Manan Kapoor, on how rappers across India are reclaiming hip-hop to tell powerful socio-political narratives that are changing the game of the rap scene in the country.
When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN (2017) in 2018, journalist, author and administrator of the Pultizer Prize Dana Canedy said, “It shines a light on hip-hop in a completely different way. This is a big moment for hip-hop music now.”
With artists like Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Akala, and Killer Mike in the scene the genre has started going back to its protest roots of empowering marginalised voices owning their truth. For as long as hip-hop has existed, it has reflected the politics of its community.
It was only in the late 90s and early 2000s MTV artists swathed the genre with bling—expensive cars, diamonds, champagne, misogyny—wiping away almost everything that hip hop originally stood for. It is normal for a poetic/music form to evolve into new styles and by the mid-2000s, artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg had popularised hip-hop music throughout the world. As part of its musical evolution, the art form which originated as an underground movement in Bronx, New York City, eventually found itself at home in clubs around the world.
This global popularity birthed ‘India’s own Vanilla Ice’, Baba Sehgal—deemed by many as the first musician to rap in Hindi. Simultaneously, the influence of Indian origin UK artists, who were conflating Punjabi music and hip-hop, familiarised Indian audience with the genre. But it was only after the emergence of the likes of Bohemia, Badshah, Hard Kaur, and Yo Yo Honey Singh that every Indian household truly grasped (or they thought they did) what hip-hop and rap was.
Soon, Bollywood appropriated the genre, adopting the music for its dance tracks, commissioning fresh voices and expanding its rapidly increasing marketability. But whereas in the West, rap went from to protest form to pop music, In India it had an opposite effect.
Although popular rap music played no part in influencing the wave of rappers that was to come, it did some good for them in terms of marketing and promotion. Bhanuj Kappal, a music journalist based out of Mumbai believes that “because Badshah and the others were commercially successfully, they created the market for people like DIVINE and Naezy, and got people looking at hip-hop. It brought visibility in terms of sponsors, music producers, and people who were looking to capitalise on that.”
While most of Mumbai was obsessing over Bollywood hip-hop/rap mixes, there were some who were focused on what rap actually represented—the gully. Naved Sheik, or as the world now knows him now—Naezy, remembers the predicaments of growing up in Kurla West or as he likes to call it, Bombay 70. Behind the veil of the Antilla, the Taj, and the film industry, were the chawls where Naezy grew up. This is probably why the element of rap, its closeness to the anger, and the need for representation shows up in his music. Or with DIVINE aka Vivian Fernandes, who has become the poster boy of Indian rap music, or Sez, who produced Meri Gully Mein, which brought together the street vernacular—the patel log, chawls, and the inclusiveness of living in a tightly knit community.
There is a documentary, Bombay 70 (2014), in which Naezy, who is from a low income, orthodox Muslim family reminisces his childhood on the fringes of society, as a teenager hanging out with the wrong crowd doing “a lot of wrong things,” even being jailed once and then he started rapping. In the documentary, rapping through a plastic sieve which he uses like a pop filter, he narrates his coming of age in Ram Bachan Chawl, Room number 24, Bombay 70.
DIVINE, on the other hand, grew up in Andheri and started rapping in English but soon switched to Hindi. Following the success of his song Yeh Mera Bombay, he caught the attention of Sony Music, and his song Meri Gully Mein, brought him into the mainstream. With Gully Gang, DIVINE placed Mumbai rap into a context that caught the eyes of producers and even brands like Puma. The experience of the city is central to his music and he invokes the struggles of city-life.
“You can change the name/ but you know what it is. The same old city,” he raps in his song, Yeh Mera Bombay. Rap has always been intimate to the conditions that surround it, the gully element, which is repeatedly referred to in his music, touches on the issue of class. In the Raja Kumari’s song City Slums featuring DIVINE, he rapped
Yeh rapper famous huye deke gaali, lambi gaadi
Asliyat mein inki jebein khaali, kalakaari
Haan maas lega humse brahmachari, kar sawari
Apni wahi gully, wahi chaali
Reminiscent of Mos Def’s song Niggas in Poorest and Nas’ Surviving the Times, his music has the element of storytelling and is a retrospective look at his entire life. DIVINE and Naezy’s music is trying to address, if not break down socio-political issues through conscious rap. The duo are also the inspiration for the new Ranveer Singh starrer, Gullyboy.
Another form of class inequality is one that comes not from the experience of the city, but from history. In 1984, after the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, India witnessed one of the worst riots in its history. Thousands of people lost their lives in the anti-Sikh violence that broke out. One of the areas that was most affected was Tilak Nagar in West Delhi.
Thirty eight years later, one can still feel the aftermath of the violence. When a community is attacked, years of disruption follow—widows in white, unemployment, violence and aggression, mental health problems, and drug addiction—all of which is encapsulated in the music of Prabh Deep. Born in the early 90s, Prabh Deep made his presence felt with his album Class-Sikh(2017). His grandfather, (along with his four brothers) was one of the victims of the 1984 riots. Growing up, he chose to drop out of school and pursue a career in b-boying, but when that didn’t work out, he started rapping. Influenced by Eminem and Dr. Dre, he gradually came back to his roots and to his language—Punjabi.
Through rap, he started creating a dialogue about the problems among the youth in his area. In “Abu”, he talks about overdose and the subsequent death of a friend and in “Click Clack”, he says,
Click Clack, Aithe hunde ne fire te,
aithe hunde ne katal/Aithe hunde ne nashe te,
kinu painda ni farak
In the same album, he has songs like “Kal”, in which he brings forth instances from his life, and presents the grim realities of growing up in Tilak Nagar. His style is reminiscent of a Kendrick Lamar who conflates the personal and the political into one. Prabh Deep, who is represented by Azadi Records, recently won the Toto Funds the Arts Award.
