The LGBTQ+ party revolutionising Pride for SWANA and South Asian people in London

NAZAR Pride 2022 on the Southbank. (Paul Harrowing)

NAZAR: PRIDE 2023 is set to be one of the feel-good Pride event of the year, gathering thousands of LGBTQ+ people in London to celebrate Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) as well as South Asian music, food and culture.

As Pride in London rolls around for another year, having faced recent accusations of racism from former staff and community members, LGBTQ+ collective NAZAR are preparing for their own alternative Pride celebrations at the Southbank Centre this Saturday (1 July) after a successful 2022 debut.

The free late-night rave promising “unity and empowerment” for SWANA and South Asian communities is co-curated by Drew Demetry, founder of queer SWANA group NAFS Space, and Ryan Lanji, founder of queer Bollywood night Hungama and fitness community NDY Global.

Much like 2022’s inaugural event, which saw hundreds of people take to the outdoor dance-floor, this year’s line-up boasts “an amazing programme of emerging SWANA and South Asian talent”.

That line-up includes burlesque performer Deeva D, gender nonconforming Bollywood dancers Kaajel Patel and Vinay, Cypriot singer Tahini Molasses and riotous DJ sets from Aran Cherkez, Aria Homie Baba, DJ Seksu, DJ Kizzi and more.

NAZAR's 2022 Pride event.
Ryan Lanji at NAZAR’s 2022 Pride event. (Nazar)

NAZAR’s co-founders tells PinkNews this “euphoric” event has become a loud and proud proclamation for often overlooked queer demographics and a powerful reminder to struggling LGBTQ+ youth that they are “not alone”.

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But to understand how we got here we have to return to 2018, the year Ryan Lanji made a name for himself among the queer POC community as the founder of East London’s most in demand queer Bollywood night, Hungama.

For half a decade, Hungama welcomed queer talent through its doors including acclaimed drag artists Dosa Cat, Bolly-illusion, Mahatma Khandi and Marvel star Nikkita Chadha, with Lanji jokingly dubbing it “London’s South Asian Studio 54.”

“Working in fashion and art, I was very disheartened by how white-centred and hetero-typical these disciplines were,” Lanji says of his motivation for Hungama. “In queer spaces I found there was a hierarchy of cool and [as a Brown man] I was tokenised and fetishised.”

At its core, cis white gay culture and club nights playing Western gay pop icons such as Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue simply didn’t “resonate” with Lanji. “They are not the songs that make me want to go and dance,” he explains. “I was feeling so lonely and alienated living in East London and I would just go home and listen to Bollywood music. 

“One day I woke up and thought ‘I’m going to throw a Bollywood queer night’. I knew I wasn’t the only queer Asian person who wanted it and used all my skills in fashion and art to make it the coolest party ever.”

For Lanji, existing LGBTQ+ South Asian nights felt “too clandestine and tribalistic”, and he wanted Hungama to offer something different. “I wanted to be out, proud, cool in fashion and visible,” he shares.

“I was blending Bollywood with electro, house, top 40, R&B and hip-hop. It was mash-up central. Then I naturally started to recruit South Asian friends who offered to do DJ sets, drag, be door people, create the posters etc.”

Despite its popularity, Lanji announced in April 2023 that he was officially shutting down Hungama to concentrate on his fitness collective – but he still treasures the impact it has made.

Explaining the decision to close, he says: “[Hungama] was starting to become very cis-female dominated and the space was becoming less queer. So I thought instead of just doing it and having it turn into a commercial hetero-typical party, I was like “Why don’t we put a pin it and have it be something we all love and remember?” It was a beautiful moment in history.”

While Hungama was experiencing skyrocketing success, Denmark-born Egyptian creative Demetry was going through a similar crisis of identity after growing up in “extremely racist” Copenhagen before moving to London in his early adulthood.

“[In Copenhagen] I never felt seen,” Demetry remembers. “I was called slurs on the street for being Brown, I would be fetishised in gay clubs. It was just not a very comfortable place. But when I moved to London I realised there was still a lot of prejudice.

“There is so much racism, so much homophobia. And it made me feel like that teenager in Denmark again that was constantly being abused and I had to change myself for other people to make them feel comfortable. It just got to a point where I was like “You know what f**k this, I can’t do this anymore” and that’s what birthed NAFS space.”

NAFS space is an online platform to celebrate individuality and support the queer SWANA communities creative endeavours.

“What I would love to do in the long run is create a financial ecosystem within our own community, because I get a lot of messages from kids in the community saying: “My parents just found out I’m queer and they’re going to kill me”, “I need money”, “I don’t know what I’m going to do now”.

“It is actually harrowing some of the messages I get. I put them in contact with other organisations who are better equipped to help them flee or find refuge.”

In early 2022, Demetry and Lanji crossed paths and realised the vital need for “intersectionality” among their communities – and created umbrella organisation, NAZAR aka their “love child”.

“The SWANA community is still in the early stages of developing an identity in the UK,” Demetry shares. “Not only are we dealing with LGBTQ+ rights in our own countries but we’re also dealing with family issues. Our existence is political. We are still navigating so much trauma and we need to continue to hold space for each other.”

After phenomenal feedback from last year’s NAZAR: Pride celebration, 2023’s event is set to be bigger and better than ever. NAZAR’s annual Pride Party is truly an ode to inclusivity, championing trans rights and challenging other issues within the SWANA and South Asian communities such as anti-Blackness.

“Last year we weren’t just fighting for queer liberation, but we were also fighting for really fundamental things like the freedom of Palestine and the liberation of Turkey,” Lanji explains.

“There are absolutely no barriers except for yourself: If you want to show up, we will welcome you with open arms – and the things that we don’t know about you, we will learn.”

As for why NAZAR is more important than ever, Lanji adds: “During Pride in London there just isn’t a place for people of colour who are not Black to exist and hold space and so that’s where NAZAR is such a beautiful sanctuary. 

“When you leave NAZAR you leave feeling more empowered and feeling more galvanised which is such a beautiful contradiction to other club nights. It’s about screaming about the fact that we’ve arrived.”

NAZAR: PRIDE takes place from 4pm BST on Saturday, 1 July on the Southbank Centre’s Riverside Terrace in London. Entry is free.

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