Punjabi by birth, Bhojpuri by nature
At first, Amreek Singh did not understand a word of the lyrics he was to rap to. Born into a Punjabi family in Gurugram, a satellite town of Delhi, he had never spoken or heard Bhojpuri in his life. The closest he was exposed to the language was when he chanced upon regional films or songs while flipping TV channels.
In the three gyms which he owns in plush Gurugram neighbourhoods, people burn calories consuming Eminem and Yo Yo Honey Singh numbers.
So, it was a fluke when he performed his own Bhojpuri rap songs before an audience at a local club in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district during New Year’s Eve in 2017. “The love they gave me did wonders to my career,” says Singh, 27, dressed in a bright yellow hoodie, matching shoes, rugged jeans, hair tied in a topknot.
In 2016, Rohan Sinha, a trader from Patna, who was a regular at Singh’s gym, planted the idea of Bhojpuri rap in Singh’s head.
By then, shares and likes on social media had redefined success, fame and celebrity. Godfathers, mentors, trainers were not necessarily required anymore. Popularity was a click away. Every day, the barrage of videos on YouTube would throw up new stand-up comics, chefs, actors, film critics, citizen journalists. Singh was among the young men who placed their bets on Bhojpuri rap. “The Punjabi rap industry has hit stagnation. As a listener, I like Yo Yo (Singh), Raftaar, Badshaah. But as a singer, if I release a track in Punjabi, I cannot come close to them. Bhojpuri gives me a level playing field because there is no fierce competition,” explains Singh.
Within a week of getting the idea, Singh flew to Mumbai to jam with lyricist and composer Santosh Puri, who has written more than 300 songs in Bhojpuri, Hindi and Gujarati. Puri is from Champaran, Bihar. “I don’t have to travel to Bihar to know the swaad (taste) of the audience. There are thousands of migrants working here in Mumbai. I am friends with many of them. I use memories from the time I spent in my village, add a bit of verve to them, and the song is ready,” says 43-year-old Puri.
While working on their first song together, Puri WhatsApped the lyrics (written in Roman script) to Singh, which he rehearsed for eight days. “Growing up in a metro, I had a certain perception about this language. Talking in Bhojpuri is not something a kid in Delhi or NCR aspires to. So it was kinda fun,” says Singh about his early impressions of the language.
The gamble paid off for Singh aka Ammy Kang. His first song Jai Jai Bihar, launched in October 2016, crossed three lakh views on YouTube, an impressive number for a debut song.
Singh has collaborated on six more songs with Puri. He routinely hops between Delhi, Patna and Mumbai. He tries to pick up the correct diction through serials, films and interactions with Puri and acquaintances in Bihar. He has locked the script of a Bhojpuri film which he will co-produce and act in — the story of four friends, a comedy, on the lines of 2013 film Fukrey. He plans to launch his own production house to tap the talent of Biharis in Delhi and nearby towns.
Raunak, an event manager, invited Singh to perform at Faltu, the club he owns in Sitamarhi. Causing much disappointment to his family and friends, Singh ditched the parties back home and submitted himself to the audience in Sitamarhi.
The nature of the lyrics and the video production are driven by the formula that Puri and Singh cracked in their first meeting in Mumbai: make something in Bhojpuri which is identical to Punjabi hip-hop in style but doesn’t have the features associated with Bhojpuri songs: raunchy lyrics, titillating videos and suggestive titles. “I want to change the image of the Bhojpuri music industry for the better. I want to do for this region what Honey Singh did to Punjabi music. I find it amusing that we cannot listen to a majority of the songs with families. And this is because no one is ready to experiment with new genres/styles. Lack of money or support or support of music companies is not the issue here,” says Singh.
It takes around two to three lakh rupees to produce a song. The production cost and profits are shared between Singh and the music company.
Jai Jai Bihar, shot in Madhubani, is true to its title. It hails Bihar’s culture and history, apart from underlining the fact that there are Biharis in various professions all over the world.
Love Chance is a romantic track for which Singh coloured his hair rust. The song has Singh paired with a model. Singh is trying to woo her by driving her across Chandigarh in a maroon Mercedes. The rest of the song has him rapping to the camera, flaunting his physique in sleeveless T-shirts.
In the comments section, viewers wrote adulatory messages. Shashi Kant, an amateur YouTuber, thanked Singh and his team for redefining Bhojpuri music. Anjali Sharma found it a surprisingly good video for a Bhojpuri song. “Plzzz do some more like this for our pride”, requested Aniket Tiwari.
There have been some misses too. Singh drew flak for a song he put out in September last year. The song celebrates Singh’s arrival as a Bhojpuri rapper and forewarns those who run “gandey gaano ki dukaan.” “Sab chup beta ab meri baari, Bhojpuri mein hip-hop hi tayyari,” he raps on a loop.
