Rap started out, of course, as a form of protest music/ poetry by African- American performers, as a non-violent means of fighting against racism, discrimination and ridicule. Just like jazz, it soon found mainstream acceptance, with a white man like Eminem becoming the flagbearer of American rap for the rest of the world. India jumped on the rap bandwagon in the 1990s, with a bunch of artists trying their hand at it, but the wave soon died out. It came back with a bang about a decade later, when Bollywood slowly moved to Punjabi culture and hip hop for musical inspiration. Soon we had the Bombay Rockers, asking us to “rock tha party” and Hard “Ek Glassy” Kaur. With the continuous movement of North Indians to North America and the Punjabi affection for rhythm and “rocking it”, Delhi and Punjab soon became hotbeds for hip hop and rap music. A Yo Yo Honey Singh was born.
Because of Bollywood’s need to appease the masses, he soon became a part of every party song, belting out a rap paragraph or two between choruses. Films started introducing party versions of the title tracks, credit songs became a trend, every film had to have the “hit song of this party season” and even Shah Rukh Khan lip-synced to rap in a lungi in Chennai Express. Honey Singh was riding the wave, and like him, many other rap singers popped up too. Badshah became a big deal, astutely filling in the rap gap in mainstream Bollywood music when Honey Singh took a sabbatical for rehab stints. All these guys spoke about was the good stuff — the blue eyes that hypnotise, the chaar botal vodka, the party abhi baaki hai, the beautiful babes and the swanky cars — a lifestyle completely cut off from what the common man experiences.
Interestingly, an underground rap scene has been bubbling in the country for a couple of years now, especially in Mumbai and Delhi. These are voices from the slums of Kurla and Saki Naka, angry, boisterous and unrelenting, trying to focus on music to distract themselves from poverty, hardship and crime. What started off as nondescript videos on YouTube has become a steady underground movement today, with regular jam sessions, gigs and cyphers.
“I got introduced to hip hop through the local gully DJs who used to come and play music during community parties,” says Hindi- Marathi rapper Naezy, or Naved Shaikh. He was born and brought up in the slums of Kurla and belongs to an orthodox Muslim family. Naezy has been rapping for a couple of years now, and has met with appreciation for his witty lyrics and magnetic stage presence. “I heard this song called Temperature by Sean Paul and memorised it and used to do a cover of it. Then, as I started listening to more and more hip hop, I realised I could tell my life’s story and that hip hop had a purpose rather than the “cash money, guns and girls” lifestyle that is portrayed by commercial rappers.” Who were the rappers he listened to growing up? “After I discovered hip hop, I started listening to a lot of Nas, KRS-One, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badasss and NWA, to name a few. My music is as much a protest as it is an effort to raise awareness and educate people about what’s going on in the country. There is no target as such. I talk about issues that I’ve personally experienced and see affecting this country.” So, what does “Naezy” mean? He laughs. “It stands for Naved Is Crazy. Naezy is
a side of me I generally am not in front of my family and friends.”
Chota sa mein ladka
Choti cheezo pe main bhadka
Mere dal mein nahi tha tadka
Gharpe baap ke roz ka lafda
Dafna mushkilo ko mere maa ki kamaayi ne
Baap wala role nibhaaya mere bhai ne
Teherna seekha khahi mein
Isilye shabdo mein geherai hai
Zindagi toh ek ladai hai
Iss jungle ki kahani mein khiladi mere jungli hai
These are the lines from Divine’s Jungli Sher. Divine (Vivian Fernandez) has been enjoying popularity and success for a few years now. After multiple videos and collaborations with various artists, he broke into the scene with EDM superstar Udyan Sagar aka Nucleya’s Bass Rani, where he sang one of the tracks. “We both really liked each other’s work, so when we got talking, there was an instant connect,” says Udyan. “I think the underground rap scene is growing at a good pace, and what is happening now will shape things for the future. All of these boys have some serious stories to tell, and it’s great to see them working really hard towards making their music heard. Unfortunately, there still aren’t enough platforms for them to showcase their talent.” Recently, Divine was recognized by BBC Radio One and iTunes as one of the artists to look out for in 2016, and he is the first Indian artist to exclusively release his music on Apple Music.
“My rap is neither a protest nor an escape,” Divine says. “It’s the truth. I rap about things that make me what I am today. My song Yeh mera Mumbai is about my city. My second single, Jungli Sher is like my resume. I have opened up about how my father left us and my mother had to go abroad to earn money. My brother and I were staying with my Granny.
