Rap rebellion: No more Honey Singh, underground rappers keep it real

  • Humaira Ansari, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 16, 2016 15:27 IST
(From left) Prabh Deep Sagar raps in Punjabi, Cizzy in Bengali and Divine in Hinglish.

* ‘Politicians pray so much in temples, mosques, churches / that by the time they sit for an assembly meeting / they’re so tired that they doze’, sings Bijju from Bangalore, in Kannada.

* ‘Tilak Nagar is a hood with great food. The only real problem is of substance abuse’. That’s Delhi‘s MC Prabh Deep Sagar, who raps in Punjabi.

* In Kolkata, MC Cizzy likens rapping to the Bengali folk tradition kaviyal, raps about politics, discreet drinking behind pandals and other Bengali eccentricities, in Bengali.

These under-30s are among a new generation of hyper-local rappers who sing mainly in their mother tongues, Hindi and local slang. Wearing their roots on their sleeves, they use what is being called ‘conscious rapping’ and ‘pincode rapping’ to tackle issues that are local too, including corruption, urban poverty, identity and migration.

Over the past three years, many have developed dedicated local fan bases -- youngsters who copy their hairstyles, make bedazzled accessories bearing their names, offer them lifts or want to buy them chai.

Some have also used YouTube to great effect, giving them an appeal beyond pin code boundaries and even state borders. The best-known of these -- including Divine and Naezy from Mumbai, Prabh Deep from Delhi, and Borkung and Zwing Lee from Tripura -- are now taking the next step to gigs, music festivals and even slots on MTV.

Naezy’s Aafat , for instance, a song about life in his “khatarnak” (dangerous) neighbourhood -- with a video shot in the bylanes of a slum, on an iPad -- went viral in 2014 with over 4 lakh views on YouTube. A few months later, a documentary about him titled Bombay 70, named after his area’s pin code, won best short film at the Mumbai International Film Festival, the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image’s (MAMI) annual film festival.

Vivian Fernandez aka Divine, meanwhile, has just been signed by Sony Music, performed at a BBC event in London this month and wrote a song called Jungli Sher, released by Sony Music, that is the first single by an Indian artiste ever released worldwide by Apple Music.

Two weeks ago, Mumbai’s uber-trendy pub and coworking space, Khar Social, hosted an event called Hip Hop Homeland, bringing these desi rappers together on a single offline platform for the first time.

The event was organised by 101 India, a youth culture-centric digital portal that has been chronicling India’s evolving underground hip hop scene for 11 months, through video features on hyperlocal rappers.

“It was a natural extension of our video series,” says Cyrus Oshidar, former head of creative content at MTV and MD of 101India.com. “The most interesting music and lyrics are coming from the underground scene rather than from commercial hip hop musicians. This is an art form of the underdog and it’s good to see kids being creative with self-expression.”

What was also interesting to see was the response. On a Wednesday evening, as after-office types sipped sangria in the elegant patio section of the Social, the basement performance venue, antiSOCIAL, was drawing a very different crowd. Youngsters in hoodies, some carrying hoverboards, trickled in. Grumpy under- 21s cursed club rules and haggled for entry.

Inside, rap songs in Bambaiyya Hindi, Dilli Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati and Tamil were bringing the house down as Divine and Naezy, Tod Fod, Mavali and Prabh Deep performed.

Some in the audience knew the lyrics, others cheered when a line struck a chord.

“They’re killing it,” screamed a young woman, pumping her arm to the beat. “Too good. Too sick!”

Raising the bar, keeping it real

Underground desi artistes have been rapping for years. Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, for instance, has been a breeding ground of rebellious rappers, the most prominent being the troupe that calls themselves SlumGods.

But most of these bands were fostered by NGOs and stuck to the broader linguistic options of English, Hindi and Hinglish. Most of today’s regional language rappers also come from low-income neighbourhoods, but they are sharing their angst and frustration with their community in a shared language that brings with it its own idiom, familiarity and sense of comfort.

“Unlike other indie music genres, which have been restricted to the upper-middle classes, rapping needs little investment and no equipment. All you need is talent, a paper and a pen,” says Uday Kapur, formerly staff writer and artist manager at music and talent management company Only Much Louder and now an editorial consultant at 101 India. “Having established themselves online, those who have this talent are now scoring collaborations and finding support from mainstream music producers and corporate brands.”

In another key difference with the Dharavi-style bands, the earnings are trickling in.

“My first time in an airplane was last year,” says Naezy, who has performed at clubs across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore and opened for bass artist Nucleya at last year’s NH7 Weekender in Pune. “From not having ever worn branded clothes, today I often spend Rs 2,000 on a T-shirt.”

Divine believes their music is making it precisely because it wasn’t created for profit. “It’s really me that I put into my songs,” says the 25-year-old.

Banal lyrics or those reinforcing stereotypes, such as those of Yo Yo Honey Singh or Badshah, are being called out by young artistes across the country.

“Bengalis love listening to melodious numbers. In my tracks, I use sarcasm to tell them that now is not the time for flowers and birds. It’s the time to protest, to wake up and take notice of things like the malpractices in state elections,” says Rounak Chakraborty aka MC Cizzy, 22.

For up-and-coming Tripuri rapper Zwing Lee, meanwhile, rapping in his local dialect Kokborok is about asserting his identity. “In my track Tripuri Grind, I am critical of the government strengthening ties with Bangladesh by building roads and other infrastructure even as indigenous Tripuris continue to starve in our hills and forests,” he says.

Bangalore’s Bijju is urging English-speaking Kannadigas to embrace their mother tongue. “I want my people to speak their mother tongue without hesitation,” he says. “Because why not?”

Mumbai-based hip hop crews Dopeadelicz and Swadesi, meanwhile, have released Marathi tracks like Aai Shapath Saheb (Me Navhto) [I swear by my mother (It wasn’t me)], penned after one member’s brush with a rude cop, and Laaj Watate Kay (Are you ashamed), in response to the December 16 Delhi gangrape.

“These are the strident voices of disaffected youngsters speaking out for change,” says Oshidar. “They are powerful precisely because they are rooted in their socio-political reality.”

Rap has never been created in some of these languages, so the current scenario is truly historic in that sense, adds Dhruv Sheth of OML.

“Mainstream platforms are finally taking note of underground rappers, and this shows how much the Indian hip-hop scene has evolved,” says Robert Omulo aka Bobkat, a music journalist, MC of hip-hop band Bombay Bassment, and co-founder of the hip hop podcast Voice of Tha People. “They were initially dismissed as kids with basic equipment. But their music has matured in terms of production and lyrical content. Because of this, there’s corporate interest. Plus, Indians have always had an appetite for entertainment content that is different, which is exactly what these artistes are offering.”

The content is not just different, it’s carefully calibrated.

Take Divine’s explanation of Jungli Sher. “Everyone has an animal inside them,” he says. “The rats live in hiding, afraid to raise their voice. The wolves are content in their packs. The lion is the one who takes risks and wants to change his lot. He is the king of the jungle. When this difference struck me, I penned the song. It’s about my life, my area, my people and my city. When I am gone, this is what will be left of me.”

Naezy’s latest track Haq Hai criticises the authoritarian crackdown on free speech

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