Escaping the Bermuda Triangle: Charting the Rise of Raf-Saperra

By blending Punjabi music and old-school Hip-hop, Raf-Saperra is honoring his roots while creating a fresh sound loved by global audiences.

Escaping the Bermuda Triangle: Charting the Rise of Raf-Saperra
Sania Haq
Sania Haq
April 4, 20235 min read
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The British Asian music scene is a thriving sub-culture in music, but a lack of awareness means it’s relegated to a niche within the industry. As a result, British Asian artists have less access to industry resources, and that lack of visibility can ultimately undervalue their music.

Broader challenges with inclusive research also hinder our understanding of the British Asian music scene. “Primary research” infrastructure, as it stands, makes reaching robust proportions of British Asians time- and cost-prohibitive. Little is therefore known about the music consumption habits of a group that is now almost 10 percent (5.5M+) of the UK population. Meanwhile, looking at the consumption of British Asian music among the general population leaves most of the story untold. Fortunately, triangulated, aggregated consumption data can help build a clearer picture of British Asian artists and listeners and increase global awareness of British Asian music throughout the broader music industry.

British Asian Music’s Bermuda Triangle

With South Asians across the globe accounting for almost a quarter of the world’s population (around 2B people), British Asian artists have a massive potential target audience. The challenge, then, is not whether the audience is there but how to cater to the particular tastes of different South Asian populations and diasporas around the world.

The often unsuccessful attempts made by British artists in the ‘90s and 2000s to break into the US market offer relevant insight. Many were major stars domestically but remained relatively unheard of in the US, highlighting the difficulty of outsiders going toe-to-toe with domestic artists in mature music markets. However, the more recent success of UK artists such as Harry Styles, Adele, and Ed Sheeran has shown that breaking into other markets is possible if you offer something authentic, unique, and relatable.

The rise of streaming in South Asian markets, particularly India, has highlighted just how localized and mature music tastes are there. For example, week-on-week, Indian charts are dominated by tracks in domestic languages. British Asian artists also face another unique challenge: engaging the diaspora. The 5.5M+ potential listeners in the UK, plus the global South Asian diaspora who may be able to relate, are an elusive audience that is largely spoilt for choice when it comes to music.

Along with providing entertainment, music is a way for a listener to connect with and express their identity, and for diaspora listeners, both “mainstream” music and also music from their countries of origin facilitate this expression. Therefore, to be successful, British Asian artists must learn from and also differentiate themselves from the likes of Adele, Arijit Singh, Beyoncé, Badshah, Harry Styles, Neha Kakkar, and many more.

Success may be no easy task for British Asian artists, but the fact that so many are succeeding is commendable, encouraging, and worthy of further exploration.

The Tale of Raf-Saperra

Raf-Saperra, aka Adeel Sardar Khan, is an exciting, up-and-coming artist from South London. His unique blend of Punjabi music with old school Hip-Hop and Garage is clearly resonating. In less than two years, his music has generated significant attention and engagement within the UK and abroad.

Whilst all of his songs have performed well, his rapid career growth was thanks in large part to December 2022 track "Modern Mirza," which has 2.8M+ streams on Spotify. As this article was in development, Raf dropped his first, eagerly anticipated mixtape Ruff Around the Edges, which sees Raf incorporating an even broader range of artistic influences and genres into his music (e.g., from Islamic to Drill, Grime, and Bhangra music), all of which are likely to help the mixtape reach new audiences.

While Raf is of Pakistani, Muslim origin, he is transcending boundaries in the Punjabi and South Asian music scene more broadly, and his success in India is a testament to this. Gaining traction in this market is challenging for British Asian artists in general, and it’s especially rare among those of Pakistani origin.

Almost 80 percent of Raf’s 315K+ Spotify monthly listeners come from India, and given the heavy Bhangra influence in his music, his listeners are most commonly found in and around the Punjabi-speaking regions of the country.

While Raf’s social media following in India is still in its infancy (11.5K+ Instagram followers out of 40K+), his music speaks for itself. Recently, Bollywood star Shahid Kapoor did a freestyle dance video to his song “Lalkaareh.” This sort of high-profile acknowledgment is a rare and priceless piece of PR that will surely help advance the growth of his local following in India.

Raf is also seeing growth among mainstream audiences. Take the UK, for example, where more than 20K of his Spotify monthly listeners are from. In fact, London is his top city outside of India (14K+ monthly listeners). The UK is also where Raf’s highest proportion of Instagram followers comes from (14K+ followers), with this again dominated by London (6K+ followers).

Raf is also reaching important global diasporas in the US and Canada, markets that are increasingly critical to the digital and live success of British Asian artists. Canada and the US account for similar proportions of Spotify monthly listeners (approximately 12K each) and Instagram followers (5K+ each).

"My voice has now echoed in places like Fabric, Berghain, Glastonbury. In the history of UK born Punjabi acts, never have I heard this happen," Saperra told Face Magazine.

Gaining “mainstream” recognition is often challenging for British Asian artists, and one would assume largely impossible for music that is so authentic in its Punjabi sound. But again, Raf is trailblazing. He is increasingly being flagged as an artist to watch, and his song “N.L.S” was ranked at No. 22 in i-D Magazine’s Top 100 songs of 2022.

Beyond the Western world, there is also a lot of room for Raf to grow in Pakistan. Currently, Pakistan, a country of 230M+ people, only accounts for a small share of his audience: 2.5K+ Spotify monthly listeners and less than 500 Instagram followers. Raf’s mixtape, featuring “Qawali” influence (a form of Sufi Islamic devotional music), production in Pakistan, and collaborations with major domestic artists, seems set to rapidly grow in the market.

Zooming out to a more international view, it’s clear that the target audience his music is serving is composed predominantly of males (78.6 percent) aged 25-34 (52 percent). While follower numbers are notably lower among other age groups, he also has appeal among slightly younger and older males (10+ percent each). Among women, 25 to 34-year-olds seem to show similar levels of engagement to these two male groups, but with Raf’s mixtape incorporating a broader range of sounds, the profile of his audience is likely to change rapidly.

The Future of British Asian Music

The global and local growth of Raf-Saperra highlights important opportunities for diaspora artists, especially those within the British Asian music scene. There may be inherent, systemic challenges, but things are changing.

In line with other Chartmetric articles about diaspora artists and world music more broadly, global is the way forward. Diaspora artists who offer global audiences something fresh are able to (almost exponentially) broaden their target audience.

There is demand and perhaps even a cathartic need among diaspora audiences for art that speaks to their specific experiences. When this is delivered effectively, it resonates because the music is authentic and grounded in tradition.

Along with Raf’s rise, this success is well evidenced by the global sensation that was Ali Sethi’s “Pasoori,” a track released on Pakistani music show "Coke Studio Pakistan" which Sethi will be performing at Coachella 2023. The increased focus on South Asian music globally further illustrates that British Asian music is not only a space to watch, but a space in which to get involved.