Many viewers found Bhojpuri hip hop a misleading title because more than half of the song is in Hindi. “I tried to create a fusion of Hindi and Bhojpuri. It is clear that it was not a good idea. Listeners are the best judge. If they didn’t like, it wasn’t good,” he says.
Creating a niche is an uphill task for Singh. Established singers (non rap) such as Pawan Singh and Khesari Lal Yadav have been around for almost a decade. They are considered bankable artistes and have a tremendous fan following. In addition to singles on YouTube, their songs routinely feature in regional films.
Singh stands to gain from the vast reach of Bhojpuri. According to the latest census data, Bhojpuri is the mother tongue of 33 million people in India grouped under the larger category of Hindi speakers. It is one of the fastest growing languages in the country, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India which chronicles the evolution of languages in their socio-political and linguistic dimensions. There are Bhojpuri speakers in Nepal, Fiji, Mauritius and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
“The trend is more about encashing the vast geographical reach or market of the language than to promote the culture of the region,” says Patna-based film critic Vinod Anupam.
Agrees YouTuber Raaj Jones who calls himself a hip-hop journalist and has interviewed almost every celebrity rapper in India. “I routinely get messages from young viewers in UP and Bihar who ask me how to replicate the rap culture in their towns.
I realise they just want to jump on the bandwagon. If they genuinely wish to contribute to the industry, they should talk about their culture,” says Jones.
The last time I spoke to Singh, he was in Rohtas district on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border, shooting the video of his latest song Love You Bihar. Among other things, it celebrates the food of Bihar -- Muzaffarpur’s lichi, Aara’s litti chokha, Raaj Nagar’s jhaal moorhi. “I have enough material to produce songs for the next two-three years,” he says, after sending me an image from the shoot. It has Singh dressed in a black kurta pyjama, sitting on a stationary tractor in a farm with his arms outstretched. He looks like a man who has found his calling.
Keeping it simple
I want singers and artistes in the Bhojpuri music industry to observe, and if possible, emulate me,” says 28-year-old Chandigarh-based rapper Chandan Yadav aka Gangster Yadav.
Yadav feels that since members of the Bhojpuri industry did not produce “decent quality work”, people like him – a digital marketeer with no prior experience in composing music or songs – had to step in. “They got stuck to a pattern of songs that bordered on vulgarity. They refused to change when the world around them was experimenting with various genres,” he says.
Yadav has put out three songs since 2016. He is working on his fourth, titled Dadagiri, portions of which have been shot in Thailand.
Yadav is a fan of Punjabi rapper Bohemia. But he never imagined that he would himself create Bhojpuri rap songs. His immediate surroundings provided inspiration. In Chandigarh, what he saw around him were migrants from the region in various professions. “People from Bihar are an integral part of almost every state and city in North India, and Chandigarh is no different. So you keep listening to their language every now and then,” he says.
When Punjabi rap artistes became popular, Yadav thought of trying something different in the genre.
Yadav’s songs are a mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri rather than out-and-out Bhojpuri. They resemble Punjabi albums in production quality and beats. “I don’t use actual raw Bhojpuri. We keep it simple so that it can reach the masses,” he says. Gradually, he says, he wants to diversify into Hindi and Punjabi songs.
Being ‘the best’
In March last year, Bhojpuri rapper Vishwakaar, 24, put out his first song, MAE NO.1 (sic), on YouTube. It talks about how he is the best rapper in this language and that Bhojpuri rappers will change the rules of rap and how men from the region are no less than any other men.
In 2015, Suraj Vishwakarma (his real name) was working as a dance teacher in Mumbai when he came across the hip-hop scene in the neighbourhood of Kurla . “I was surprised to see that so many boys were telling their own stories through the internet. And the production cost was in the ~15,000-30,000 range,” says Suraj.
After two years, he returned to his village in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district because of financial constraints and trained as a carpenter under his father. But the artiste in him was restless. He took a loan from his father to produce his first song, MAE NO. 1.
A Lucknow-based businessman watched the song and offered to help with some funds. And that is how his second song Rap Kar Mi happened. His third rap song titled Khel was released last October. Sooraj says that the song is inspired by his own life. “It is about the game of life. Every time we think we know the rules of this game, life throws a surprise at us,” he says.
Suraj shoots his songs in residential colonies and public spaces around his village. His friends feature in his songs. They also help him in editing and mixing tracks. “I use local studios,” he says.
Suraj doesn’t have a well-oiled machine or a big banner to popularise his work.
“I write, record, produce and publish. Once the song is out on YouTube, it has its own journey which is beyond my control,” he says.