The thing about hip-hop today is it’s smart, it’s insightful. The way they can communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable.
—Barack Obama, Former US President
With his chiselled body and dimpled smile, Rahul Rajkhowa could be the quintessential chocolate-boy hero in a Bollywood romcom. Throw in the pose-with-the-rose and the picture of the guitar-strumming lover-boy is complete. But that is not what Rahul is. Not even close. For, the 26-year-old is a rebel. A rapper. A hip-hop star. A young crusader who uses music as a weapon to fight for causes that affect the world around him. Just like Duleswar, 28, who goes by the fancy name of Dule Rocker. He is a rebel too. A Chemistry graduate from a government college in Kalahandi in Odisha, he once worked as a waiter in a hotel, even cleaned tables and washed plates as a migrant worker in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. But even in the tough times, he never forgot his roots—his agrarian family back home. Last year, as parts of India erupted in anger against the three new farm laws approved by Parliament, Dule Rocker vented his anger through a song titled, I Stand With Farmers—a song in Hindi, without any music and shot with a mobile phone in his village. Weeks later, young Indie artiste Young Daku composed another song in support of the peasants’ agitation. Calling it the Farmers Rap, the singer became one of the most prominent voices of dissent against the farm laws.
Across India, young, brash and little-known artistes with strong views are using hip-hop as an outlet to speak up and speak out, picking up even politically and socially-sensitive issues to vent their anger. And they are doing it in local languages, taking their messages to the hinterlands, creating awareness among people who don’t speak English and/or Hindi. India is witnessing a hip-hop churning with the genre throwing up new voices and fresh perspectives—lungi-clad artistes demolishing the stereotyped image of hip-hop star in hoodies and metal-studded caps. It’s a brave new world where hitherto unknown rappers are hogging the limelight, speaking truth to power through passionate takes on burning issues. The genre which took seed and grew on the sidewalks of Bronx, New York, as a means of dissent among Black-Americans has gone hyper-desi.
Dilin Nair aka Raftaar, one of India’s first rappers who broke through the mainstream music industry dominated by Bollywood songs, formed the country’s first hip-hop group ‘Mafia Mundeer’ along with two other rappers who would go on to become big stars—Yo Honey Singh and Badshah. The group’s first album International Villager was the first non-film music album to have enjoyed mainstream success in almost a decade. Their music was, though, mostly about shiny cars, fine wine and beautiful women—a genre that straddled rap and hip-hop but without the protest element. Over the years, Indian hip-hop became synonymous with pop, almost blurring the line between the two genres.
The Hip Crowd (Clockwise from right) Deep Kalsi, MC Altaf, Shah Rule, D’Evil, Raftaar, Rahul Rajkhowa, KRsna, Dule Rocker, Big Deal and Mary Kali.
Raftaar parted ways with Honey Singh in 2013 and the break-up turned out to be the breakthrough event year for Indian hip-hop; Raftaar’s ‘dissing’—strong criticism—of Honey Singh in his song Swag Mera Desi introduced competition among Indian rappers, which in turn fuelled experimentation with different elements of the genre. It was the first time one rapper openly called out another rapper in India. “It wasn’t anger. It was disappointment, because he (Honey Singh) had given me so much hope, and suddenly I see that he is taking all the credit due to me,” Raftaar says. “Hip-hop is real life. It will have consequences. If you are not doing anything real, then it won’t work,” he adds.
By that time, India was already on the digital highway and internet penetration deep into the country had sparked a boom in mobile telephony—with high-speed 3G coverage reaching even the remotest areas of the country. And together with the spread of social media platforms, time was just ripe for young talents to emerge. “The rapid spread of digital devices presented the artistes a never-before opportunity to show and tell…Production and distribution of content became very easy,” says Sanjay Ranade, an associate professor at the University of Mumbai, who has been studying popular culture and music in India (see).
