Bhasha badshahs

A growing bunch of regional language artistes who are rapping in Tamil, Kannada and Dakhani Urdu, among others, to highlight socio-political concerns, are perhaps an indication that the genre is finally finding its footing in India.
Last Updated 24 September 2022, 20:15 IST

Among the criticisms levelled at Indian rap is that it is merely imitative and is bereft of the substance that informs the scene in the West, predominantly the US. Rap in the West emerged from the hip-hop culture (which includes clothing, slang and mindset) that has its origins in African-American life, their sense of marginalisation and the social problems they have faced as a community.

The Indian rap scenario, on the other hand, is largely characterised by mainstream performers from non-marginalised communities (there are exceptions) who have chosen to ape the style without paying too much attention to the underlying motivations that inform the music and lyrics. That their work has blended in seamlessly with many big Bollywood productions further gives credence to this charge that Indian rap is all form and no substance.

A growing bunch of ‘Bhasha’ rappers who are rapping in Tamil, Kannada and Dakhani Urdu, among others, could be an indication that rap in India is truly finding its footing among the marginalised who are employing the music to highlight their concerns and challenges.

Take for instance the Tamil song ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ by Dhee and Arivu, which took the nation by storm when it was first released in March 2021. The song spoke about rural ecological concerns and had a subtext about the experiences of Arivu’s grandmother (also featured in the video) who had worked for many years in Sri Lankan plantations at the height of the Tamil migration to the island during the colonial era. The song incorporated elements from oppari, a folk music style from Tamil Nadu.

The emergence of Dakhani rap in the last few years by Hyderabad and Bengaluru rappers is yet another indication of the rap scene beginning to reflect subaltern themes. The song ‘Atishbazi’ by Hyderabad-based rappers — Thugs Unit, Mo Boucher and Irish Boi — was released when all of India was rocked by the anti-CAA protests and articulated their frustration with the divisive politics and distrust between communities that have vitiated the atmosphere in the last few years. Other Dakhani rap numbers from Hyderabad have celebrated the ‘old city’ of Hyderabad and lamented its marginalisation even as all attention (and funds) seem to be earmarked for the ‘new city’. Pasha Bhai from Bengaluru is another emerging artiste whose distinct Dakhani idiom and lyrics highlighting specific local concerns have won him many hearts and followers.

While Punjabi rap, which played a huge role in the revival of Indian rap, was to an extent appropriated by Bollywood, some Punjabi rappers shunned the trappings of filmdom choosing to focus on more specific regional issues, none more so than the recently deceased Sidhu Moosewala. Moosewala’s career began in a stereotypical fashion with the aesthetic and lyrics of his early songs reflecting the gangland culture of the US rap scenario. However, in more recent times, particularly in the months preceding his unfortunate death in May 2022, his songs had begun to take on more political overtones and address issues that the state of Punjab had been at loggerheads with the centre for decades.

In Kannada, Harish Kamble’s songs have explored caste discrimination (‘Jaati) and political corruption (‘Raajneeti’) among other things. He recently spoke in the popular press about his discomfort with the existing political scenario, likely an indication that more such issue-based songs are on the way.

The road ahead?

While the rap scene is happening and clearly headed for the big time, among the things it has to address is its glaring gender imbalance. Most rap artistes are men and the mores of the genre do reflect a macho mindset in terms of its posturing and aesthetics. UK-based Hard Kaur (Taran Kaur Dhillon) achieved some fame in the early 2010s with her work, especially in a few Hindi films. But in the recent past, she has made headlines for her controversial comments about Bollywood actresses and senior Indian government figures. More recently, Raja Kumar, an American rapper of Indian descent has been noticed for her work with Divine and in a few Bollywood films.

Where then is Indian rap headed? Will it go the way of its medieval avatar when Indi-pop waylaid it and its artistes or will it bloom into a genre complete in itself?

Listen harder. The answer is in the airwaves.

Rap before rap

Sample the song ‘Rail gaadi’ from the 1968 Hindi movie, ‘Aashirwaad’. Penned by Harindrananath Chattopadhyaya (former MP, writer and younger ‘bro’ of Sarojini Naidu), sung by Ashok Kumar and set to music by Vasant Desai, this song could be labelled an early Indian version of rap. There are perhaps a few other such songs dating back to those ancient times.

The medieval times of this genre go back to the early ‘90s when Baba Sehgal (where is he now?) sang ‘Thanda Thanda Pani’ modelled on Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’. A few more songs followed, by and large imitative and displaying little originality. This moment in time did produce one interesting song though — Bali Brahmbhatt’s ‘Patel Rap’, which celebrated the Indian shopkeeper, a ubiquitous presence in many British towns as well as in Kenya and Tanzania. By and large subsumed under the then-emerging genre of Indi-pop, this phase of Indian rap made scarcely a ripple. It was mostly over even before it actually began.

A bohemian revival

In the early 2000s, Indian rap underwent something of a revival. Observers credit this resurgence to California-based Bohemia whose debut album, ‘Vich Pardesan De’ (In a Foreign Land) and a subsequent album ‘Pesa Nasha Pyar’ (Money, Intoxication, Love) both in Punjabi became extremely popular in India. And the interesting thing about Bohemia, whose original name was Roger David, is that he spent his early life in Pakistan. Born into a Punjabi Christian family in Karachi in 1979, schooled for a while in Peshawar, he moved to the US with his family when he was 13.

Going by the stage name, Bohemia, his music inspired a whole new generation of Indian artistes to create rap music. Bohemia’s music featured in a few Bollywood films in the early 2010s and he continues to be active on the rap scene releasing albums, performing as well as producing music in collaboration with other artistes.

The famous five

Around the turn of the first decade of the 21st century, Bohemia’s popularity inspired a number of artistes to try their hand at rap. A group of five singers, together known as Mafia Mundeer, began to make waves on the Punjabi rap scene. Their first album ‘International Villager’ enjoyed considerable mainstream success. The group split soon enough, but not before introducing talents like Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah and Raftaar (all part of Mafia Mundeer) to the Indian rap scene. These three, along with Divine and Naezy, have been prominent in the Indian rap scenario ever since.

Yo Yo Honey Singh (Hirdesh Singh) has often been in the headlines for the wrong reasons and has become typecast as something of a ‘Bad Boy’. But his has been one of Indian rap’s more successful acts. Starting small in the early 2000s, winning fame with Mafia Mundeer (a song from International Villager — ‘Angreji Beat’ was featured in the movie, ‘Cocktail’ in 2015), then establishing himself as a solo artiste even as he earned something of a notorious reputation alongside, his has been a tough act to follow. His lyrics have been panned as vulgar and misogynistic and his run-ins with celebrities and other rap artistes (including his former bandmate, Badshah) have ensured that the spotlight on him has often been for reasons other than his music.

Badshah aka Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia like Honey Singh has managed to find his own niche. After coming to public attention through Mafia Mundeer, Badshah has seen his work featured in several Hindi films (‘Kar Gayi Chull’ featured in ‘Kapoor and Sons’), produced a number of other chart-busting songs and has even been named in the Forbes India’s Celebrity 100 list in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — the only rapper to win this distinction.

Raftaar’s career (Dilin Nair) too has more or less followed the route of his former bandmates— work in Hindi films, a number of popular songs and albums and a variety of work in showbiz including being the judge in a couple of popular TV shows.

Divine (Vivian Wilson Fernandes) and Naezy (Naved Sheikh) are the two others who have made a name for themselves in the rap scenario. While their earlier work was known to rap aficionados, both of them burst into the larger public consciousness due to their involvement with the 2019 film, ‘Gully Boy’. The film was loosely based on their lives and both of them contributed to its soundtrack and to some of the movie’s stylistic aspects. While ‘Gully Boy’ was perhaps the first mainstream film that brought the rap subculture to centerstage, some aspects of this subculture had also been showcased in the 2016 film, ‘Udta Punjab’, featuring Shahid Kapoor as ‘Gabru’, a character allegedly based on Yo Yo Honey Singh.

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.

(Published 24 September 2022, 19:32 IST)

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