Storytelling through art: Rohan Rakhit is the multi-talented creative uplifting dancefloors and communities

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You’ve done a lot this year – you graduated from LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), performed in Pygmalion at the Old Vic Theatre, you took part in the Rhythm Section‘s FUTURE PROOF mentorship programme, and you’ve been DJing alongside the whole time. How’s that been?

I don’t think you clock how much you’ve been doing until someone actually lays it out like that. I read this really great essay called Rest by Kieran Yates, about the immigrant experience of rest, and how it’s such a difficult thing for us as children of immigrants to achieve. She argues that rest is a privilege. We were brought up told that we must work harder than our white counterparts.

I come from three generations of doctors on both sides of my family. My parents still work past midnight every night. They don’t understand the need for rest. I asked my dad to reduce his hours and he was like, “Why would I do that? I’m good at what I do, and I’m saving lives.” It’s funny how much we, as children of immigrants, embody that mentality. It’s been an amazing year and I’ve made some of my dreams a reality but it doesn’t feel excessive. I still feel like I can do more.

Let’s dive into some of the stuff you’ve been doing. You just performed in Pygmalion at The Old Vic – how did you get into acting?

A lot of people don’t know much about my acting because I didn’t really post about it before. After lockdown, I auditioned for drama school on a whim. My mate worked for an organisation that helped people of colour get into drama school, and he hit me up on Instagram like, “Hey, there’s a free audition at LAMDA. Do you want it?” Everything was still virtual at this point, so I just filmed myself monologuing in front of a blank wall, sent it off & forgot about it. But then they invited me to audition for the next round, then the next round, and so on. LAMDA is a really prestigious school, so I never thought I’d get in. But that helped because I felt no pressure, and I somehow ended up getting in. I spent two years doing the most intense conservatoire training experience, which was incredible, but also really difficult. I was funding it through my DJing. Those two years were the most relentless, crazy, but also affirming, of my life. I remember thinking on day one of drama school, “I’m not really an actor”, but now I definitely think of myself as an actor, amongst other things

That’s amazing. Seems like you’ve spent this year really cultivating your various crafts. You also did Rhythm Section’s FUTURE PROOF mentorship programme earlier in the year – what was that like?

It was amazing. I learned so much. And it came at a really good time for me. I remember the first talk that Bradley Zero gave (with Moxie): Bradley told us about how much power there is in being able to say “no”. At the time, I’d been saying yes to so many gigs to fund school, and Bradley’s words really resonated with me. I was like, “Maybe it’s time to reframe the narrative of what my career is.” The whole experience was great because I had all these people that I really admire encouraging me to think about who I was artistically, and then pushing me to reflect on why I was doing things or taking gigs that didn’t necessarily align with that. They just had this really strong, reassuring message: “You don’t need to do that. You’re going to stay relevant because what you’re doing is really great. Your art is good. Trust in that. Your art is your power.” To have that backing from Rhythm Section – especially being a non-South Asian space – was really affirming. I think it’s the push I needed to be like, “I do have a career in this, and I do have my own niche, my own sound & that’s enough.” It gave me new energy and reframed the understanding I had of my place in the industry.

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How do your creative pursuits overlap?

I think the root of it for me is storytelling. Obviously, theatre tells a story. Poetry is such a raw and visceral form of speaking from your soul. And I think music – whether it’s dance music, stuff from the Asian Underground, broken beat, or soulful house – is all associated with moments in time that tell such beautiful, vivid stories. All of these art forms speak about protest movements, resistance, and countercultures. So, I try not to look at all the different artistic stuff I do as entirely separate. I think there’s a lot more scope for things to sort of breathe together and become something new. That’s what the team and I have been trying to do with Mehfil, the event series I’m the Creative Director of. It showcases the breadth & depth of talent within the South Asian poetry & spoken word community and offers a platform for artists from other creative disciplines outside of music.

Tell me more about your vision for Mehfil.

In the ’90s and noughties, South Asian creativity was really being celebrated through the lens of music. Now there is way more visibility for other creative disciplines, but it doesn’t feel like there are enough spaces to foster those connections outside of a club environment. So much of our audience doesn’t drink, and what we’ve been building is a lot more intergenerational – so older people want to engage with this stuff or to bring their kids.

Mehfil, in my eyes, is the bridge between all these creative disciplines. We throw events that celebrate spoken word, first and foremost. I think it’s such a great way to educate audiences on different people’s lived experiences, and politics. Loads of different intersections can be represented, which I try to do in line-ups. We’re also running workshops and engaging with young people. We did a creative engagement program with Rich Mix in East London over the space of a month, which culminated in this group of young people facilitating their own Mehfil event and reading out their own poems on stage for the first time, writing songs, doing the set design, production, marketing, everything.

I feel a lot of the community work I do is just trying to give other people opportunities, which is what the people around me did when I was just starting out. I was the youngest person on the team when we were starting Daytimers and I learned so much from everyone around me. They really upskilled me.

Is there a different side of you that comes out in each of your creative disciplines?

There’s a really great quote from Philip Seymour Hoffman. He talks about acting and he says, “Acting is placing your attention on your intention without any tension.” When I’m performing on stage or on set, I feel such a deep sense of relaxation, in a way that I rarely experience at clubs. Clubs are difficult environments for people like us to be in unless it’s a night run by friends or promoters that I know have got me. So it’s not a state of relaxation I’m in. I feel more like I’m treading water a lot of the time.

Do you want to tell me more about it being difficult to be in a club setting?

I’ve experienced a lot of microaggressions during my music career since my Boiler Room dropped. After that set, there was a steady influx of gigs – and there still is – which I’m very grateful for. But in that first six months or so post-Boiler Room, I had a promoter come up behind the decks while I was playing, and show me one of my South Asian edits like “I thought you played this sort of stuff.” I was just thinking, “Why’d you book me? You don’t even know what I play.” I was playing soulful house, UK funky, literally the same genres I was playing in the Boiler Room. But I played three South Asian tunes in that Boiler Room set, and I feel like my whole music career got pigeonholed. I feel like I’ve finally broken out of that this year. It seems like people are really digging my sound and I feel like I’m comfortable in that, so if I want to play South Asian tunes, I’m doing it on my terms, not when a promoter is telling me to do so.

How did you break out of that?

I think there is a lot of pressure for creatives to just take whatever they can get – whether that’s because of economic pressure or pressure to make a name for themselves. For me personally, the FUTURE PROOF workshop gave me the confidence I needed to be more selective with where I place myself. So I’m aligning myself with promoters I really like, and just learning to be okay with saying no sometimes.

In terms of the industry-wide view, though, I don’t think there’s a way to break out of that en masse. I think the only way is to push for individual success. I look at someone like Riz Ahmed, who literally was doing everything that we’re doing now: platforming the Asian Underground scene, writing spoken word poetry, and of course acting, but in such a South Asian box. Now he has the privilege of playing a leading role in Sound of Metal, which is not remotely associated with South Asianess. I think the only way is to just smash ceilings and keep smashing ceilings. No one’s going to do the work for you, so you’ve just got to do it.

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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