Labels such as Azadi Records, founded by Uday Kapur and Mo Joshi, have been instrumental in promoting the likes of Prabh Deep. With Tienas as their newest inclusion, the Delhi-based independent record label, established in 2017, seeks to provide a platform for these artists. (In an article for Red Bull , Kapur writes, “For the longest time in the capital of the nation, the dominant narrative was limited to the experiences and outlooks of urban, upper-middle class Indians. The emergence of homegrown hip-hop artists from lower-income communities – rapping and writing in vernacular languages – challenged that status quo.”
But in a different part of New Delhi, another rapper in his twenties is challenging the status quo. Sumeet Samos, who completed his masters from JNU in 2017, talks about caste discrimination, atrocities on dalits, and equality through his music. Born in a Dalit family of Tentulipadar village of Koraput district in Odisha, Samos grew up in Bhubaneswar. In an interview, he said that he had always “felt a deep sense of emotional, intellectual and financial deprivation from my early years of school”. Until a few years ago, he’d never even heard of rap music, but started rapping because he realised it wasn’t an individual experience, but collective, that there was a shared vulnerability. His first single “Ladai Seekh Le” was released by Qweed media in which he calls himself ‘The-lit boy’ before he starts reminding everyone the actualities of life as a Dalit in India, and casually drops references to the Italian Marxists philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of ideology, hegemony, and organic intellectuals. In the song he says, “Aadhi Raat Azaadi Foonkati Chhappar Teri Bastiyon Mein” (At midnight, the freedom burns down the huts in our neighborhood) and tries to narrate the events of Laxmanpur Bathe, where an upper caste group killed 58 dalits at midnight.
This isn’t the first instance where Dalit activists have drawn inspiration from the civil rights movement. The revered poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal started the Dalit Panther Party in 1972 which was influenced by the Black Panther Party—a political organisation formed in the United States in the 1960s to challenge police brutality against the African Americans. Tupac Shakur, one of Samos’ influences, was heavily influenced by the ideology of the party and his mother, Afeni Shakur was a well-known, active member of the Black Panther Party. Samos, like his influences, refuses to ask for what is rightfully his but seeks to claim it for himself. His music does not simply express, but dissents against the oppressors and even the ‘“polite oppressors” like JNU. In one of his songs, he says,
“We busting all your myths, learn from us how to be humane.
Yo this is us Children of Counter Culture,
Counter Culture, this is us.”
Samos recently performed in Paris at a concert organized by the city-based radio show–Radio live–and was also a part of the function organized at Hyderabad Central University to commemorate Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student activist who committed suicide in 2016 following alleged institutional discrimination.
Rap and hip-hop have always been at the forefront when it comes to speaking against oppression, broached by artist like N.W.A., Ice Cube, and 2Pac in the United States, the genres roots in protest have travelled as far as Kashmir. The element of protest in rap music was perhaps what caught the attention of the musicians like Roushan Illahi and helped them present the reality that was protracted by the years of conflict.
Better known by his moniker MC Kash, Roushan started talking about oppression through his music and took the name because it represented his homeland, Kashmir, which has been under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) since 1990. “I was an itty-bitty kid of like 15-16 (and) wherever I went, there were guns pointed at me and people I care about”, he said in a documentary,“My music is mostly influenced by my history and the music that I created was all about what I saw”. He goes on to say that Tupac had become his “mentor” and pushed him to rap about the issues he had faced, but intellectually, he was driven by the ideas of Malcolm X and Che Guevara. But his journey hasn’t been easy so far. When MC Kash released his first song, the police raided his studio and questioned him about the content of his songs. And that wasn’t the end of it. Two years ago at an event in Bangalore, the police stopped his performance and threatened to jail him if “they or the Pandits present in the crowd found his lyrics ‘anti-national’,” he wrote in a Facebook post. But his music is a testament that rap and hip-hop embody protest like no other genre can. In his song, ‘I Protest’ he sums up the Kashmiri condition, and for a minute in the song, remembers all the people who lost their lives because of the atrocities.
Other rappers like Mu’Azzam Bhat, Emcee Ame, and Shayan Nabi have faced the same problems. “Sometimes if I want to talk about politically charged things if I wanna talk about the government if I want to talk about operations I want to talk about how people are subjugated how about any anything that’s emotionally charged up I think that is the perfect genre,” says Bhat. A short documentary, In the Shade of the Fallen Chinar, follows these musicians, their struggles and the predicaments of growing up under occupation.
But music has been a way for them to channel their emotions and express the struggles of their oppression. In an article where he recounts his travel to Kashmir, Rana Ghose, the man behind ReProduce Listening Room, believes that “Hip-hop has found a fertile ground to take root in Kashmir” and that “this story is just beginning.”
Another issue that is being addressed by rap is of the people from the North eastern states of India. Various artists including Khasi Bloodz, Symphonic Movement, and Cryptographik Street Poets are talking about the region’s sociopolitical issues.
For the longest time, people from these states have faced discrimination, and rappers such as D-Mon and D-Bok, members of Khasi Bloodz, are making an attempt to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. With brands like Puma, who recently came out with a song, Suede Gully, featuring DIVINE, Prabh Deep, Khasi Bloodz and Madurai Souljour, promoting their cause, there is hope for these artists.