From the slums of Dharavi to rural Punjab, there is a new music in the air

The 7Bantai’Z crew from Dharavi, Mumbai
In a narrow alley of India’s largest slum, Dharavi in Mumbai, hip hop crew 7Bantai’Z is working on soundproofing its “studio” — a tiny room on a makeshift mezzanine floor. For the last four years, the group of seven, mostly college students, has been belting out rap songs to bring about social change and alter people’s perceptions of Dharavi.

Far away in Delhi, songs of caste discrimination, racism and student safety emanate from a university campus. In another part of the national capital, a Sikh youth talks of drugs and guns. And in Tripura, a native voices his concern for a tribal population — also through hip-hop.

The underground musical movement that grew in The Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970s and fired up a cultural revolution that would soon become a vehicle for political expression of an oppressed class is taking root in India. In different pockets of the country, cutting across boundaries of class and caste, young rappers are giving a strong local and political direction to the genre.

The 7Bantai’Z boys recall returning from school and stealthily listening to R&B tracks such as “Temperature” and “Smack That” over a decade ago. “But it was Dopeadelicz (a rap crew from Dharavi) that made us believe that we, too, could get into the game,” says A Stan. Like the others, he is dressed in a signature garb of loose tees, hoodies, jeans and baseball caps or beanies.

Delhi’s gully rapper, Prabh Deep
Dopeadelicz’s viral hit “Aai Shapath Saheb”, along with rappers Divine (Vivian Fernandes) and Naezy’s (Naved Shaikh) “Mere Gully Mein”, had put the spotlight on Mumbai’s underground rap scene. These songs, which spoke of poverty, police brutality and corruption, gave rise to “gully rap” (street rap).

MC Altaf from Enimiez, another Dharavi-based rap group, wants to take this forward. Songs composed by the crew, whose other members are MC Stanley and MC R1 (names they’ve given themselves), sting the audience with lyrics that take on thorny issues like GST and “ din”. “I want people to be aware of the inequities and lies,” says Altaf, fingering the chain around his neck. The lanky 19-year-old’s hip hop journey started with b-boying (breakdancing), but he confesses he wasn’t good at it. Listening to American rapper 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Dopeadelicz nudged him towards rap.

7Bantai’Z and Enimiez are part of Dharavi United, which also includes Dopeadelicz. The collective provides a platform to budding artistes. With gully rap going mainstream, 7Bantai’Z and MC Altaf have made inroads into Bollywood. Members of 7Bantai’Z have worked in Anurag Kashyap’s short film Zoo and Rani Mukerji-starrer Boy.

Rahul Rajkhowa
While this has got them more shows — they say they now charge between Rs 50,000 and Rs 300,000 per gig — the two groups want to stay true to their style. “The indie scene is going down. We want to help it grow. Bollywood is fine but there’s nothing better than an independent track,” says A Stan.

Their influences include American rappers Rakim, Nas and the iconic Tupac Shakur. “Tupac, Bob Marley and others fought for causes. We want to use rap to spread a message and not do party songs,” says Mr Scam, whose real name is David Klyton. 7Bantai’Z deploys Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Marwari and English to reach out to multiple communities.

While this enthusiastic bunch is trying to tell the world that there is more to Dharavi than slums and that the place they call home has a thriving leather business and recycling industry, in Chennai, Tamil music band The Casteless Collective is hitting out at the endemic problem of casteism in India.

Run by Dalit director P A Ranjith, the 19-member band also includes the Dopeadelicz crew. When the issues overlap the way they do here, collaboration becomes key.

Also singing against caste is Marathi rapper Bhau (Pradeep Kashikar) and Sumeet Samos, a postgraduate student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, whose video, a hip hop single called “Ladai Seekh Le”, speaks of upper-caste hegemony even on a campus seen largely as left-leaning. Born to a scheduled caste family in Koraput, Odisha, Samos is a member of the Ambedkarite outfit, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association.

Also from JNU is Rahul Rajkhowa, who shot to overnight stardom a year ago with a rap song that accused the varsity’s vice-chancellor of siding with the government. After raising issues such as safety on a campus that has been on the boil since a bunch of students were charged with sedition in 2016, he says in the song: “Now call me anti-national, for saying things rational.”

Rajkhowa was part of a blues band in college, but chose to rap for the first time in JNU after a few professors circulated what he calls a “racist dossier” that perpetrated stereotypes faced by students from the Northeast. After finishing his master’s in international relations last year, he has written songs decrying mob lynching and drawing attention to the perennial problem of floods in Assam. “My purpose of writing is to get privileged people to start talking about issues.”