In 2019, just after the BJP-led government at the Centre introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill—which would later become the Citizenship Amendment Act—JNU graduate Rahul Rajkhowa switched on his mobile phone and shot his now-famous rap: Let’s talk about citizenship amendment/The Constitution kinda feels redundant/Kinda feels like secularism is redundant/Coz’ you are back to dividing religions. The song went viral on social media and Rahul went on to rap even more fiercely on other burning issues. “Hip-hop is very genuine, very raw. There is no musicality. It’s saying things straight up,” says Rahul, who now teaches history at a Bangalore school. “As socially conscious artistes, we can’t sit silently doing nothing,” he adds. Over the past few years, hip-hop has slowly created dedicated audiences and a fan-base for itself. The number of artistes in this genre too hs grown across the country, talking about issues around them, or just on anything that focuses on humanising and empathising with the people. “If you put the truth out there, people will relate to it. That is what I do, when I create music and that’s why people relate to it,” says Delhi-based rapper KRsna.
ALSO READ: Songs Of Freedom & Redemption
But it has not always been easy for Indian hip-hop artistes to find acceptance in a highly conservative society. Especially in states like Bihar, where young artistes have to battle societal prejudices and family disapproval to find space for their craft, considered alien to our culture. Rahul, 19, a Patna-based hip-hop artiste, says he suffixed ‘Insane’ to his name as a badge of honour after being called mad for his choice of rapping clothes (see).
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
Across India, prejudices have often acted as trigger for young artistes to pick issues that are relevant across regions, across communities. Kerala-based rapper Fejo, considered a pioneer in the Malayalam hip-hop industry for his songs with strong socio-political themes, says his own personal experiences became the background for his songs. “It’s all the stuff I have been though as a kid. Right from facing caste issues, to being told I am different because of the way I looked, and constant comment on my economic status…I have felt really strongly about these,” he says. “I always had good writing skills and I considered myself a poet. That’s essentially what rap is. It is poetry. And once I sat down writing about what I felt, I found it was very easy to let the thoughts flow,” he adds.
ALSO READ: Wu-Tang Manual For Indie Homies
For Odisha-based rapper Samir Rishu Mohanty aka Big Deal, 31, what started with a rap-rant against a teacher soon turned into a crusade on issues that have a larger bearing on people. His song Haan Main Chinki Hun addressed racism faced by people from the Northeast in India’s mainland for the way they look. Born to a Japanese mother and Odia father, Samir himself faced racism for his looks—“small eyes and flat nose,” as he puts it. “I had written a song in English previously titled Are You From India. It was a bit successful, but I realised that many people still need to hear it. And that’s the decision behind writing this particular song in Hindi, because I wanted more people to hear about racism I have faced all my life. Be it in Darjeeling or in Bangalore, I have seen it everywhere,” he adds. But Samir is more at home when rapping in his mother tongue which, he feels, gives him the freedom to experiment with words and phrases. And his most popular song till date is Mu Heli Odia (I am Odia), his tribute to his home state. Fellow-Odia Duleshwar too found popularity when his Odia songs went viral on social media. “I am not very good at marketing or promoting my creations, so to see my songs going viral on the internet meant that whatever I was saying was reaching out to people,” he says.
One of the biggest reasons, many experts feel, hip-hop music has been able to grow the way it has in the country, is down to the fact that rappers have realised the importance of rapping in their mother-tongue, rather than in English. KRsna started writing rap songs in English, but it wasn’t until he wrote a few verses in Hindi that he realised he was much better at it. The ability to rap in the mother tongue delivers authenticity, says Mumbai-based rapper Shah Rule. “Hip-hop has gone regional now, and there is no one version of it. It is all over India right now. There are so many different languages that are flourishing in the world of rap. People are listening to them, respecting them, and thus helping them grow. At the end of the day, the local languages will represent us,” he adds.
ALSO READ: Clash Of Cultures In Smalltown Bihar
American academic Michael Eric Dyson, who has written a book on Tupac Shakur, once described hip-hop as the “brilliance of pavement poetry”. For Indian hip-hop artistes, it is also a lived experience. A shared life with others who have gone through the same situations or emotions. In Kashmir, where hip-hop flourished even before the genre evolved in other parts of the country, protest songs have been a part of the lives of the people. Young Kashmiri artistes have often used stinging words to dissent against authority and the State and creating awareness among the people (see)
Lived experiences have always provided the spark to hip-hop artistes to tell their stories to the people. “The source material can be anything. Real life. Love, relationships, friendships, heartbreaks, success, failure, betrayal, getting into an argument with someone…it could literally be anything. Probably a fan commentary, something nice or a hater saying something horrible, all that can also spark me off,” says Shah Rule. “We all are living in the same world. For me, it has always been about creating relatable content. That is something people want to listen to and want to relate to, in terms of their favourite artistes,” he adds.
Photograph by Shutterstock
And lyrics always form a very important part of the rapper’s story-telling process. It forms the basic idea of what the rapper wants to say, and while it can be about anything, it has to come from a real-life experience. Anna aka Mary Kali, from Kerala, feels her writings help her talk about issues she faced while wanting to become an artiste. A mother of two, Anna raps against inherent patriarchy and sexism in the society. “There is this image of a 37-year-old woman that everyone has, and right now through my music, I am trying to break that image. I have realised it is important to do so. Because, it will probably help others in realising they are facing something similar,” she says.
ALSO READ: Hip-Hop Found A Connect In Pain Of Kashmiris
For Duleshwar, rap and hip-hop gave him the much-needed strength, and a medium to express his feelings, not just about prejudices and stereotypes against Dalits, but also to talk about things, which he feels should be talked about. His song Sarkar Jawab De, which went viral last year, was about the crisis that the poor and the underprivileged faced when the first lockdown was implemented following the Covid pandemic outbreak, forcing them to walk back to their homes. Many of them travelled back on foot for days, without food or water. “It had shaken me to the very core, to be honest. I could not believe that the government would be so insensitive towards the plight of migrant workers. You know, in the West, if there is a pregnant woman on the road, people would take care of her and make sure that she is comfortable. Here, a pregnant woman walked for kilometres and kilometres, and nobody did anything,” he says.
The evolution Indian hip-hop into crews/gangs along with their increasing competitiveness, is what has given the Indian hip-hop scene its much needed identity now. Rappers understand the competitive aspect of this genre, and, in fact, feel proud about it. “It’s just how it is. I have been a sportsperson, so I understand the need to be competitive in this genre, because it is all about how you can present your thoughts in a better way than others,” explains Kerala-based musician Wayword. The meteoric rise of several rappers, including Raftaar, Badshah, Honey Singh, Divine, Raja Kumari and others, has encouraged many to follow their dream. As Raftaar puts it, “It is all about what you have to say from your heart.”
Varun Arora, now known as Karma, was born in Dehradun to a lower middle-class family. Introduced to the world of hip-hop in school through his friends, he knew his calling then. “But for a 12 or a 13-year-old boy from Dehradun, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t even know what music production was like, but I knew I wanted to do this,” he says. So intense was his passion, that he decided to drop out of his final year college exams to do a live performance. “It was at that moment I knew I had taken the right decision. I had people singing my song, something that I had only dreamt of sitting in my bedroom and thinking about all these rappers like Raftaar bhai or Badshah,” he says. Now he is on the verge of releasing his first album. “It is a dream come true. It is all about what I have gone through as a person, what made me who I am today,” he adds.
As hip-hop grows across India, youngsters are deejaying, MCing, graffiti painting and B-boying, and creating a culture of dissent and protest. In street corners and pavements. In small towns and big cities. It is a brave new world out there.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Rap For Resistance")
(Edited by Anupam Bordoloi)