A mic, a phone camera and a way with words it takes to be a rapper today. This simple fact has opened the playing field to anyone with a sense of urgency about their message. In India, young voices are being raised about sex, divinity, village life, capitalism, climate in Punjabi and Assamese, Bengali, Southern, Kashmiri, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi and many others.
Former fashion stylist and art director Siddhant Soni, 27, quit his job and turned to rap after a queer Punjabi man felt he could either rap or shut up forever. In the particularly restrictive definitions of masculinity that defined Punjabi men, he became a voice championing 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 Saregama imprint Saregama Fresh in June 2022, was shot by an all-Kear team. The lyrics reflect both the chaos and calm of his identity:
My every song that spoke
Zindagi Meri De Raj Khol
Maybe I’m not really hiding
Danke di chod te boli jan
(All my songs tell this story
The secret of my life was revealed
I am not one to hide the truth
I will live my life openly)
Soni draws on her musical influences from Sufi poets Bulleh Shah and Hazrat Sultan Bahu, who grew up singing in the border town of Hanumangarh in Rajasthan, apart from Punjabi poets Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Amrita Pritam and Tajammul Kaleem. Why rap? Because hip-hop felt inviting, a space within which “everybody could be themselves,” he says.
In Neelasandra’s one-bedroom flat in Bengaluru, which has been converted into a studio, the group of childhood friends rap in Southern, a distinct blend of Persian, Marathi, Telugu and Kannada spoken in the Deccan belt. Member and producer-rapper Syed Awesay Pasha aka Demix says it’s not just a language but a community of “hotheads”. The group calls itself Clan Bocca Fod (Ball-breakers).
Led by Dakhani rapper Mohammad Afan Pasha or Pasha Bhai, the team celebrates resilience, speaks of marginalization, of community’s relationship with God. Sample the lyrics of Khuda Gawah (God Is My Witness; 2022), which, like many of their songs, weaves in its lyrics and musical elements of the Sufi tradition.
Everybody’s crying, I’m laughing
I am kashan ki kashmakash me, makashi me mast hun
Kharjan-Girjan must have been taken, what account was seen?
Amma mari sijde fatte, janimajamb let’s see
(Everyone is busy crying over their sorrows, I am busy being happy
Even in a room full of people, I’m happy with myself
I don’t owe anyone, so what account should I show?
(My mother never missed the prayer time, although her prayer mat was torn, I noticed.)
More than 21 thousand people have watched this song released on YouTube. “If we talk about our problems in Urdu or English, they sound ‘beautiful’,” says Demix. Dakhini has a stronger voice. “It expresses how we live and that is, we have problems, we are historically marginalized, but we are happy.”
In the Naxal-affected belt of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, Lalit Kumar Kashyap alias BR Boya Raja, 20, spins tales of love, longing and life in the district. His music, which he had to travel 30 km to Jagdalpur to record, village customs like family feasts and cigarette sharing, humorous declarations of love and betrayal.
“This is the language we are comfortable with. I want to make Halbi-Bathari rap famous among people from other states,” says Kashyap. Son of a farmer and an anganwadi worker, he counts Yo Yo Honey Singh and Koraput rapper Rahul RBN as his inspirations.
Meanwhile, at the height of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) agitation, in 2019-20, Assam saw a wave of protests, which took the form of poetry, music and rap. Among the artists who contributed was 28-year-old BhanM. The physics teacher released his first song Durniti (Poor Governance) around this time, and “it took off,” he says. (It has over 2 million views on YouTube).
The rapper also sings in Assamese and Hindi about the importance of keeping hip-hop “real”, frequent floods in his home state, illegal coal mining in the jungle. 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 – his father, then a government official in the Assam Education Department, would only begrudgingly admit – was because he wanted to be heard more. rap. He heard his first snatches on his uncle’s phone; He was still in class 10.
One of the first songs he downloaded was Pakistani-American rapper Bohemia’s Future. “He was talking about moving from Pakistan to America, struggling there and making a living from hip-hop. He showed me how a dream can become a reality. I was amazed by it all,” he says.
Now 27, Minimi NL raps, in Assamese, about identity and loss, drug abuse and her love for Lokgeeti (folk music). Sample Songs from Nomoskar, Mor Naam Minimi:
Modern Modern Buli Hola Oudh
Don’t go to Nizor Tur Dam, go Poror Mulyo…
(In pursuit of modernity we have forgotten our roots
We know the value of everything but not the value of our heritage…)
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