I was born and raised in North West London and always considered it to be the closest thing to home. But growing up as a young, British Muslim in a post-9/11 society meant that I often felt that my surrounding community was doing its best to make me feel unwelcome. I was once told by someone in the street to ‘go back home’, and they weren’t referencing where I lived in the UK. Moments like that make young people feel as though they don’t have a place in this society and struggle to accept who they are growing up.
What provided me grounding as a young person was a strong core family, which I’ve realised is a luxury. They were pivotal in nurturing the strength necessary in helping me navigate this difficult situation. Now looking back at my childhood as a grown man, I realise that I always yearned for acceptance into some sort of cultural framework. To add to this dynamic I come from a diverse mix of backgrounds - Indonesian, Yemeni, Pakistani and Kenyan but never had any significant cultural pull to just one of them. If anything, I thought I was British but mainstream media enjoyed reminding me that I was an “outlier” and an inherent threat to what it means to be British. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t enough of anything to feel like anything – I felt a bit in cultural limbo.
One of my biggest insecurities growing up was my inability to speak the languages of my heritage proficiently. It would quietly hurt me when people or extended relatives would make ‘innocent’ remarks about it. “Weak blood,” a distant Yemeni Swahili Uncle once joked to me. To him, it was an innocent quip, but to me it was a hurtful reminder of not feeling like I had a place in the many cultures that were part of my background.
It continued to hurt when they’d engage in animated conversations that I was, inevitably, excluded from. I wasn’t able to engage with family I loved, or present to them my whole personality. I loved them but at the same time they didn’t really know me. As a result I didn’t grow up feeling entirely part of any cultural identity. I suppose my life can be defined by desperately searching for something to call my own, something that holistically encompasses who I actually am.
Because of this, instead of nurturing our sense of self with confidence and creativity, some of my generation didn’t have the opportunity or space to blossom outside of this dynamic. Who are we, outside of the tropes and stereotypes we’ve fought for so long?
I saw YouTube as an opportunity to empower voices that that don’t usually get heard and to shape opinions that had never been formed. So I started, BENI, a channel which explores untold stories surrounding identity, culture and representation. The dream was always to transition it into a real life face-to-face interaction of like-minded individuals from different backgrounds.
As part of the YouTube Creators for Change project I saw the opportunity to explore my heritage and to understand more about my cultural background. I travelled to the birthplace of my grandmother in Indonesia and created a video about what that was like.
I’ve learnt that throughout my life, travels and work online, that my multifaceted identity was initially tough for me to reconcile, however as I get older it has become a source of inspiration. It’s allowed me, and others like to me, to see the world in a completely new light and continue building platforms that connect with people in new and nuanced ways.