BBC Radio 1. He currently lives in Manchester, close enough to his work in Salford, but far away from his beloved Tottenham Hotspur back in London. Nihal Arthanayake, hello.
Nihal Arthanayake: Hi Jimi, nice to see you, man.
Jimi Famurewa: I always start off with the show title, really, like that question, Where's Home Really? Where are you really from? There's varied versions of it. We all know it. What does it mean to you? And how has that answer evolved over the years?
Nihal Arthanayake: Having lived in Essex and then you move to London, And then you leave London and you move to the northwest of England and you then suddenly see the differences between living in the northwest of England and living in London in the same way that you saw the differences between living in London and living in Essex.
Except, and this is one thing, interestingly, that Freddie Flintoff said to me, which is that when he lived down south he massively missed northern accents. And me living now in the northwest of England, I massively miss southern accents. I really miss Essex accents, London accents, because you just don't hear them, really.
So when you do, you're like, wow, this is amazing. Because you say grass and you say bath, you don't say grass and bath. You don't use words like mithering, which is a word which means to, I think, annoy or bother someone. And you don't know what that word is, right? You just suddenly go, Oh, I'm really Southern.
And I love being from Essex and London.
Jimi Famurewa: We're talking about place. So let's kick off right there. What have you gone for as your choice of place that cements this idea of home?
Nihal Arthanayake: Weirdly enough, when you're an ethnic minority, you're constantly guarded against people who would say you're not British, right?
So you will be constantly saying I'm British. I'm as British as you to some racist on Twitter, right? Which you shouldn't really engage with racists on Twitter, when they start saying, oh, you're not British, you're not that, then you say, no, I'm British Sri Lankan. That's what I am. So I could pick somewhere in the UK, but actually the place I want to spend more of my time in as I get older is a house that we have in Sri Lanka and I want to spend more time there because we bought one last year and the whole plan is really to spend more and more time there because when I go there, Jimi, I see people who look like me, even though those people when they hear me speak, know that I'm not them.
Like I'm born and bred here. I don't speak much of the language. Culturally, I feel Sri Lankan and British. But there's something about the lure of that country. There's something about the energy in that country. There's something about the fact that, even though you're supplanted and put in another country, I've been here for five decades.
My parents have been here for six decades. But you're talking about thousands of years. The melanin is here, because we grew up in a tropical climate for millennia. That's why we have the melanin to protect us. So the fact that we're here is cool, and I was born here, and I'm British Sri Lankan.
But there is something about stepping off that plane, seeing palm trees. Hearing nature, seeing the colors I connect with so instantly.
Jimi Famurewa: To you, was that kind of something that was a kind of epiphany that, that you only realized how challenging you were finding the grey in the environment that you'd known all your life?
When you started tuning into this home that this kind of elemental kind of thing that's deep within you that yeah was that something that kind of was a bit of a lightbulb moment? Or had you always felt something nagging?
Nihal Arthanayake: I'd always felt that when I touched down in Sri Lanka, Something I can't explain scientifically.
I could use the word soul, but I don't really know what that means. Something connects me to the country of Sri Lanka on an emotional level. And that's what I feel. I'm bearing in mind. It seems like when you move north, especially northwest of England, everyone said to me that lived up here and had moved, it rains all the time.
And you're like it can't rain all the time. And they're like, it rains all the time. So maybe it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, because you suddenly start to go, bloody hell, it rains all the time here, right? Whereas in London, which, I think statistically is always a couple of degrees warmer most of the time.
It just seemed brighter. But also as well, we moved to a very monocultural, we're just south of Manchester in a place called Stockport, which is very white. It's unsettling to be a minority and feel like a minority. Because I feel that in London, I never felt like a minority. I was never made to feel like I was a minority.
But. My own, and it's purely anecdotal, my feeling is that I feel really like a minority in this part of the world. There can be some quite dark sides to that, of that feeling.
