Capitalism, village life, divinity: More young voices from the Indian rap scene

BySukanya Datta
Apr 28, 2023 07:25 PM IST

From Punjab to Assam, Karnataka to Chattisgarh, artists and protestors are embracing hip-hop as a way to reframe their identities, thoughts, fears.

A mic, a phone camera and a way with words is all it takes to be a rapper today. This simple reality has thrown open the playing field, to anyone with a sense of urgency about their message. In India, young voices are rapping about sexuality, divinity, village life, capitalism, climate, in Punjabi and Assamese, Bengali, Dakhini, Kashmiri, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi and more.

Rappers Siddhant Soni from Rajasthan and BR Boya Raja from Chhattisgarh. PREMIUM
Rappers Siddhant Soni from Rajasthan and BR Boya Raja from Chhattisgarh.

Siddhant Soni, 27, a former fashion stylist and art director, quit his job and turned to rap when being a queer Punjabi man began to feel like something he could either rap about, or be silent on forever. In the particularly restrictive definitions of masculinity that define Punjabi men, he became a voice that champions fluidity, self-expression, liberation and self-love.

The video for his song Kalla Killah (Lone Killer), first released in December 2021 and re-released by the Saregama imprint Saregama Fresh in June 2022, was shot by an all-queer team. The lyrics reflect both the chaos and calm of his identity today:

Mera har ik geet jo bole

Zindagi meri de raaz khole

Hun na main koi sach lukaawan

Danke di chott te boli jaavan

(All my songs tell this story

The secrets of my life laid bare

I’m not one to hide the truth

I’ll keep living my life openly)

Soni infuses into his music influences from Sufi poets Bulleh Shah and Hazrat Sultan Bahu, whose verses he grew up singing in the Rajasthani border town of Hanumangarh, apart from Punjabi poets Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Amrita Pritam and Tajammul Kaleem. Why rap? Because hip-hop felt inviting, like a space within which “everyone could just be themselves,” he says.


In a one-bedroom flat in Neelasandra, Bengaluru, that’s been converted into a studio, a group of childhood friends raps in Dakhini, a distinct mix of Persian, Marathi, Telugu and Kannada that is spoken in the Deccan belt. Member and producer-rapper Syed Awaise Pasha aka Demixx says this is not just a language but a community — of “hotheads”. The group call themselves Clan Bokka Phod (Ball-Breakers).

Led by Dakhani rapper Mohammed Affan Pasha or Pasha Bhai, the crew celebrates perseverance, speaks of marginalisation, of the community’s connection with the divine. Sample the lyrics of Khuda Gawah (God is my Witness; 2022), which, like many of their songs, also weaves into its lyrics and its music elements of the Sufi tradition.

Sab ka yech hain rona pasha, mai hasi mai mast hun

Mai kashan ki kashmakash me, maikashi mai mast hun

Kharza’n-Girza’n leko nai hun, kya hisaaba’n dekhiun?

Amma maari sijde phatte, jaanimaaza’nb dekhiun

(Everybody’s busy crying about their troubles; I’m busy being happy

Even in a room full of people, I’m happy being myself

I owe no one anything, so what accounts do I show you?

My mother never missed prayer time, though her prayer mat was torn, I’ve seen)

Released on YouTube, it has over 21,000 views. “If we talked about our troubles in just Urdu or English, they will sound ‘beautiful’,” Demixx says. Dakhini has a more strident sound. “It expresses how we live and that, yes, we have problems, we have been historically sidelined, but we are happy.”


In the Naxal-affected belt of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, Lalit Kumar Kashyap aka BR Boya Raja, 20, is spinning tales of love, longing and life in the zilla. His music, that he has to travel 30 km away to Jagdalpur to record, chronicles customs in the village such as family feasts and the sharing of tobacco, along with comedic declarations of love and betrayal.

“This is the language we’re comfortable in. I would like to make Halbi-Bathri rap famous among people from other states,” says Kashyap. The son of a farmer and an anganwadi worker, he counts Yo Yo Honey Singh and Koraput rapper Rahul RBN among his inspirations.

VanM and Minimi NL from Assam.
VanM and Minimi NL from Assam.

Meanwhile, at the peak of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement, in 2019-20, Assam saw a wave of agitations, which took the form of poetry, music and rap. Among the artists contributing was VanM, 28. The physics teacher released his first song, Durniti (Poor Governance), at this time, and “it blew up,” he says. (It has over 2 lakh views on YouTube).

The rapper also sings, in Assamese and Hindi, about the importance of keeping hip-hop “real”, the frequent floods in his home state, illegal coal mining in the forests. Hip-hop is “the voice of the voiceless,” he says.


The reason another Assamese rapper, Nilotpal Lahkari aka Minimi NL, fought for a mobile phone when he was 16 — a demand that his father, then a government officer with the Assam education department, only grudgingly conceded — was because he wanted to listen to more rap. He heard his first snatches on a cousin’s phone; he was still in Class 10.

Pakistani-American rapper Bohemia’s Future was one of the first songs he downloaded. “He was talking about moving from Pakistan to the US, struggling there and making a living out of hip-hop. He showed me how dreams can turn to reality. I was blown away by it all,” he says.

Now 27, Minimi NL raps, in Assamese, about identity and loss, drug abuse and his love for lokogeeti (folk music). Sample the lyrics from Nomoskar, Mor Naam Minimi:

Adhunik adhunik buli holu ondho

Nijor tur dam najanu, jaanu poror tur mulyo…

(Chasing modernity, we have forgotten our roots

We know the price of everything but not the price of our heritage…)

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