‘Not a sad, suicidal place’: Hip-hop takes Burari beyond mass deaths headlines
The other side of Burari has been in the news recently for ‘suicides’ of eleven members of a family. Very few people, however, know that this north Delhi area has a thriving hip-hop scene
These days, the north Delhi neighbourhood of Burari is associated with the purported mass suicide of 11 members of a single family that shocked and intrigued the entire city, after the bodies were found in their home on July 1. It’s a rough place, with mounting civic woes, many unauthorised settlements and increasing crime; a gang war in the area left four people, including a passer-by, dead in June .
Less well known is Burari’s emergence as a thriving hip-hop hub where youngsters sporting high top-fade hairstyles, colourful, loose T- shirts, caps and bling- bling jewellery perform in its narrow, mostly unpaved streets, and music studios. Here they take part in underground rap battles -- contests in which two or more rappers compete and try to ‘diss’ their opponents, using improvised lyrics. In the best tradition of hip-hop , the rap performances are political and social commentary on issues such as corruption, poverty and gender rights.
Burari’s youngsters are making waves as breakdancers, rappers, b-boyers, poppers, singers, who go by names such as Minz , Nick, Akkai, Sky, Calvin and RDX- King. Bollywood’s well-known rapper-singer Ikka Singh hails from Burari. For Tarun Sharma, 19, better known as RDX-King, rap has become a means of catharsis and he has acquired a new purpose in the weeks since the discovery of the purported mass suicide victims. He and fellow artistes in Burari, are preparing for a performance that seeks to change the neighbourhood’s newly acquired image as a “suicide colony.”
Sharma himself has been deeply affected by the intriguing mass deaths in what has come to be known as the ‘House of Horrors.’ He says he has not slept in his own house since the day the news of the purported suicide by members of the Bhatia family broke. “I have developed a strange fear; cannot explain it. Maybe it is because I knew some members of the Bhatia family personally; until a month back, we had a dance studio close to their house,” Sharma said. “The suicides have brought Burari a lot of negative publicity, but there is more to Burari than the people of Delhi ever cared to know.” Yaansh Khanna , a rising rapper, says it is unfortunate that Burari’s vibrant hip-hop culture has been obscured by its many woes. He is sitting in his living room, which also doubles up as a music studio. On the walls are the pictures of many rappers, including the local hero Ikka Singh, whose house is a couple of streets away from his. In February, Khanna produced a slick video titled Burari, celebrating the talented artistes of the neighbourhood and lamenting how they are struggling for recognition. “Burari has so much artistic talent, but no one cares,” says Khanna who features in the video as a rapper, and now wants to produce a work that will seek to reshape the image of Burari.
“We want to convey that Burari is not a sad, suicidal place; rather it has such as vibrant music scene,” says Khanna, whose studio attracts young wannabe rappers from all over Delhi. One of them is Ankit Chauhan, alias Calvin, an 18-year-old who comes to Burari from Daryaganj, in central Delhi, thrice a week.“I want to be a rapper, but there is no hip-hop culture where I live,” says Chauhan , who works at his uncle’s shop and earns about Rs.100 a day. He hopes to one day work as a rapper-singer in Bollywood.
Burari has hundreds like him who hope to sing and dance their way to success. Saad Akhtar , founder of Quake, one of the most famous groups on the country’s hip-hop circuit, says that Burari has immense talent. Five of the eight boys in his group, which participated in Hip Hop International India 2015 ,were from Burari. He says more than 100 groups from across India participated in the competition, in which Quake made it to the top 10.
“Burari boys are very talented. They have passion, and I only had to prepare them for the stage. I worked on their dress, their body language, which lacked confidence, and their English skills. They believe that hip- hop can help them come up in life,” says Akhtar, who also works as a choreographer with a well known music and entertainment company.
From its beginnings in Bronx and Harlem in New York in the late 1970s, hip-hop has enjoyed great popularity in poor urban neighbourhoods all over the world. According to Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University, rap is a “pavement poetry that vibrates with a commitment to speaking for the voiceless.” And the HipHop Summit Action Network (HSAN), a pressure group, contends it is “an enormously influential agent for social change …”
Burari ’s community is composed of the Tyagis, the landowners who have a hold on the local business, and migrants from states such as Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Some of the older migrants are from Haryana and Punjab. Most hip-hop dancers and rappers of Burari belong to poor or lower middleclass migrant families.
“Hip-hop is very popular among teenagers, all of whom want to participate in TV shows, which they feel is a sure-shot way to fame. Their parents support this quest now; they send even their six-year-olds to learn dance and music. There are many dance competitions in Burari,” says Neeraj Kumar alias Nick, who runs Natraj Dance Studio, a large, high-ceiling, air-conditioned hall at the end of a narrow street. Inside, a group of youngsters are grooving to hip-hop beats.
For Sandeep Panchal , 24, a member of Quake, hip-hop dance is about hope of a better future. Panchal’s father was a wall painter before he suffered a heart attack four years ago and had to stop working. Panchal supports his mother by giving dance lessons to upcoming artistes in the area. He is excited to have been selected to perform in the finale of India’s International Groovefest, to be held in Dubai in November. “In Burari, hip- hop is all about inspiration and aspiration,” says Panchal.
Shubham Jha aka Sazzy JS, who has just released an album titled Umeed, wants to earn fame as a Punjabi singer. “I know I am in a minority in a place where everyone wants to be a rapper or dancer. I want to first make it big in the Punjabi film industry and then try my luck in Bollywood. I am sure I have it in me,” says Jha.
While Burari’s musicians may not have made it to glossy magazines, the community celebrates its artistes – apart from rappers there are many actors and comedians too—on its many Facebook pages such as ‘Burari Sant Nagar Confessions’; ‘Burari Village’, ‘Jharoda Majra Burari’. These pages are managed by local youngsters and serve as a platform for community interaction.
Interestingly, the profile picture of ‘Burari Sant Nagar Confessions’, says: ‘Delhi : Burari. An area of ruffians: 5 km.’ The latest posts on the page include a video of two motorbike-borne men trying to snatch a gold chain from a woman.“People all over Delhi believe Burari is a place of hooligans, which I think it is true only to a certain extent. It is a place with an interesting youth culture. My page celebrates various shades of the place called Burari,” says Sagar Lodhi, 27, who manages the page. “When we mention Burari to people in Delhi, they give us strange looks. But let me tell you, there is no place like Burari in Delhi, and we Burari boys are proud of our identity”.