Jimi Famurewa: There are so many other parts of you that form this home or this identity of who you are that might be in conflict with what someone thinks it means to be a good Asian or what people see as acceptable behavior or how you're meant to talk as a black kid or how you're meant to behave as a Chinese kid and I think that is where we get into the interesting part of it and I think looking at your story and how hip hop was clearly such a, such an important force and such a kind of cultural North Star, like when you were growing up and it became your route into your professional career, right? And we I listened to one of your tracks from back in the day this morning, very into it, loving it.
So I really wanted to lock in on hip hop as something that seems from the outside to be a very formative part of you finding in this culture and find in this home and building than the Nihal that we see today.
Nihal Arthanayake: It's a really important transition from being a brown kid at a white school, when skinheads was still around.
It was like the tail end of skinheads, but they were still there. And then when you get into 83, 84. Suddenly there are these shows that are playing this music called Electro. So suddenly what happens is all your heroes are people of color, right? So you've grown up in primary school and you're listening to Madness and Adam and the Ants, or Duran, or any of these kind of 80s bands, and they were white, pretty much.
Then, hip hop becomes a thing, and the white kids want to be into hip hop. The white kids are wearing tracksuits, and carrying around boomboxes, and trying to learn how to breakdance and rap and graffiti, and they're suddenly looking at people of colour in a different way. Not as corner shop owners or taxi drivers or people to be subjugated or people that I'm superior than.
There's suddenly hero worshipping people of colour, right? On a mass scale, in my case, in my school. And I discovered that I could rap. I could freestyle rap, which means I could battle rap. And that suddenly gave me credibility. But it also, Fight the Power. Jimi, by Public Enemy, came out when I was 18 years old.
Public Enemy Number One, the single, came out when I was 15 or 16. These are pivotal years at which you're trying to find an identity, you're trying to understand who you are, where you fit in the world and the politics of hip hop culture was for me what I took from it because I wasn't going to join the nation of Islam.
I certainly wasn't going to walk around with an Africa pendant around my thing because I'm not African, right? But what those movements said to me was that there is a history, an alternative history that you're not being told about, a history that you have every sense of feeling proud of ownership of an agency within and that was a revelation to me because all the history that I'd heard I just didn't question it.
And it was all white history, right? It was if people of color hadn't contributed anything to the world. So you're a minority in a country and my gosh, you should be grateful because these people built the world. But what hip hop said to me was that's a narrative, but it's not the narrative.
There are plenty of other narratives that you should question and you should be proud of who you are. James Brown had said it many years before, say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. But I heard I'm black and I'm proud and didn't think, oh, that's black people. I thought no, that's people of color.
That's people of color. I should be proud of who I am.
Jimi Famurewa: We're talking about lyricism. We're talking about rap. So let's hit on your phrase. What is your choice of phrase that really encapsulates home for you?
Nihal Arthanayake: Gosh, there are so many phrases that spring to mind. There are lots that I have encountered through the myriad of extraordinary guests that I have interviewed over the years who have written things down in books, which I've picked out from and phrases that I've come across over the years, interviews that I've done, books that I've read, I think the statement that really stands out to me is something my dad said to me once, Jimi, which was things are only as complicated as you want to make them.
And yeah, The reason I stick with that is because, the higher you get up in my profession, teams get bigger, more people want to get involved. And it's quite interesting how sometimes people want to make things really complicated, and largely because they're not really sure what they're doing.
And I've always really admired people. And I've been blessed enough to be on the board of governors of two extraordinarily powerful and huge organizations. One, the British Council, was on the board of trustees of the British Council, and the second one was a board of trustees of the Southbank Centre in London, the world's biggest art centre.
And what blew me away about the really excellent trustees that were on both those boards, were those who could just see through all the panic, all the anxiety, all the different issues piling on top of each other and just strip all of that away and find a clear, coherent solution or ask very relevant questions that would help to strip away all the nonsense.
When you say things are only as complicated as you want to make them, it can sound a bit glib, and it can sound a bit too simplistic, but actually it's about finding a path to a solution that is not dragged down by anger, resentment, frustration, and panic. That's what it is. And I think that I've become very good at doing that, at seeing that.
