In February of 2016, the ‘JNU incident‘ rocked India, and laid bare, among other things, an insidious campaign by the government to clamp down on voices of protest and dissent – voices such as that of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and more. In the aftermath of their own struggles against the system, support poured in from multiple avenues, including one that hasn’t been prominent since the days of the freedom struggle – the protest song. Local producers Dub Sharma and MojoJojo turned the slogans and speeches of the movement – by Kanhaiya and Umar, respectively – into revolutionary anthems. The songs were earworms, with appropriately rousing production, which went viral and turned into protest tools themselves. The sampling and instrumental reminded one of the foremost anti-establishment musical genre of our times – hip hop.
Hip hop is rooted in sociopolitical struggle, as a way for minorities and the disadvantaged to express themselves. Spoken word legend, Gil Scott Heron, whose work is often credited with laying the foundation for hip hop, and rap’s lyrical themes, had explicitly political pieces, such as the seminal The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
Possibly the first ‘conscious’ rap track, the classic The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, continued this tradition, relaying the reality of the ghettos millions of Black men and women were stuck in, to the radios of White America. Groups such as the unapologetic Public Enemy were far rawer and angrier, directly speaking to the powers that be, and vowing to tear them down – sample this lyric that’s gone down in hip hop history:
I got a letter from the government the other day
I opened and read it, it said they were suckers
This represented a blunt attack on the institutions that sought to blur the line between patriotism and toeing the government line. It refused acquiescence to the majority view, of false nationalism. This is a stance that many in India can relate to right now, despite the prevalent fierce authoritarianism and majority-appeasement. And in such an environment, musicians are a critical voice, one that can represent, and reach large sections of the population. And fortunately, unlike Scott Heron’s time, the revolution need not be televised for it to reach the masses – social media, YouTube, SoundCloud and more have democratized the spread of music.
Luckily, Indian hip hop has taken advantage of this ecosystem to develop a grassroots movement that is slowly but surely seeping into the mainstream. Way back in 2007, Blaaze put out Ban The Crooked Police, an indictment of the corrupt police force that was a singular political moment in Indian music. Unfortunately, the song never gained the traction it should have. But it was an important moment, and one that many familiar with the Indian rap community recognize as a classic.
Fortunately, two of the biggest names on the scene right now, Naezy and Divine, belong to a breed of rapper that rep the communities they come from, and present intricate details of their lives, while continuously working their way upwards. This parallels the rise of rappers in 90s America, whether it be Nas, Biggie, Jay Z on the East Coast, or N.W.A, Tupac and their like on the West Coast – who told gritty tales of the environments they were a product of, and hence vividly brought into the public consciousness the lives of people who were glossed over for decades. They were angry, they had something to say, and they wanted to claim glory. Take the song that is largely responsible for Naezy and Divine’s status in music, the stellar collaboration, Mere Gully Mein.
The language employed is important – the vernacular is straight from the streets they’re from, and is a lyrical trip through the narrow gullys and tiny houses they grew up in, and refuse to abandon. There is pride in what these places, and the people in them, have given them, with the occasional nod to the institutionalized corruption; a favourite line is
Chor mere gully mein, woh toh saala mantri hai
The music video enhances the verbal imagery, providing visual context to the music, with glimpses of everyday life, as well as shots of celebration of how far they’ve come, hip hop dancing and all. It’s an honest representation of the rappers’ lives, in a manner reminiscent of the roots of the genre in sound and theme, such as the classic Nas track, NY State of Mind. What Nas accomplished was an exercise in lyrical painting, presenting imagery that rang true for the communities it came from, while challenging the preconceptions of the white majority in the rest of America. Similarly, Naezy and Divine are fresh young voices for people that were subject to one-note stereotypical representation in popular culture. It’s only when these tropes are broken and rewritten that the monotone narrative of governments and privileged voices can be challenged, and attacked.
These new narratives are being written right now – Naezy’s latest track, Azaad Hu Mai, is an aggressive declaration of freedom from oppressive forces, with a stunning flow and lyrical acrobatics that put him among the best, irrespective of language, rapped over production that harkens back to the glory days of NY rap. But possibly the most important of this release is its form, as part of the popular music streaming app, Saavn’s Artist Original Program, of which Naezy is the first to be a part of. This represents a merge of his music into the mainstream, a blow to the grand old forces of generic Bollywood music, thus making for a fierce, revolutionary statement. Remember, this is a guy that started off recording music on his iPad just a few short years ago. Naezy has come a long way, and it’s an essential rebuff of the status quo – a role he acknowledges and owns, with lyrics such as
Vyaktigat koshish se bhi kraanti ka aagaz hu mai
Divine, meanwhile, is firmly grounded in the streets, and his Gully Gang, his music expressing the passion of someone who’s had little to his name. This music is released through Sony Music Entertainment India, one of the biggest record labels in the country, and one that usually restricts itself to Bollywood. This integration of underground hip hop into the mainstream reflects the rise of major label hip hop in the US in the 90s; mistakes were made then, but with that precedent, it seems likely that Divine and his ilk will fight to retain creative control. It’s heartening, then, that his latest songs stick to his roots.
And there are the rappers who are using music purely as an activistic tool, such as the indomitable Sofia Ashraf. Since her most famous song, the anti-Unilever Kodaikanal Won’t, Sofia has taken a stand on multiple other political issues, including most recently, the infamous Sasikala.
Sofia and her band take their message against divisive politics literally to the streets outside Sasikala’s residence, before they’re stopped by a cop. It’s a small, yet powerful moment – it’s hip hop as protest, a voice for those deemed voiceless. It’s a testament to the necessity of music existing outside traditional avenues of music, away from the privileged avenues of movie industries that forced political correctness into Indian music. This is art at its truest, its purest.
Indian hip hop is just beginning to come into its own, but it has already ensured that it’s a force to reckon with. There are dozens more rappers other than the ones mentioned here who are making their presence felt, and will continue to contriubte to the burgeoning scene. Their very act of creating music for their communities is political, and as their music evolves, it is sure to find ways to make far more explicit statements. There is hope that our rappers, in the words of the Mighty Mos Def, will take
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles