Co-authored with Bhanuj Kappal
Earlier this year, a strange little scene played itself out at Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar, Mumbai, where a Republic Day protest against censorship and State oppression was being organised by dalit Ambedkarite activists. On stage and seemingly out of place, a rapper called A-List was spitting rhymes about revolution to a predominantly Marathi-speaking audience. He was followed by MC Kaur, whose Hindi freestyle on Yo Yo Honey Singh and sexism saw the earlier bemusement of the crowd give way to full-throated approval. Born in the South Bronx streets during the 1970s, hip-hop had made it halfway around the world, lending its voice to a community that knew nothing of its origins — and they were digging it.
The journey from Harlem to Dadar has been long and difficult. As rock and electronica were seeping into urban India during the 90s, hip-hop fans existed only in tiny niches in cities with large student or expat populations. It took another decade, and the global popularity of artists like Eminem, for the scene to expand to bigger cities. By the early 2000s, a new generation reared on MTV started pushing hip-hop music into nightclubs and party play lists.
“The first club in Mumbai that went hard with hip-hop was Red Light in South Mumbai,” recalls Bob Omulo, emcee for Bombay Bassment and editor of Zomba.in, an online portal for hip-hop in India. “Then slowly it started catching up in the suburbs [and] around the same time, hip-hop started becoming big in Delhi as well.”
Alongside club music, other aspects of hip-hop culture were also developing. Graffiti started popping up on city walls, and B-boying (also known as breaking, with a female counterpart, B-girling) and other forms of street dance gained popularity via Western rap videos. And while the clubbing scene gravitated towards EDM, B-boying is still around today. Its class cutting appeal means that regular jams or ‘ciphers’ remain a key platform for hip-hop performers, whether they’re dancers or emcees (rappers).
Says Jayesh Veralkar, co-founder of Zomba.in, “Ciphers have always been part of breaking culture…they’re a way of showing off new skills.” Spaces of brotherhood, ciphers also tend to be dominated by the spirit of battle rapping, where crews, mimicking America’s feuding hip-hop gangs, expend a lot of energy ‘dissing’ each other. Both Omulo and Veralkar believe that this feuding crew culture is for the most part benign, but several artists feel that this ‘mine is bigger than yours’ spirit is a barrier to forming a cohesive hip-hop movement in India.
Outside of ciphers, the Internet (a supposed testament to all modern revolutions) has been an important medium for hip-hop heads to keep up to date with a scattered scene. Spread across social media, Facebook pages like Indian Rap Forum are, for many, a first introduction to local hip-hop culture. 20 year old Ankur Johar, a.k.a Enkore, recalls his introduction to emceeing in 2008: “There were rap battle communities [on Orkut] where we typed our verses, and whoever had the better lyricism [won].” Later he graduated to recording songs on his phone, and most recently bagged a track on the soundtrack to Chennai Express.
A third avenue for artists is to plug into the already-established indie rock scene, which is slowly expanding its musical horizons. Music festivals like NH7 Weekender and local alternative gigs have allowed Mumbai-based artists Bombay Bassment and Tanmay Bahulekar (a.k.a Microphon3) to gain larger audiences. But there are only a handful of rap artists who have broken into this circuit, and with both Bombay Bassment and Buhalekar having existing ties to the rock scene, this is not an option for most.
When you put it all together – B-boys and B-girls, crews, rap ciphers, DJs, and graffiti – what you have is a small, fragmented but vital infrastructure for hip-hop culture in Mumbai. Still a long way from well-organised rock or dance music communities, it’s a growing sub-culture, of which the most promising element is the rise of original music.
When Eminem’s anthems first made their way to India, aspiring emcees would get on stage and perform existing tracks from American hip-hop. When rappers finally started developing their own rhymes, it was still a facsimile of the American rappers they adored. “I used to come across a number of amateur rappers who used to talk about gunshots and gang violence,” says Veralkar. “I’m sure most of them didn’t come from neighbourhoods where they would get to see stuff like that.” However, recent years have seen the emergence of a number of artists whose music has more in common with Mumbai than L.A., and rap music in India is finally learning about authenticity. Another encouraging trend is the rise of rap in regional languages, both increasing audience size and allowing for innovation in style.