Jimi Famurewa: Welcome back to Where's Home Really? wIth me, Jimi Famurewa and today's guest, a broadcaster, Nihal Arthanayake. Hi Nihal. I want to talk a little bit, while we're on the subject of environments that feel a little bit intimidating, particularly if you come from a minority background, I want to talk about your love of Tottenham Hotspur.
You're far away from them now, I know from you that you're such a passionate fan. When did it all start for you and was that something that held any kind of fear or was there any family discouragement about going to the football?
Nihal Arthanayake: We only ever went to two football matches at Tottenham Hotspur when we were kids, and then never again.
And I didn't then go back to a football match again until I was in my, I would think, mid 30s, so there was probably a gap of 20 years where I didn't go to White Hart Lane to watch Tottenham. Hip hop culture was everything to me, and football really wasn't. In the 80s, it started off me becoming a Spurs fan because of the early 80s and how well Tottenham did during that time with Glenn Hoddle and Riccardo Villa, Osvaldo Ardiles, Steve Archibald, Garth Crooks, Steve Perryman, managed by Keith Burkinshaw, and it just so happened that the school that I went to in Essex, Glenn Hoddle went to that school. He was an old boy of that school, and it just so coincided that when I joined there in 82, we were an amazing team playing beautiful football with people like Glenn Hoddle in it.
So I was in, and then hip hop culture took over and music took over, and I just remember music. And then I think once I got into my twenties, there was a point at which especially when I started working in the music industry, it was full of gooners. And we were so bang average year after year.
And Arsenal took on this French manager that no one had heard of, who revolutionized English football. And the better they got, the worse we got. And the worse we got, the less I cared. It was so painful watching them with Henry and Bergkamp and Overmars and all these guys. Also, as well, I felt very much like that football wasn't welcoming to me.
As a person of color, that all my interactions with football fans have been negative ones. We had a lot of West Ham fans in Harlow Town, some of whom were part of their notorious firm, the ICF, and they were violent, racist thugs. That's who they were. So you ended up slightly tarring football with the thing that, there's hip hop over here, which is all welcoming to me as a heterosexual person of color.
And then there's that lot over there. Who are racist and violent, and they're racist and violent while going to watch football. I'm gonna stick over here, if that's alright with you, with the breakdancers, the graffiti artists, the rappers and the DJs. It was a really simple choice, and I think that the scars of that, so even today, Jimi, I cannot really get excited about England.
Jimi Famurewa: That is interesting, and football as a kind of, as a particular area that these different versions of ourself almost come into, not necessarily conflict with each other, but they overlay, and I definitely feel it. I'm a Charlton Athletic fan, got a season ticket at the Valley. There's always a point at which, watch England with my friends and stuff, and there'll always be a point at which, not even if it's necessarily like racism directed at black people, but there's a song that's about the Welsh fans or whatever.
And I just recoil from it. And there is so many positive things happening with fan bases becoming more diverse. But it's interesting that you should say that because there is always, or there can be, if you are a minority, and particularly if you come from a minority background where you're always slightly on edge, like if you're in those environments, but I do think that is changing in so many places in so many ways.
Nihal Arthanayake: I definitely like to think so, but I wouldn't go to West Ham v Tottenham. I wouldn't go, I wouldn't take my kids to that ground as a Spurs fan. I do take my boy to Old Trafford, we have done for the last five seasons to watch us usually get beaten by Manchester United, even when they're terrible, they still manage to beat us.
So we still managed to do that, but I do have a conflicted relationship. And actually, what got me massively back into football was my son, it was my son because a friend of mine who's a shoe designer. He owns a Grenson's, right? Tim Little. And Tim's a big Derby fan. And he said to me, one of the things that keeps me and my grown up son bonded together is our love of football.
So even though his son might be in a different part of the world, When Derby are playing he'll call him and they'll have a connection and that's what I wanted to do. And it has led to me loving Tottenham through him.
Jimi Famurewa: Want to get onto your person. You've mentioned a lot of people that have been important figures in your life Who have you gone for as the person that encapsulates this sense of home and sense of belonging for you?
Nihal Arthanayake: Such a difficult question because always, people think of their parents as that person. And of course, those people encapsulate home. So it's a very difficult question to answer because you think of not wanting to let anyone down, not wanting to insult anyone, not wanting anyone to think of it.
And the person I think of as home is me, right? Ultimately, there's a saying in Buddhism, which is man has no refuge but man, which means that, and that is, of course, woman has no refuge but woman. And I take that to mean that. No matter what I do in the world, no matter what I say, ultimately, I have no one to rest on than myself, right?
Now they say no person is an island, but if I need to think of someone as home, I have to be comfortable around me. One of the most difficult things I think for many humans. Is to be comfortable in their own company, and to be comfortable in the quietness, the solitude of being with yourself. And it's a real achievement, I think, for you to be truly happy in yourself, and I'm not, right?
It's an aspiration. Nobody gets to tell me how Asian I am or not, in the same way no one gets to tell you how Nigerian you are or not. That is up to you. I find it quite easy to touch down in Sri Lanka, have a glass of arrack, which is the local coconut whiskey, eat curry, rice and curry in my hands, walk barefoot, go to the temple.
I don't feel weird about any of that in the same way that I don't feel weird about going to watch Tottenham play or dancing to drum and bass or going into my favorite clothes shop in Stockport and buying Japanese streetwear, right? I don't feel a way about any of that.
Jimi Famurewa: You mentioned briefly there the curry and rice in Sri Lanka. What is your dish? What is your plate that you're going for?
Nihal Arthanayake: My mum's sister, Aunty Marnal, who, again, sadly, is not with us anymore, she moved to the UK, and the first time I was ever called the P word was when we went to visit her in East Ham, a part of London, and I was in a WH Smith's looking at magazines, and these two or three skinheads came up to me, who can't have been that much older than me, and said, are you a paki?
And I'd never heard the word before. I was maybe 11 or 12 and I looked at them and genuinely innocently, because I just thought it was a case of mistaken identity, I just went, no, I'm not. And then they looked at each other and they went, oh, all right, and then just walked off. My first ever racist exchange was such an underwhelming experience for everyone involved.
I wasn't offended. They were disappointed. It was just really bad, right? It was really bad. They were, I think they were apprentice bigots at the time, and they must have gone back to a tutor or something and then asked about, and then they got a D minus for that project or something. It was an outreach program for whatever racist course that they were doing at the time.
So going back to Aunty Marnal, right? So Aunty Marnal would come and visit us in Essex, and she was a bit austere. She was very... strict, and she never married, she worked as a psychiatric nurse in one of those old, scary, Victorian asylums that they got rid of in the in the 70s and 80s, they got rid of, but she worked in one of those.
So she would turn up. And we never really look forward to her coming, right? Because she was so strict, and she wasn't the kind of warm, cuddly auntie, right? She was the kind of little bit scary auntie. I once remember opening the door to her and saying, when are you going? That was the first thing I said to her.
She didn't even walk in the door, right? So this is the kind of relationship, right? There was one reason, Jimi, That we looked forward to her coming. And that's because she made a dish that my mum couldn't make and it's called Godumba Roti. G O D U M B A Roti. R O T I. Godumba Roti. Now, this is a cardiovascular catalyst, right?
You eat one of these things, you better have a defibrillator handy, right? Cause this stuff is not healthy, right? So you get this dough, you make this dough, get it into a ball, and then you soak it in oil overnight. So you have to soak it in. Then what you have to do is, you have to keep rolling it and rolling it so it's flat, so it's almost like you can see through it, it's that thin by the end of it, soaked in oil.
And then you put it on a hot plate, and you make this roti, and you put egg on it if you want to make egg godumba roti, which is outstanding. And then you have that with a chicken curry. It's pure village food, right? This is no haute cuisine. This is nothing that spent, decades having to make. And it isn't all fancy.
