Hip-Hop Homeland: India’s underground rap scene

A new hip-hop movement in India sees rappers perform in the vernacular to speak to – and for – the Indian masses.

Hip-hop India
Hip-hop fans from Mumbai feel a connection with the artists, who share similar backgrounds and experiences [Image courtesy of 101 India]

Mumbai, India – It’s a Wednesday night at a popular bar in Khar, an area of Mumbai that’s home to the city’s young and creative professionals. An unusual crowd lines up outside the busy venue: Instead of high heels and handbags, there are hoodies; American football jerseys replace designer skirts and the crowd is much younger than the typical requirement of 21 years.

Some are refused entry at the door, but decide to stay outside, where the energy is buzzing. It’s the launch night of the second series of Hip-hop Homeland, a web series produced by the youth news portal 101 India.

Tonight’s line-up features of some of the biggest names on India’s underground hip-hop circuit. Many fans have been following the rappers, who emerged from the same background as them – since they first began their careers. And many – like 13-year-old Noor Hasan, who waits outside while his older brother films what’s happening inside for him on his mobile phone – have aspirations to follow in their footsteps.

Inside, it’s not long before the venue’s 250-person capacity is reached.

The host warms up the crowd. Calling for revolution and change from the stage, the first group of the night, a Mumbai-based collective who call themselves Swadesi, take the stage.

The group Mumbai's Finest rap mostly in Hindi about the challenges of growing up in a city as complex as Mumbai [Image courtesy of 101 India]
The group Mumbai’s Finest rap mostly in Hindi about the challenges of growing up in a city as complex as Mumbai [Image courtesy of 101 India]

The highlight of the night is 23-year-old Naved Shaikh, who goes by the name Naezy. One of the most popular and well-known acts in this genre, Naezy rhymes and rips his way through a set with his fans singing along.

Indianising hip-hop

While commercially driven hip-hop is popular in India, songs with more socially conscious and politically charged lyrics have been developing over the years, addressing government corruption, poverty and gender rights.

According to the emerging artists, they are influenced by independence revolutionaries and socially conscious hip-hop artists such as American Tupac Shakur and the English rapper, Akala.

“We have received a better education from [rap music] than we ever got from our history books,” says 20-year-old Shantanu Pujari, a member of Swadesi. The group is named after an Indian political movement during the British colonial era that encouraged domestic production and the boycott of British goods as a step towards independence.

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Though the rappers are drawn to the rebellious nature and the sounds of American hip-hop, they’ve made a conscious decision to rap mostly in the vernacular to speak to – and for – the Indian masses.

“Hip-hop is a powerful form of protest music that can help spread awareness on why people are frustrated,” says Virinder Kalra, a professor of sociology at Manchester University who has researched South Asian music and culture.

“The media and government are not doing enough to raise awareness on issues that affect us on a daily basis,” says Deepa Unnikrishnan, 18, a rapper who also goes by the name Dee MC. 

While the country has a burgeoning media landscape, with more than 400 satellite news channels and 12,000 newspapers, according to the Reuters Institute, an editorial agenda aimed at India’s growing middle class mean less coverage of issues affecting those lower down the social and economic ladder.

“Hip-hop only makes sense in a sociocultural context,” says Bob Omulo, a Kenyan-born journalist who organises hip-hop events and has been following the Mumbai rap scene for 15 years. “African and Latin American rappers created their own identity by talking about issues they relate to. That’s what has had to happen in India – they had to ‘Indianise’ their hip-hop.

“Once you are able to relate it to your local context, you own it,” he says.

Naved Shaikh, who goes by the name Naezy, riddles, rhymes and rips his way through a song, with fans singing along to his politically charged lyrics [Vaibhav Jaiswal/Al Jazeera]
Naved Shaikh, who goes by the name Naezy, riddles, rhymes and rips his way through a song, with fans singing along to his politically charged lyrics [Vaibhav Jaiswal/Al Jazeera]

‘I live here, too’

The internet has played a fundamental role in the evolution of this genre. As access to the internet grew, aspiring rappers gained a better understanding of the roots of hip-hop, the pioneers of the genre and elements of hip-hop culture such as breakdancing.

