Fearless and socially conscious, the rise of India’s underground hip-hop scene has brought along a fierce movement of expression.
Gone are the flippant guy-wooing-girl lyrics, laced with references to booze, flashy cars and a luxurious lifestyle.
Artistes now use it to raise voices in regional languages, reflecting on conflict, social constructs and dissent.
The trend may have entered the Indian drawing rooms only with Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, the film that gave the stamp of Bollywood to ‘gully rap’. But the story of two rappers from the slums of Mumbai -- loosely inspired by the lives of rappers Divine and Naezy -- is one of resilience, social inequalities and the brushed-under-the-carpet truths, all of which resonate with the music produced by rappers like Ahmer Javed, Arshaq Malik and collectives such as Swadesi.
Rap has grown exponentially in the country since its formative years in the early 2000s, taking shape, over the recent past, as activism, just as it did in the United States in the 1980s to become a central medium of expression for black empowerment.
“Rap lets you express yourself completely, and the things we talk about happen around all of us in our daily lives. Our work reflects the pain and frustration of the common man,” says Yash Mahida aka Maharya, 25, of Mumbai-based hip-hop collective Swadesi, which creates socially-conscious rap music in Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali and Hindi.
The group, which started out in 2013, released its debut album, Chetavni, in February, that has tracks like ‘Jung’ and ‘Sau Takka Sach’ delving into international strife, corrupt political systems, as well as caste and religious divisions.
At the core of their hard-hitting music remain issues such as societal discrimination and government apathy.
“Even in America, the hip-hop culture started in the black community as an alternative to prevent violence and to express problems in the form of rhythm and poetry, which a community can relate to,” says Saurabh Abhyankar aka 100RBH, 24, another member of Swadesi.
Raging issues also find a voice in the music of Ahmer Javed, a Srinagar-born, Delhi-based rapper. Ahmer, who brings to fore his life spent amid conflict in Kashmir, released his debut eight-track album, Little Kid, Big Dreams, followed by his four-track EP, Inqalab, last year.
While the former has piercing tracks like ‘Kasheer’ that pay homage to his childhood spent breaking societal barriers to pursue his interests in the midst of strife, Inqalab, on the other hand, looks at the Valley post the revoking of Article 370.
“An essential thing about this genre is that you represent your streets,” says Ahmer. “I rap in Kashmiri because I feel I can express better in it, and it also brings awareness among those who don’t know the language,” the 25-year-old adds.
Agrees Bengaluru-based rapper Arshaq Malik, who asserts that a lot of hip-hop coming out of India has a ‘polished sense of identity’.
Adds the Tiruchirappalli-born 25-year-old musician who raps in English, “A prime reason for the newfound love of Indian musicians for the underground scene is its originality.” While commercial rappers are here to stay, it’s great to see the progression of Indian hip-hop from hedonistic expressions to something that is fearless, shares music writer Anurag Tagat.
“During the anti-CAA protests, India’s hip-hop musicians did more than any other independent artistes across genres in raising their voices against what was going on,” he says, admitting that unlike in America, India’s first wave of hip-hop was massively commercial and label-backed before the internet made a difference. “I don’t think there’s anything missing in terms of where Indian hip-hop is right now. Maybe there needs to be more infrastructure and more people showing up at the gigs,” Tagat adds, hoping that the beating that the music industry has taken due to the pandemic doesn’t batter these situations too hard.