One area in which Indian hip-hop is still lagging behind, though, is socially conscious rap. What once drew many musicians and poets to hip-hop was its lyricism; a form in which, as Johar says, “you can really say so much.” And with a musical style so deeply rooted in African American culture and resistance, a lot of what they said was deeply political. In India though, the hard political edge of N.W.A or Public Enemy does not find many takers. Perhaps part of the reason for this is Indian audiences’ preference for escapism over reality when it comes to entertainment, as Bollywood stands glorious testament to.
But be that as it may, a few Mumbai-based emcees have stayed true to the rap tradition of using their music to critique the world around them. Says Ashwini Mishra (a.k.a A-List), whose fiery rhymes serve as introspections into everything from state repression to violence against women, “The culture that is coming down from America is all about me, me, me, power, h**s, b*****s, cash…[But] we are trying to drive a sort of intellectual renaissance in hip-hop.” Similarly, Manmeet Kaur’s (a.k.a MC Kaur) disillusionment with all-male crews focusing on ego rather than music, found her performing on Bandra’s seafronts and at activist gatherings – venues far more satisfying than those designed for the ‘hip-hop crowd’. She says, “These people [activists] are not coming for anything but to listen. And even if they are [just] passing by, what catches them is not [the way we look], but the words we speak.”
Not all artists who engage with social issues approach their music through a strongly developed political lens. Johar like most other young, urban citizens, is disengaged from India’s political sphere. He says, “Frankly, politics puts me off. I stay away from it.” Yet earlier this year, the up and coming artist spat a rhyme on the imprisonment of dalit singer and poet Sheetal Sathe. Johar explains, “A-list told me about Sheetal, and it struck a chord…So I went back to his place and wrote the song while I learned what was going on.” In this way, the small number of artists engaging with social issues come together and learn in what Manmeet terms “a research of ideas”.
World over, one of the glaring features of hip-hop is that it is, by and large, a man’s world. From Baby Got Back to Jay-Z’s 99 Problems, international commercial hip-hop seems to have one purpose for women: sexualising them. And while the last decade has seen a definitive increase in the number of women artists, the ones who get famous tend to be for their overall ‘presence’ rather than the quality of their words. Kaur, India’s first woman emcee, says she’s tired of being known for her gender rather than her rhymes. “I’ll wear a kurti and jeans and rarely put [on] make-up…And the guys ask me, ‘Why do you wear the same kurti all the time?’ and the girls think I should be peppier.” Omulo reflects on these gendered dynamics: “Think about how many girls would be comfortable portraying the sort of image that hip-hop promotes and requires. Not a lot. So I think [the small number of women rappers] is because of a kind of filtration process, partly because of the misconceptions about hip-hop.” Not all artists feel this way. 19 year old emcee Deepa Unnikrishnan from Panvel says, “I get more attention because I’m a girl and I love it.” However, emcees like Kaur, who staunchly refuse to conform to hip-hop’s visual expectations of women, remain sceptical.
So where does all this leave the seemingly scattered though vibrant hip-hop community in Mumbai? For one, the fact that conversations about authenticity, politics and sexism are taking place at all could indicate a growing maturity in Indian hip-hop. And as its proponents decide whether they’re true fans or simply jumping on the bandwagon of the next fad, much of the way forward for rap music will depend on the tenacity of the community to move forward together. With feuding crews and what Johar terms as excessive “ego massaging”, the road ahead is long, but as most of the interviews for this piece would suggest, paved with potential success. Artists across India are beginning to attract larger audiences, and apart from rapping, the other elements of hip-hop culture – DJing, breaking and graffiti — are doing even better than their lyrical counterparts. Trends from rock and electronica in India, both initially unwelcomed and unheard of musical forms in the subcontinent, suggest that if the current generation sticks with hip-hop as they grow older, the music will grow with them. As Omulo puts it, “Hip-hop has a future in India, but how quickly it gets to that point of stability depends on how quickly hip-hop can get itself organised.”
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Inside Mumbai’s Burgeoning Hip-hop Scene’ in The Sunday Guardian on 12 October 2013