But, more importantly, they were introduced to the idea of the genre being used as an outlet for their frustrations.

Cyrus Oshidar, the managing director and chief creative officer of 101 India, says that technology – combined with more interest in political and social issues among India’s youth – has contributed to the growth.

“Politics used to be a parallel universe for young Indians and [those] in power had nothing really to do with their immediate environment,” Oshidar says. “But with the internet has come newfound confidence for the youth to say: ‘I live here, too.’

“Their lives are hard and there’s an underlying anger of ‘Why can’t I be young and heard?’ That’s what’s motivating them.”

Mumbai-based researcher and writer Savita Vij adds that the accessibility of the internet means “more and more young people are consuming global music styles of protest.  

“You can now make music without needing recording studios and upload them on to the internet,” Vij says. “That is empowering a technology-savvy generation.”

But the mainstream entertainment industry has also begun taking notice. Twenty-five-year-old rapper from Mumbai, Vivian Fernandez, also known as MC Divine, signed with Sony Music last year and was named by BBC Asian Network as an artist to watch in 2016.

“This [success] has the potential to inspire more young people to pick up the mic and express themselves in this way,” Kalra says.

“I want to explain to people in my community, in their own language, that I am just like them and look how I’ve changed,” Naezy adds. “I want to show them they can build their future rather than wasting time on the streets.”

The Mumbai movement

Described as India’s “maximum city”, with more than 50 percent of the city’s 20-million plus population living in slums, nowhere in India is the divide between rich and poor more apparent than in Mumbai. And this is where many of the artists emerge.

Naezy was born and raised in Kurla, a part of Mumbai notorious for drug-related violence and poverty. He now uses music as a way to condemn the injustices he sees.

In his latest track Haq Hai (having a right), he narrates the story of a young girl who goes to bed hungry. In the song, he criticises the government for not doing enough to deal with the issue.

In his song, he raps: “I am a boy from Mumbai, the land of vices, the rich, the entertainers and the miserable, the land of the poor, the vagabonds.”

Mumbai-based rapper MC Divine takes to the stage during a recent hip-hop gig in Mumbai [Image courtesy of 101 India]
Mumbai-based rapper MC Divine takes to the stage during a recent hip-hop gig in Mumbai [Image courtesy of 101 India]

In the same track he criticises government inaction over the devastating drought in his home state of Maharashtra that has already driven more than 200 farmers to suicide this year.

Naezy, who raps in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, says: “No other genre allows you to tell stories authentically and in as much detail as the way hip-hop does.”

“Rappers like Naezy give us that hope,” one hip-hop fan from Mumbai, 24-year-old Sarah Ali, says. “Their lyrics speak about the real things we face in life.”

“These rappers are talking about [our neighbourhoods], about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, corruption and terrorism,” another fan, Sushil Vishwanath Yadav from Mumbai, adds. “Plus, the rappers speak street slang, which we all understand more.”

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“If there is any art form that has a chance of breaking down class barriers in the Indian entertainment industry, it’s hip-hop,” Omulo says. “Many of these rappers come from lower income families and hip-hop culture is entwined with the talent – this is a localised art form.”

Beyond Mumbai

But this musical trend has spread beyond Mumbai to, among other places, Kolkata, Bangalore and Kashmir.

In their 2012 track Re-Introduction, Cryptographik Street Poets addressed the two-decade-long battle between the Uranium Corporation of India and local opposition environmental groups in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

The Punjab-based brothers Navdeep and Harsimran Singh formed their group Kru172 in 2008. They have used their music to react to what is regarded as India’s “heroin valley“. Punjab has one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the country, with figures showing that around 70 percent of Punjabi men between the ages of 16 and 35 are addicted to the drug.

“No one is covering the issues that are affecting people in Punjab,” Navdeep told Al Jazeera. “One of our songs, Sunlo Gull [Listen to what I say] advises people not to drink or take drugs.”

“We realised we had a responsibility with our music and the response from our listeners has been really positive.”

Sumukh Mysore, a 25-year-old rapper from Bangalore, says: “Hip-hop was never just about music – it’s a culture that has real social relevance. Now we have more knowledge of the art, and today’s Indian MCs are turning into a representation of what’s around us.”

Source: Al Jazeera