Tripura’s Borkung Hrangkhawl
As he looks to try out commercial songs that address social issues, and also act in movies, Rajkhowa conducts workshops in schools and colleges to stress the importance of political awareness and individual opinion through his songs.

While rapping cannot yet be called an industry, it has found support. Azadi Records, a Delhi-based independent record label founded last year, provides a launch pad for politically conscious rap artistes. It currently distributes and publishes music for 11 artistes, including those from Srinagar, Coonoor and Shillong.

The label held a gig in Mumbai last month, where all 11 artistes performed songs that will be released later this year. Azadi Records co-founder Uday Kapur says most of the money made by the label comes from live shows and brand projects. Prabh Deep, one of the label’s rising stars, has signed an endorsement with beer brand Bira and was part of a campaign for sports company, Puma.

While still in school, Prabh Deep began to buy pirated mixed tapes from local sellers to listen to UK bhangra artistes such as Aman Hayer. Later, he was influenced by hip hop legends such as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. “I rap what I feel, whether it’s anger, love or hatred,” he says.

He doesn’t wish to confine himself to a genre, but adds, “I am the voice of my neighbourhood (Tilak Nagar in Delhi) and always will be.” A desire to experiment — bringing new beats, lyrics and truth to the fore — drives his musical journey. While tours across the country, with music fests in Guwahati and Srinagar, feature on his itinerary this year, the Sikh rapper prefers performing a small gig to a packed audience from home.

Aspiring rapper Madhav Nautiyal
Kapur explains the choice of representing Prabh Deep: “Tilak Nagar is where many of those displaced during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots settled. Prabh Deep brings vivid stories of this community that has gone through a lot of trauma.”

Indie artistes of hip hop and rap cater to a niche segment. With much of the music easily streamed online, Kapur says it is difficult to zero in on the number of loyal listeners in India. “It would have been about 100,000 a decade ago. Today, it must have grown by another 50,000 to 75,000.”

For an aspiring rapper, hip hop is a lifestyle that isn’t encouraged. Madhav Nautiyal from Dehradun, who has now made Delhi his home, went through the routine of listening to rock and roll before discovering hip hop and imitating the best. Nautiyal, who goes by the name TheSilkCut, has been meeting different crews in Delhi and has participated in rap battles and cyphers.

But his journey has not been easy. “It was tough telling my family that this is what I want to do,” he says. “First of all, it’s rap. Second, I rap in English whereas all the money and fame is associated with Hindi, Punjabi or Bollywood-driven hip hop.”

Hip hop artistes in India may well be caught between a rap and a hard place. Suhas Thobbi, who writes for Rock Street Journal, a monthly magazine about the rock scene in India and South Asia, says no genre can compete with the Goliath-like Hindi film music industry. And indie artistes who follow the path of bigwig rappers such as Honey Singh and Badshah risk earning ridicule from a small but steadfast fan base.

A trendsetter such as Bengaluru-based Brodha V (Vighnesh Shivanand), for instance, has retained his fans by remaining independent. He also cites the example of Kashmiri rapper MC Kash, whose songs are informed by a struggle for freedom and viewed as anti-army/establishment. A performance of his in Norway at a protest gathering two years ago ended with the audience expressing solidarity with Kashmiris.

“Some Indian rappers have been brave because as a country we are leaning towards right-wing extremism,” says Thobbi. “A lot of people would back out as you could become easy targets. Although they are not very political yet, I think it is going to gain momentum.”
Some fans do demand light content. Borkung Hrangkhawl took political inspiration from his father, Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, leader of the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra, but he chose rap as a poetic tool to voice his concerns for the minority tribal population in Tripura.

His song, “The Roots”, with its call of haa (Kok borok for “our land”) resonated with tribal youths and his rap career took off over six years ago. He got hooked to hip hop while in school in Shillong, taking inspiration from the likes of Eminem, Tupac, Fat Joe, Linkin Park and also Mizo rapper Michael M Sailo. During his stay in Delhi until last year, he also addressed racial discrimination and used to exhort his audience to visit the Northeast.

But for now, he has set his sights on Bollywood, and is working on a handful of Hindi romantic numbers. Why? Because his fans are seeking something lighter from him — and he doesn’t want to be labelled an activist rapper.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel