Culture & Society

Migrant Rappers In Delhi’s Khirkee Extension Battle To Make a Mark

Once home to a budding indigenous rap movement, Khirkee Extension in Delhi is slowly losing its talented residents in the face of racism, casteism and economic strife

Navya Asopa
Vaastav Ek7’s Sumit and Sahil (left to right) perform their first rap song, ‘Shuruaat’ for an excited young audience that cannot help but sing along Photo: Navya Asopa

December 13, 2023

The Community Library in Mehrauli is decorated with marigold flowers and yellow banners today. Children assemble, animated for the festivities planned. Amidst the commotion on the street, a rap duo Vastav Ek 7, comprising rappers Sahil and Sumit are waiting to come on stage and play their latest release for their excited audience. Sahil quickly murmurs a few lines from the song while Sumit refuses to make eye contact with him but nods along.

Community Library in Mehrauli Photo: Navya Asopa

One of the librarians calls upon the performers. Sumit gestures towards the speaker blasting their rap beat, and the show begins:

 “Shuruaat hai, Shuruaat hai. Tera bhai likhke dega ek din itihaas hai

Shuruaat hai, Shuruaat hai. Dilli wale ladke saare hi toh khaas hai”

Talent Incubator

Khirkee Extension is an urban village located close to Malviya Nagar in Delhi. The area’s lower rents have attracted a diverse population ranging from Bihari migrants, African nationals to Afghan refugees. And, with them, this blend of people has made Khirkee a melting pot and incubator of artistic talent from underground rappers to large-scale mural artists. The place belongs to immigrants looking opportunities for survival, work and community.

Malini Kochupillai, an urban researcher and the co-founder of Khirkee Voice, a quarterly local newspaper, notes, “Khirkee is a place of flux and it is constantly changing.” She started visiting Khoj Studios, an arts organisation, in 2010. Malini has witnessed many young artists come to the place at the time. This, she believes, is another feature that makes Khirkee special.

Rap and hip hop have been an underground culture of Khirki for two decades. “Rap is something that I believe young people in Khirki use as an outlet for their thoughts and for their struggles,” she says. However, many rappers do not find sustenance in the craft. Nearly all rappers in Khirkee have day jobs and they do gigs on the side.

Who Can Rap?

Sumit and Sahil are both migrants from Uttar Pradesh. Sahil was only 12-years-old when he discovered ‘Swag Mera Desi’ by Raftaar and realising that he too wanted to write and produce such songs. Now, he talks only in rhymes.

But, for him, getting on stage alone was scary. “I did not have the courage to go and rap, I needed a partner,” he reflected. Little did he know that through his practice sessions he motivated a friend to rap. Soon, Sahil and Sumit made their debut with ‘Shuruaat’. With a Dilli Spirit, the group says they “want to talk about reality, that’s why we named our group reality,” Sahil explains.

Belonging to a Dalit family from Kasganj in Uttar Pradesh, Sahil works as a part-time librarian at the Community Library Project while also studying for a Bachelor’s in Hindi Journalism at the Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar College, Delhi University. He is the first college-goer in his family and earns Rs 16,000 per month, more than half of which he sends to his family.

When he decided to write rap on the side, many around him questioned his abilities: “have you ever seen a rapper from your caste?

He responds with music:

“Hiphop ka mai haath pakda 12 ki umar, chal diya mai toh rapper banne ke safar mein

Rasta hai lamba abhi bohot aage jaana hai, Maa ko kiya vaada pura karke dikhaana hai

Maa ne mujhko kiya hamesha se support, kyuki baaki logo ke soch mein tha khot”

Ethos of Rap in Library

The library helped both young men articulate their anger. As an intern at the TCLP’s South Extension, Sumit juggles between work and a Political Science Honour’s degree from Satyawati College. But he does not mind spending more time at the library.

Born out of an anti-caste people’s initiative, the library aims to make books accessible for all. Vaastav Ek 7’s favourite shelf is at the left corner of the Khirkee branch’s room, ‘Haq ki Baat’, loaded with literature on social justice, gender equality, and secularism and anti-caste movements.

