Rhymes For A Reason

It’s so damn fake, we act so holy when
We speak of Delhi gang rape, but what of Shopian?
Enough of the lies, let me tell you what is true
This is how we took the life of Afzal Guru

Dressed in shirt, jeans, and a belt to match, Ashwini Mishra — aka A-List — harks back to a hip-hop culture that predates the ‘bling, bitchez and flowing cash’ of the bootylicious videos MTV has broadcast across the world for over two decades. His progressive and lyrically lucid emceeing is, in Mishra’s words, “taking it back to the streets”. Free styling, recording his own tracks and bringing a vibrant energy to clubs, open-mic nights and protest concerts alike, Mishra is quickly making a name for himself in what he labels ‘hip-hop journalism’.

As a member of , a Mumbai-based collective of poets, musicians, writers and artists, Mishra says his politics are liberal, though listeners of his music may place him much further on the Left in Indian politics today. A commentator for current events — such as the arrest of Shaheen Dhada for her Facebook status questioning the shutdown of Mumbai following the death of Bal Thackeray (“All the cops look at what these kids say/Then they are booked under Section 66A”) and the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, an event often forgotten even in progressive views around the occupation of Kashmir (“He just wants a place in the valley, where he belongs/But Mr Kaul, your valley is gone”) — Mishra’s ties with JAPA’s network of activists and agitators across the country provide him with inside perspectives that go far beyond what the corporate media’s headlines dictate.

So how did the 28-year-old Bihari “corporate stooge by day” go on to produce one of India’s first hip-hop EPs in 2005? While living in Saudi Arabia, a serendipitous encounter with a Run-DMC cassette led seven-year-old Mishra to become “a hip-hop head” for the rest of his life. “The language, the culture, the aesthetic of hip-hop was just something I fell in love with,” he says. Returning to Kolkata, the city of his birth, Mishra began writing poetry (“In Calcutta, everybody is a poet,” he says, wryly). Poetry soon turned into performance, and growing up at a time when hip-hop was sparking resistance across the globe and artists like Eminem were “[making] it cool to be intricate with your rhyme again”, A-List was born as Mishra worked for his undergraduate degree.

Today, he collaborates with musicians as diverse as Kashmiri producers or The Republican Sena, a group of Dalit poets, artists and writers, and performs his own songs everywhere from “Richie-Rich venues to commie gatherings”. Looking to expand the culture of protest music in the country, Mishra’s work falls on the highly political end of India’s newly formed hip-hop spectrum, which covers everything from artists like Mumbai-based Microphon3 (who use much of the style, ‘swag’ and lingo of American ) to those who seek to be socially conscious, responding to issues such as gender-based violence (Manmeet Kaur, for example), or the treatment of the Muslim community (like the recent single, Native Bappa, from Kerala based hip hop crew Mappila Lahala).

However, rappers like Mishra and MC Kash (a Kashmir-based hip-hop artist who often includes recordings and excerpts from political rallies into his music) take socially conscious rapping to a more significant, interventionist level. Mishra extensively researches issues and participates in protests, demonstrations and public actions for movements he musically engages with, including the Bhopal gas tragedy, the treatment of Soni Sori and various feminist struggles. He is hopeful about making a difference, even in a music industry that is largely commercial and averse to changing the status quo. “Look at any great revolution; it has art linked to it,” he says. “So maybe hip-hop is the art of this era that can drive [change]… And guys like us will keep this thing going. So if you really look, you’ll see us; you’ll hear our music.”

This piece was published in the print and electronic versions of Tehelka Magazine on 15 June 2013

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