Zubair Magray, who goes by the stage name Haze Kay, raps about the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir. The 23-year-old, one of the first rappers to emerge from the valley, blames the Indian military for "ruining" his homeland.
In his two-storey apartment on the outskirts of Srinagar, he spreads out his "recording studio" on the dining table in front of us - a keyboard, a laptop, a microphone and headphones. He guides us through his music, before he starts rapping again. All his songs have an easily identifiable common thread: protest.
Kashmir has been a contentious issue between India and Pakistan since the 1947 partition. In the late 1980s, counter-insurgency tactics by India made Kashmir one of the most militarised regions in the world. Today, an estimated half a million Indian soldiers are stationed here, with one soldier for every 17 civilians.
But according to Haze Kay and his rapper colleagues, the trials and tribulations of the Kashmiris have been forgotten in the region's turmoil. They want to buck this trend by giving Kashmiris a voice through their music.
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Rise of rap
Rap music in Kashmir drew attention during the 2010 summer protests against the Indian military. Drawing inspiration from the Palestinian intifada, young Kashmiri men came out on the streets to pelt stones at military personnel. In response, the Indian army killed around 100 civilian protesters, many of them teenagers.
"I protest", by MC Kash - aka Roushan Illahi - became an anthem of these protests. Since then, the number of protest rappers in the valley has been multiplying; today, there are more than a dozen renowned Kashmiri protest hip-hop artists.
Dr Ronald Eyermann, a professor at Yale University who researches the role of music in social and political movements, explained that people resort to music as a form of protest in fearful and intimidating situations because "it welds a group together, gives courage and solace in trying situations, offers a group a chance to tell their story, their history".
Eyermann added that rap functions as a form of respite for agitated youngsters in Kashmir, providing "an attitude and symbol which express[es] resistance".
"My music raises issues in Kashmir. Why is someone picking up stones and throwing them? It is about giving them a voice. It is about conveying their message to the people."
- MC Haze Kay, Kashmiri rapper
Haze Kay agreed: "My music raises issues in Kashmir. Why is someone picking up stones and throwing them? It is about giving them a voice. It is about conveying their message to the people." People around the world should know why there is such discontent among Kashmiris, he added.
Fear and intimidation
A major reason for this discontent stems from human rights violations allegedly committed by the Indian army. According to some estimates, more than 8,000 non-combatants have disappeared from Kashmir in the past two decades. In 2011, human rights lawyer Pervez Imroz uncovered mass graves containing more than 2,000 bodies. The State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) agreed with Imroz's claims that these bodies could belong to some of those who disappeared.
Horrid stories of enforced disappearances and fake encounters echo in the valley. Haze Kay narrates one: "It happened right in front of my neighbour's home. A military jeep brought someone and made him stand in front of that neighbour's door. A few shots and he was dead. The next day, the newspapers falsely said that it was an encounter. It's clear that they are using civilians as targets and human shields."
In one of his rap songs, Haze Kay questions the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in operation in Kashmir since 1990, which gives troops the right to shoot anyone merely on grounds of suspicion and guarantees them immunity from prosecution. Haze Kay believes the AFSPA is largely responsible for giving legal impunity to the army in the context of its poor human rights record.
"If something is going wrong, it should be brought to notice. People should know about it," Haze Kay said. "I am not saying I want freedom or my country is bad. I am saying that I am living here, I am a resident, I am a voter, give me my rights. Give me a place where I feel safe."
As he explains more about his political views and his personal experiences with the Indian army, his mother walks out to the room where we are conducting the interview. She makes a humble plea to us to stop recording for a moment. She has been overhearing our conversations, and warns her son to "confine his comments to music".
His mother is worried that Haze Kay might run into trouble for speaking out against the administration. "After all he's my son and I am his mother," she says. "My heart will be throbbing about his safety once he leaves home tomorrow."
"If I am caught singing something that's seen as being politically threatening, I would be slapped with the Public Safety Act and my life would be over ... They ask us to sing about certain topics. That way they try to control our anger and our voice."
- MC Youngblood, Kashmiri rapper
The fear Haze Kay's mother feels is not unfounded. Rappers in Kashmir have faced direct threats and intimidation from the administration.
MC Youngblood, full name Qasim Hyder, is a budding rapper in Srinagar - lately, he's been having troubles finding a studio to record his rap songs.
"I heard that the studios were getting raided. I was worried that the same thing would happen to me," MC Youngblood said. "If I am caught singing something that's seen as being politically threatening, I would be slapped with the Public Safety Act and my life would be over."
The 19-year-old complains that the studios in Srinagar check the rap lyrics before allowing rappers to use their facilities, and also impose other conditions. "They ask us to sing about certain topics. That way they try to control our anger and our voice."
As a result of these restrictions, many protest rappers stay underground and MC Youngblood has now also begun recording at home in his ad-hoc studio.
He said he has to be careful because he doesn't want his parents to know what he's doing. "Only my sister and my younger brother know about my music. I don't want many people to know because if I get into trouble, it might also get them into a mess."
Stifling voices of dissent?
In August this year, Kashmir will be organising its first rap battle, Rap Impact, an event which is advertised with posters all over the central mall in Srinagar. Entry is open to anyone but protest rappers.
DJ Aki, Kashmir's first DJ, is organising the event. While he welcomes people from "all religions, creeds and castes" to join the contest, he says he won't tolerate protest rap. "I have put down clear cut conditions that there will be no political rap in the competition, because it will end up in violence," he says. "If people still go ahead and perform protest rap, they will be pulled off the stage and terminated from further participating."
DJ Aki thinks protest rappers are misplacing their anger. "If they are angry about some issues, they should be more constructive in going about it. Just blaming India for what's happening here isn't going to help. Their protest rap is not going to solve the problem of Kashmir."
Al Jazeera also met a number of protest rappers who, while requesting anonymity, accused the organisers of being hand-in-glove with the Indian administration. They viewed the contest as a way of stifling their voice and distracting young rappers away from any political inclination. One of the rappers explained: "They have been sponsored partly by the government - that is why they aren't allowing any protest rap."
But DJ Aki dismisses these claims and highlighted that the former mayor of Kashmir contributed money to the contest out of his own pocket. "The contest is a platform for young artists. We are artists, let's not forget that. We are not politicians. So let us just perform music and leave the politics to the politicians."
The 23-year-old DJ introduced us to 17-year-old Hamza Arshad, a participant at the competition. Arshad is not a protest rapper and is proud of it. He thinks protest rappers are primarily after fame, and doesn't mind the conditions of the contest. When asked about his political views on Kashmir, he darts back: "I love India. It is my motherland."
Follow Felix Gaedtke on Twitter: @FelixGaedtke, and Gayatri Parameswaran: @pgaya3
Source: Al Jazeera