HT Brunch cover story: What makes ‘gully boy’ Divine the coolest voice of contemporary Indian hip-hop
When Vivian Fernandes, a 14-year-old boy living in gullies of Andheri’s JB Nagar, saw a guy wearing a tee with an image of 50 Cent’s first album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, his life changed. “I didn’t have a clue about the rap scene. A friend gave me an MP3 CD, which had around 50/60 rap songs of Eminem, Tupac, 50 Cent… it was a very random collection. But I liked the groove. And I fell in love with hip-hop.”
That 14-year-old is now 28 and goes by the name Divine – one of the most definitive names in Indian hip-hop today, and the OG of gully rap. Earlier this year, he collaborated with rap royalty NAS on NY Se Mumbai! And he still can’t get over it.
“My biggest achievement as a hip-hop fan is that I have a song with NAS,” he says. “He is like my guru. For me, his album Illmatic is the hip-hop album. I have not met him, but I did meet his team when I went to New York. NAS was the executive producer on Gully Boy. Zoya’s (Akhtar) team called us (Divine and Naezy) and said they have a verse from him and wanted to know if we wanted to do our own verses with it.”
In all this fanboying over NAS, Divine doesn’t mention that he was in New York to feature in the legendary Ibrahim “Ebro” Darden’s hip-hop music-based radio show, and is the first Indian artist to be featured on this prestigious programme. This was Divine’s first trip to New York, and only his second journey abroad after his 2016 date with BBC Asia Network’s edition of Fire In The Booth, hosted by Charlie Sloth, which showcases the brightest MCs and lyricists across the globe.
The music of dissent
Hip-hop is having a moment internationally. As Hasan Minhaj mentions in his Patriot Act, Nielsen Music’s 2018 list of top 10 albums has eight hip-hop numbers. The movement that started in New York’s Bronx is now a global phenomenon. In India, rap is finally coming of age and getting closer to its real soul as the music of dissent.
But this is dissent, Mumbai gully style. Divine’s lyrics rarely use slang or propagate alcohol abuse or imply that girls in short dresses must sashay in and out of swanky sports cars, the way the lyrics of Punjabi rap tend to go. The fast life has no place in Divine’s songs. His music is about the struggle of people in the slums and their dreams to get away from the gullies and make it big, with cautions against getting waylaid in the process.
Instead of misogynist lyrics, Mumbai’s gully rap is about respect to women, as boys like Divine have grown up with strong mother figures who were often the sole breadwinners of the family. Divine’s dad moved out when he was studying in class 7, and his mother had to move to the Gulf to earn a living, leaving Vivian and his brother to their grandmother.
But this was a blessing in disguise. “If I was living with my mom and dad, I would have never become Divine!” he laughs.
“Being alone at home while growing up really helped me come to my own,” says Divine. “My nani gave me enough freedom to do my own thing. I would listen to rap all the time and be screaming on top of my voice along with the songs. Then I started to write and rap. I don’t think my mom would have put up with that! It would be 30 degrees outside and we would be wearing hoodies, baggy clothes and shooting videos under the scorching sun. My parents would have not allowed such things!”
Divine owes the name Divine to this life-changing situation. Living with his grandmother, he was a regular at the local church and grew up listening to church hymns along with Konkani songs. “I started writing a lot of gospel music, along with English rap. And that is how the name stuck!” he says. He reveals that English was a language he took time to get used to. “I am a Christian boy, but I never spoke English. Both my nani and my mom spoke Konkani. So, English was a new language for me. Even my Hindi wasn’t good.”
The Divine power
The real journey from Vivian to Divine started in college. “In college, it was a cool thing to have the latest hit song on your playlist. We would follow it up by going to cyber cafés, downloading the lyrics and then learning them by heart and rapping among ourselves,” Divine explains. “I started learning what the lyrics mean, started noting down the slangs they were using, the stories they were telling, and it started changing my life and my outlook. I think I am the rapper that I am because of the music I heard in those years.”