Mridula Koshy, Community Organiser with TCLP, believes that ‘rap is a natural fit’ for the ethos of the library. “When you open a door very wide like our library does, many come out of here becoming college students. Many, many people come out of here becoming artists,” she remarks. However, an initiative like this is not built alone. “Shivek, Shivam, Sahil probably put at least as much energy into building it as I did,” she added.

It was through the library that Sahil met yet another rap group of Khirkee, ‘10Takk’ (pronounced DasTak) formed by Shivam and Shivek in 2020. The duo started rapping together in empty classrooms during free periods as 10th-grade students at Malviya Nagar’s government school. Shivek recollects listening to ‘Farak’ by Divine and feeling drawn towards the side of rap which is not written simply through a commercial angle.

In a Zero Time Zone

Shivek’s mother, a migrant from Bihar, is employed as a domestic worker in Malviya Nagar and his father is a driver. ”Prarambh”, 10Tak’s first single was recorded on Shivek’s father’s old phone. Inspired by Delhi’s artists such as Seedhe Maut, a hip-hop duo represented by the independent label Azadi Recods, he has always had a clear vision of what his rap would be about. His one lament: between working part-time at TCLP and studying for Hindi Honour’s at the College of Vocational Studies, he does not find enough time to practice with Shivam.


“Dad tells me to learn coding. Mother asks me to prioritize education,” says his partner, Shivam, with a sigh. Shivam moved with his parents from Samastipur, Bihar and lives on rent in the Extension. He also works part-time at the library and while completing his B.Tech at the Greater Noida Institute of Technology. Since the college commute takes up over an hour, he writes lyrics while standing in the metro.

A fan of Jaun Eliya and the Pakistani hip-hop duet of Talha Anjum and Talhah Yunus, called ‘Young Stunners’, he listens to their lyrics on loop to find inspiration for his writing. “Jaun Eliya’s lines are extensively used by Talha Anjum. I have also begun reading his work,” he says. But no one can beat Premchand, he believes.


Many sleepless nights lead to one solid set of lyrics. Shivek sings in Dastak’s ‘Daur’

“Nek kaam, nek parinaam,

Puri raat jaagu likhu rap bass ye kaam”

Sahil, as a fellow rapper, resonates with the struggle of looking for time where there is none. He rhymes his thoughts, while chatting, without missing a beat:

“Raato ko jaagkar likha tha pehla geet,

Kyuki dil aur dimaag mein bhara tha sangeet,

Sangeet hai asha, sangeet hi hai pyaar.”

Shivam and Shivek (left to right) stand outside of Khoj Studios to discuss in detail their admiration for Jaun Eliya and the process of writing Photo: Navya Asopa

A Selective Space

Despite similar intentions and experiences, the two rap groups, Dastak and Vaastav seldom jam together because there are few places left in Khirkee to record. Unable to record high-quality music at home, the groups are perennially in search of studios. Khoj Studios used to be a haven for artists but Sahil from Vaastav Ek7 informs that they have recently begun charging.


Earlier, public spaces like parks were available to artists. Aastha Chauhan, an artist who previously worked in community engagement with Khoj Studios in 2004, says, “Public places, like the Khirki Mall which came up opposite, used to be the playground for these kids. And then suddenly it was gated and they couldn’t perform over there.”

They also find themselves overlooked in the rap battles organized by affluent groups like Rap Club of Delhi (RCD). Shivek does not enjoy participating in RCD’s cyphers– gathering of rappers who freestyle lyrics; he feels they are unfair. “The same people are lent a chance. We don’t have as many contacts,” he notes.


“Contacts” by another name is privilege. It is one way in which the ostensibly independent Indian music scene gatekeeps artists from marginalized communities. Only a handful of the artists, such as Divine, or Mumbai-based rapper Emiway Bantai, who grew up on the streets, found success and a way to collaborate have found success. “It’s about social’s about caste capital. It’s about who you know," says Ojas Shetty, an anthropologist and hip-hop artist manager.

Rappers from marginalised communities find it’s not just their entry that’s restricted, but also their freedom of expression. Shivek was deeply affected by the demolitions in Delhi in September ahead of the G-20 event. But, when uploaded a rap about it on YouTube through the 10Tak account, the video was taken down for “showing violence.”


The song, titled ‘Fuck G20’ is pinned to his personal Instagram account:

“Fuck government.

Mere sheher ka haal banaya hai kya?

Raasto se chheena gareeb ka ghar

Aur dar ka mahaul banaya hai kya?”

The Otherised

The birth of rap in New York city’s Bronx area in the 1970s is synonymous with the area’s black populous, who needed a way to express their frustration with institutional racism they experienced daily. But, as Ojas points out the story is one of upper-caste privilege. “Is it rappers like Yashraj and Badshah who are determining India’s sound?”

Khirkee’s rap culture was also born out of oppression. But when in 2014, Aam Aadmi Party MLA, Somnath Bharti raided African households in Khirkee, accusing them of running a prostitution and drug racket, there was an exodus. Nearly 90 per cent of the African residents moved out of the neighbourhood as a result. The African artists and rappers who were integral to the community are now missing from the scene.


Only a few stayed. Patrick Kelende from Congo continues to live in Khirkee and make music with Romeo for their 2016 band, 4 Af Music. While Romeo moved out to Faridabad, Patrick chose to stay back as Khirkee houses UNHCR’s BOSCO Refugee Assistance Programme’s office. His wife is handicapped and needs physiotherapy.

A Congolese refugee, Patrick fled in 2012. Though he is a trained electronic engineer, there are scant opportunities in Congo. He sings in Hindi, English and Lingala, but relishes playing traditional African music.

Patrick’s bandmate Romeo, is also a Congolese native. He left Khirkee five years ago but could not stop singing– it’s an outlet for his expression. “I like to bring my colour to my music,” he says. In Khirkee, Romeo says people made racist assumptions. “They think all of us are drug sellers.”


Patrick has had to face the same hurdles. No landlord was willing to rent him a place at first. Finding a job as an African was like passing a loose thread through a needle, he says. By working several jobs at once — a barber for African migrants, a translator for African natives, through his gigs — he managed to earn around Rs 6000 per month.

His songs speak to his experience in India. “We are refugees, we have refugee documents. We need peace,” he states. A fan of Papa Wemba, the Congolese singer, he loves experimenting. One of the Congolese songs that Romeo and he wrote, “Everything is Going Fine”, talks about the act of loving in times of distress (translated)–


“I want to know, I want to see if you love me.

You can’t see love, you can feel it.”

Good Ol’ Days

At one time, Khirkee was alive with the sound of intensive hip-hop practices, freestyle raps, and a diverse group of artists. Aastha Chauhan notes, “Post 9/11, a lot of non-elite Indians had to leave the country and with that wave came kids who identified with a certain language of poetry and feeling invisible in a big city. He Ra was one such kid.”

In 2004, post the 9/11 attacks in the States, Netrapal Singh, aka He Ra, returned to India and started hip hop classes, first in Dharavi, then in Khirkee Extension.


In 2010, he established the Tiny Drops hip-hop community centre in collaboration with the Khoj International Artists’ Association. Soon, groups like SlumGods, comprising thirty-odd performers, emerged. Later, a smaller group from SlumGods– MC Freezak, MC Hari and MC Akshay Tashan– formed the Extension’s rap trio, ‘Khirkee-17’.

Now, Freezak and Akshay are left alone in Khirkee, desperately looking to fend for themselves. Mahesh Kumar Jha, or Freezak as he’s known, was born in Panipat, Haryana, and moved to Delhi with his parents when he was five-years-old. His parents had an inter-caste marriage, but are separated. His mother works as a security guard in Malviya Nagar.


A 12th standard dropout, Jha joined Khoj and started learning hip hop there with He Ra. His co-rappers also hailed from working-class migrant backgrounds, and had to leave the scene under pressure of familial responsibilities- “They lived on rent, had sisters to marry off and needed to earn a living,” he says.

Jha/ Freezak relies on his mother’s income and has been attempting to produce music independently since 2020. He recently performed in a local gig in Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan. The group did not succeed as He Ra left them in the middle while they were struggling financially, he says.


Akshay, his previous hip-hop partner, lost motivation. In the daytime, he scours venues for event management gigs; at night he rides horses for weddings. MC Tashan started rapping after he was inspired by ‘Desi Beam’. His mother is employed as a domestic worker, and his father as a welder. “Our group’s name was in the talks. But we did not receive any personal benefit. SlumGods Mumbai snatched away all the credit,” he complained. Khirkee-17 started underground, and remained underground.

“I keep thinking why I started,” says Jha/ Freezak. As a fresh face in hip-hop, he used to write about socio-political issues. He rapped about the Nirbhaya rape case. The group, Khirkee-17’s first release was called “Politician ki Manmani” which addressed problems of partisan politics. Gradually, Freezak shifted to writing about his personal life.


Ojas notes this is a systemic issue: “A lot of them have moved away from it [protest rap] simply because commercial projects don’t want to just do this– they want party rap that a lot of young people will want to listen to.”

Freezak stands right in front of the Malviya Nagar metro station and spits his rhymes:

Hip hop ko bachaana tha, Hip hop ko bachaunga

Isko chhodkar mai kahi nahi jaaunga,

Na kisi ka khaaya hai, na kabhi khaaunga

Mai toh bass gaunga”

MC Freezak (extreme-left) sitting with his friend Brijesh and hip-hop partner, MC Akshay Tashan (extreme right) after a busy four months of work, to remember the good old days of being active rappers Photo: Navya Asopa

Lingering Hope

Rabani, a researcher who is working on Khirkee Extension’s art spaces and artists, says that Khirkee “is not a hub of hip-hop anymore.” It held a bigger presence of hip-hop artists a few years ago, some of which was also attributed to the support of the area’s arts organisations.


Hip hop in Khirkee started as a cultural practice rather than a solid career path, states Bhanuj Kappal, a music journalist based in Mumbai. “It came from pride in the street in knowing that the upper-class people around you keep telling you that you don’t have work beyond manual labour. But you do.”

He notes that generally, the Indian music industry “has never been very open to working-class musicians.”  Those living away from serious mentorship, Mumbai’s booming music industry, and its media attention barely scrape through. “Making it big is particularly difficult for marginalised groups, such as women and queer people,” notes Bhanuj.


Jeevika, aka, Kinari is Khirkee’s only transwoman rapper. In 2016, Kinari, who is from Tamil Nadu and moved around the country due to her father's transferable job, went to Reed College for a Bachelor’s in philosophy in 2016. However, she returned in 2021 when her visa expired.

In America, she faced transphobia and exploitation. Her employer at an Indian restaurant did not pay her salary for a month’s work. This isolating experience led her to the Ballroom culture and the beats of Black women artists like Rico Nasty and Cardi B. “I liked rap since childhood. But I stopped because it was a man’s world,” says Kinari. Now, she creates her own tunes. Her new album ‘Kattar Kinnar’ was released on April 7, 2024.


Her father works in a government bank, but distanced himself when Jeevika decided to transition. “I am who I amI have left my family and I am living how I want to now. I am doing this music stuff which gives me immense joy,” she says. When she came to India, she decided to come to Delhi, and specifically Khirkee, because of its thriving transgender neighbourhoods. “I am not the only Kinnar (transgender) here,” she reflects.

Kinari earns through Hindi tuitions and sex work. “I get one night in weeks to write. But when I sit to write, it just flows,” she says.


Her voice stands out:

Wave from the stage, Now he’s acting like he knows me

Bande rappers saare mid, toh mai jaati zyada show nahi.

I can’t be the hit chilling with a fucking flop,

Unko chahiye mujhse verseSomeone tell them I’m a top

Despite the endless lane of roadblocks, she keeps optimism close: “I am strengthening my voice.” Through her open-minded music, which does not shy away from expressing sexuality, trauma, and personal growth, she hopes to empower more women and people from marginalised communities to enter the rap scene.

Navya Asopa is an aspiring journalist and an incoming journalism student at Columbia University