It's a godumba roti or egg godumba roti and a chicken curry. And boy, You are full, you are happy, you are connected to your culture, and you may get a heart attack. It's got all of these things attached to it, and it is the best thing.
Jimi Famurewa: We touched on Sri Lankan food there. In a broader sense, what are some of the impacts that you think maybe Sri Lankan culture has had on the UK, because it does feel like there's much more knowledge about Sri Lanka more generally. Are there any specific examples.
Nihal Arthanayake: It's really interesting, isn't it? Because I am one of the probably three highest profile Sri Lankan or Asian broadcasters in the UK, right? It's like Michelle Hussein on the Today program, Naga Munchetty, and me. Naga and I've got probably the only two Asians that I can think of to have our own daytime shows on a national radio network, right? And I'm Sri Lankan. And probably the biggest Asian comedian in the UK is Romesh. Right? Romesh Ranganathan, who's also Sri Lankan, and he did Asian Provocateur, where he went back to Sri Lanka and talked about Sri Lanka and immersed himself in a culture he didn't know anything about, and he talks about Sri Lanka a lot, and reps his cultural heritage, which I think is amazing.
Look, we're from a tiny island, and we're often mistaken to be Indians or Pakistanis or whatever. And I think we've done all right. I think. The great thing about Sri Lanka, Jimi, is that so many people have an affinity to Sri Lanka because of their honeymoons. or their weddings, or the best holidays they ever had.
The amount of people that say to me, Sri Lanka is the best holiday we ever went on, is extraordinary, right?
Jimi Famurewa: What do you think that is? Is that just the people, the beauty of the place?
Nihal Arthanayake: Sri Lanka is just this really beautiful, chilled, where in the space of two weeks, you can go whale watching, surfing, go and look at 1,500 or Nearly 2000 year old architectural marvels, right? You can climb up Sigiriya and be on top of a fortress that was carved out of a rock, the entrance to which is two giant lion paws made by a prince who escaped after killing his own father, right? You can do all of these things. You can buy incredible gems, rubies and sapphires.
You can see turtles hatching. You can... Swim along with tropical fish, you can go to unbelievable beach raves. You can do all of these things and see three different lots of colonial architecture, Dutch, Portuguese and British, and original Sri Lankan, like I said, going back centuries. You can be in rainforests one moment, and then an elephant orphanage, watching a hundred elephants walk past you on their way to the river.
to get their bath time. It's just, it's extraordinary. It really is extraordinary.
Jimi Famurewa: We started off in Sri Lanka via Essex slash Stockport slash London. And so it's amazing to end up back there. Nihal, thank you so much. This has been incredible. Thank you for taking us on such a journey.
Thank you for letting us in to what makes you who you are. And thank you for introducing that roti dish to our lives. I'm going to go out and find it.
Nihal Arthanayake: Right now, please do. But only do so if you have an active gym membership, because you're going to need to work that off. Jimi, thank you for your great questions.
Thank you so much.
Jimi Famurewa: I really loved chatting to Nihal. He's someone I've admired a lot from afar, I think there's a lot of crossover, but he also comes from a kind of fascinating generation and talking about hip hop culture and what public enemy meant to him and the notion that picking himself as the person that he is the home that he carries around with him was just fantastic and it was so eye opening it was so much fun he's just a joy to be with and he just really makes you think in the best possible way.
So that's it for another episode of Where's Home Really? Please join me next time for more unique stories of culture and heritage as we ask our guests to reveal what home really means to them. And get to see a side we perhaps never knew. And we'd love you to follow Where's Home Really? on your favorite podcast platform.
We've been getting some fantastic feedback and it's great to hear your thoughts. So do leave us a comment or a review. From Podomo and Listen, this has been Where's Home Really? Hosted by me, Jimi Famurewa. The producers are Tayo Popoola and Aidan Judd. The executive producers for Podomo are Jake Chudnow and Matt White.
And for Listen, it's Kellie Redmond. Until next time.