She took care of us. A few years later, my brother too left for another country to build his career and my Granny passed away. I was left all alone. Jungli Sher talks about my past and my present.” And what does the future hold? “I don’t aspire to be like the typical commercial rappers, I want to stay true to myself, learn constantly, It’s really me that I put into the song. My lyrics come from my heart and then I just pen it down. I don’t lie, as I can’t lie to myself. Musically, I want to be very strong. My new song Jungli Sher is a mix of English and Hindi — my entire concept is to rap in Hinglish, as everyone gets it. My rap is always going to be real; it’s going to be my story or the story of the real people.”
What Divine talks about reminds me of Namdeo Dhasal, one of India’s last Beat poets, whose collection of poetry, Golpitha, won him accolades and reverence. A Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi recipient, Dhasal famously founded the Dalit Panther organisation in the 1970s and spoke about how, as a dalit, born and brought up in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, he wrote his poetry in the language he was exposed to. Filled with anger, expletives and brutality, Dhasal’s work might be seen as repulsive by some, but it is a celebration of the filth and squalor he accepted as his reality and grew up to call his home and family.
What is a tad confusing is that even though these underground rappers sing of their realities, their aspirations are those of the commercial hip hop artists. When you check out their music videos, most of them are in baggy t-shirts and hoodies, shades, whatever bling they can collectively put together, badly done dreads, caps worn backwards, with metallic SWAG or BADASS tags), low-waist denims and oversized kicks. They put in a few lines of English, horribly mispronounced, and design a rough choreography based on all the music videos they may have seen. Importantly, even though they might rap in Hindi-Marathi- Punjabi, the composition, music arrangement and primary percussions are western beats, and the score barely has Indian influences. Very few of them, like Divine and Naezy, use Indian percussions and effects.
Aklesh Sutar, who goes by the stage name of Mawali, feels that this is the exact thing that needs to change in the Indian hip hop scene. “The change that we need is that Indian rappers have to get back to their roots, which is Indian culture and Indian musical techniques. There are so many ways of coming up with creative stuff. Growing up, I enjoyed doing bhajans with hip hop, mixing up Indian classical music with reggae… there is so much we can do.” Then, one wonders, why is there this need to include western influences?
“See, there is a western influence because the culture was founded and mainly evolved there – but hip-hop is now a global movement. Slowly, as our scene grows, we’ll also start having an influence on the region around us. It is already unique to the country, because of where we’re from and the stories we’re telling people”, says Naezy.
Like Divine, who realised that local influences also attract global audiences, Naezy has also been increasingly appreciated for his writing and compositions. He not only did the title track for All India Backhod’s On Air With AIB, but also worked on the soundtrack for the ICC T20 World Cup. “My rap is different, because of where I come from. No one has written about Mumbai the way I have, and the way rappers such as Mawali and Tod Fod are doing. We’re trying to keep the original hip hop ethos alive and place it in an Indian context.” Divine stressed on keeping it local too. “To shoot the music video of Jungli Sher, Sony Music brought producer Vandana Kataria onboard. She suggested that we shoot the video in my locality and a few other key locations in Mumbai. I immediately agreed. I felt that there was no better way to tell my story than to begin the video in my slum.”
“The western influence you are talking about is in the most superficial way possible. The lyrics and stories that these rappers tell are born from issues that several million people in this country face every day.” I sit down for a chat with Cyrus Oshidar, MD and Chief Creative Officer of 101India.com, which hosts Hip Hop Homeland, a monthly gig series that seeks to showcase India’s finest hip hop talent. “Are the themes similar to Western political hip hop? Of course they are. These are socio-political and cultural problems that exist in varying forms across the world. We have rappers of Indian origin making waves abroad — they are welcomed as adding a new chapter to western hip hop. And that’s what our boys over here are doing too.”
What do these underground rappers want to become? “In my opinion, their aspirations are to bring about tangible change in their immediate surroundings. These boys are creating mini-economies in their society where their immediate friends, who might have been involved in petty crime or menial jobs, are seeing their friends become somebody and figuring out how they can help them get there. Take Joel D’Souza, for example. He’s the guy who’s directed every single one of Divine’s videos (except Jungli Sher). Joel now runs his own production house,” says Cyrus. And is Bollywood the end goal for them too, like Honey Singh and Badshah? “Of course they harbour Bollywood aspirations. Bollywood is arguably the only form of ‘Indian’ culture that these guys have truly experienced, and music directors such as Vishal Dadlani and Pritam have recognized their talent. It won’t be long before they show up there.”
No one should be judged for having Bollywood aspirations in our country, and understandably, the movie industry and movie music are seen as the acme of fame, success and recognition — as long as that is not achieved by compromising on content and talent. Delhi-based Prabhdeep makes his dreams very clear to me. Gifted with a unique, folksy vocal texture, Prabh Deep Sagar is at the forefront of Delhi’s rap scene and also organises rap battles quite often. “I have big dreams,” he says. “First, I want to become a successful musician with a number of major hits. Second, I want to make a lot of money. It is as plain and simple as that.”