Celebrating 50 years of hip-hop: Check out original voices from across young India

BySukanya Datta
Apr 28, 2023 07:51 PM IST

Independent artists are rapping in Assamese, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi and more. Their focus: caste, politics, climate, sexuality, identity.

Across India, musicians are using hip-hop to say, “This is us”; “Stop and reconsider”; “Join our cause”. In the US, the original home of this subculture, rap started out subversive, then went mainstream and softened its edges, periodically finding its way back to savagery. Here, the trajectory has been the opposite.

Rappers Menime from Kashmir and Saniya MQ from Mumbai. PREMIUM
Rappers Menime from Kashmir and Saniya MQ from Mumbai.

Early adopters such as Baba Sehgal in the 1990s sang rhythmic but predictable verse about love and heartbreak. Yo Yo Honey Singh in the early 2010s, and more recently Badshah and Raftaar, added themes of infidelity, manly pride, acquisition, aspiration, women, and fame.

A shift began about a decade ago, says music journalist Narendra Kusnur, led by easier access to the internet, and the plummeting cost of production enabled by the smartphone. Independent music labels were set up, followed by the YouTube boom. Major studios launched dedicated music imprints such as VYRL Originals (by Universal) and Awaaz (Sony India), to cash in on the emerging hip-hop ecosystems forming around the world.

In India, as young independent artists — just individuals with a camera and a mic, really — began rapping about their lives, identities and struggles, in Assamese and Bengali, Dakhini and Kashmiri, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi and more, they often drew on traditions of subversive rhyme and song that go much further back. These centuries-old traditions include art forms that fall under the umbrella term of lokgeet or folk music; and more specific ones such as oppari, a form of lament from Tamil Nadu; and Dom Baja, a drum performance typically accompanied by satirical monologues, in Odisha.

The echoes are audible in the lyrics of songs such as Madhura Ghane aka Mahi’s Jungle Cha Raja (released on YouTube in December 2021, in collaboration with Pune-based music platform RFM Studio):

Jal jungle jameen tyacha khyaticha purava

Adivasi vadal yeta sute sosatyanchya vara

Rajya karito ranawar toch rakhandar khara

Khara junglecha raja tyacha waghala darara

(Water, forest and land are his proof of identity

When the tribal storms arise, wind gusts

He is the real guardian of the forest

The real king of the jungle, whom even the tiger fears)

Mahi, 25, an Adivasi and daughter of a bus conductor from Kalyan in Maharashtra, raps about caste, class, economy and the environment. A folk-dance troupe performs in the video for this song. “Singing about the environment comes from my heart, because my community and its life are steeped in nature,” she says. “A lot of my childhood was spent in our village, learning folk songs about the hills, forests and wildlife.”

As playlists become more diverse, driven by music that needn’t be bought in homogenous compilations or bought at all, “listeners identify with a range of styles and subjects that bear a connection with their own lives and surroundings,” Kusnur points out. This is reflected in young Mahi’s journey too. “I didn’t think non-Marathi-speakers would identify with my lyrics, but I’ve been invited to perform at festivals in Delhi, Chennai and Gandhinagar, among other places,” she says.

Mirror, mirror

Caste and politics (Arivu, from Chennai), sexuality (queer Punjabi rapper Siddhant Soni from Rajasthan), feminism and mental health (Wild Wild Women; Mumbai), life in a militarised zone (MC Kash; Srinagar), bigotry and hate politics (Prabh Deep; Delhi), are among the themes young Indian rappers are exploring, as they use hip-hop to talk about how their world has moulded them, and how they seek to break free.

Mehak Ashraf, 22, from Srinagar raps as Menime, a stage name inspired by Eminem, whose authenticity and truth-telling took her breath away when she first heard his music, she says. Listening to him, Nicki Minaj and Tupac Shakur, all of whom grew up poor, lived in trailer parks, and once struggled to be seen, “I was amazed by how they did not hesitate. They could talk about anything. I was inspired to do the same,” she says.

Menime googled words to find out what they meant; taught herself to fit syllables into rhyme. Sample Stop That’s It (released in August on YouTube, with over 25,000 views so far):

Look at the picture on your screen

The girl you see rappin, yeah that’s me…

Let me break it down so simmer down

Runnin’ through your space like an evil clown

I’m motivated, dedicated, never patient, levitated

My game so high I’m up, you’re so down

Rappers Mahi from Maharashtra and Sumeet Samos from Odisha.
Rappers Mahi from Maharashtra and Sumeet Samos from Odisha.

In Odisha, Sumeet Samos, a Dalit, grew up knowing discrimination but not having a word for it. He would acquire a vocabulary for what he experienced, as a student activist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. And he would put some of those words to music amid the anger and grief that followed the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in 2016.

His biggest hit so far has been the 2018 song Ladai Seekh Le (Learn To Fight). Released on the storytelling platform Qweed Media’s YouTube channel, it has had over 41,000 views so far.

Samos, 29, has a sense of rhythm that can be traced back through a long line of Dom Baja performers, a community of traditional drummers who perform at important events in Odisha, the music often accompanied by satirical monologues on contemporary issues. “The satire and the poetry of that stayed with me. Once I went to the university, I was able to use it, but very differently,” he says. His songs include Caste 101 (released on YouTube in August 2020, with about 12,000 views):

We build your houses

We till your lands

We produce your foods

We the artisans,

It’s our sweat and blood, so here you stand

Don’t teach us merit, you good for nothing clans

Uh, caste 101

Samos has performed at university festivals, community conventions and at shows in France, in collaboration with the artist collective French Radio Live. He has a Master’s degree in Modern South Asian Studies from Oxford University. “My music helped me to raise funds for my education at Oxford,” he says. A crowdfunding campaign on Milap raised over 37 lakh, through 1,500 supporters.

He now plans to pursue a PhD in social anthropology and is compiling and editing an anthology of essays on caste, politics and culture. “After that, I definitely hope to make more music. I want to go back to my hometown, work with the Dom Baja artists, and write songs that pertain to my region,” he says.

This is us

In Mumbai, Saniya Mistry aka Saniya MQ, 17, came to rap via poetry. Verse is the world she escaped into, and dreamed in, growing up in the Shivaji Nagar slum. The daughter of an autorickshaw driver and an embroidery worker, she made her TV debut on the reality talent show Hunarbaaz on Colors TV, last year. A year before that, she released one of her biggest productions, Bahot Dheet (Very Audacious):

Thikana dhundta tha rehne jiska parivaar

Nayi jagah per rehne lage the woh log chaar

Lakdi ki neev daali keechad ki zameen par

Usi zameen aer hai aaj bhi ghar barkarar

(The family would look for a place in which to stay,

They started in a new place, the four of them together

Drove a wooden frame into a ground of dirt

And it became a foundation, a place they still call home)

The video is shot against the backdrop of tarpaulin-covered hutments in Shivaji Nagar. “As a female rapper, it feels good to be able to inspire girls around me,” Saniya MQ says. “Hip-hop started with the idea of expression, of spreading awareness, and accepting that yes, we have problems, but we’re gonna make it through.”

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