He continues: “When my nani passed away, friends started coming to my house and we would listen to music. We had one mic, in fact, my mom got me that, and I learned how to use software. My friend Amey Patkar, one of the founder members of the rap crew Mumbai’s Finest, taught me the basics and asked me to check out YouTube. I did that. I learned how to mix a song, how to record a song.”
At the time, there was a small hip-hop movement simmering in the gullies of Mumbai. “No one, including me, thought this could be a profession,” says Divine. “But that also helped! When everyone tells you that something will not work, or has no future, usko karne me mazaa zyada aata hai (there’s more fun in doing that)!”
Keeping it real
Initially, Divine wrote in English, but soon switched to Hindi. “Where we come from, we don’t speak English… even in school. I started rapping in the language we talk in.”
Yeh Mera Bombay was Divine’s first song in Hindi. Around the same time, Naezy put out his Aafat. Together, they created quite a stir. “There are millions of people living in this city and our stories are no different. So, people can connect. It is their story, it is our story.”
Then came what was to become the gully anthem for the Mumbai rappers – Mere Gully Mein, a Divine and Naezy collaboration. “We were keeping track of each other’s songs. After he put out Aafat, I called him up and asked him if he wanted to do a verse on my song. It became the voice of the street! We did it in 2012, but put it out in 2015. ”
Divine and Naezy were signed by Sony Music almost as soon as they released Mere Gully Mein, but Divine opted out in two years. “I didn’t take the second deal they offered. I wanted to do things on my own, because I can!”
“At the end of the day, your music will do all the talking,” explains Divine. “Mere Gully Mein was shot over two or three days for just Rs 50,000 and got me the record deal. That’s when I saw some money! I could tell my mom that I am doing something with my life!” he says.
Then came Jungli Sher, the song that firmly put him on the hip-hop map of India and took him to the Ebro show. “It was shot on an Apple phone. Apple music took me there. It was the first time an Indian was on that channel. This should be the goal. We have to reach out to the world. There is hip-hop everywhere today and they are not surprised that India has a scene as well. It sounds very different because it is in Hindi, and they loved it!” he says.
Although Divine made his Bollywood debut in the 2017 film Mukkabaaz with Paintra, he became known among the more massy Bollywood audience thanks to Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s 2019 film on the then simmering underground hip-hop scene on India. The Apna Time Aayega and Kaam 25 hitmaker has no qualms admitting it, especially the spike in his fans among the Indian diaspora. “Indians are everywhere! And since we have come bundled with Bollywood, they love us more. They did not have a clue that this is a movement in India right now. It is the ’90s era of New York hip-hop that Bombay is witnessing now.”
At the same time, Divine believes Mumbai’s rap scene is unique because it created its own distinct identity despite the overwhelming presence of Bollywood music. “We are Bollywood’s neighbours. Bollywood overshadows everything. The fact that we are making music and getting heard on our own is our real success. Punjab has its own scene, the music scene down South has always been vibrant. But Mumbai was always about Bollywood. So, I’m glad Bollywood came to us instead of us going to them,” he says.
Just the beginning
“To be neighbours with Bollywood and make enough noise to shut their party down is what Bombay hip-hop and its success is about!” laughs Divine. “It feels very good to be on the top. But it is a group effort... my team, Raftaar’s team, guys from the North East, we all need to come together. We need the regional languages and dialects. Only then can we make noise and have our own space without Bollywood’s support.”
There are still challenges, he cautions. “There will be a lot of people who would want to exploit this. It is a jungle and there are rats and snakes… I’d hate to see people misusing whatever we have built so far.”
Divine is in the forefront of the city’s hip-hop movement and organises cyphers (informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakdancers) to encourage young talent. He has launched his own music label, even before his first album, Kohinoor, is out. “I truly believe that I need to give back to the community,” he explains. “From the guy who shoots my video to the guys who stand as extras, all are my friends from school. I couldn’t have done anything without them, and now it is my turn to do something for the younger lot. The film (Gully Boy) has helped us reach newer audiences, but it is now on us to take the movement to the next level. I am here to guide.”
Join the conversation using ##DivineIntervention
Follow @ananya1281 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, July 7, 2019
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch