Straight outta Karachi: Pakistan's surprise hip hop hub

Straight outta Karachi: Pakistan's surprise hip hop hub

In this picture taken on May 19, 2019, eight-year-old rapper Waqas Baloch (C) performs in Lyari, one of Pakistan’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, in Karachi. (Photo by RIZWAN TABASSUM / AFP)

Haunted by gang violence and poverty for decades, Lyari was once considered one of Pakistan's most dangerous areas, but those grim realities also inspired a generation of artists and spawned a burgeoning hip hop scene.

With its close proximity to the sea and history of smuggling, the largely ethnic Balochi neighbourhood in Karachi stands apart for its history of violence and lawlessness -- even by Pakistan's standards.

When Karachi served as a major transport hub during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, Lyari was hit hard by the influx of weapons and drugs -- and the surge in brutality such black market businesses bring.

Heavily armed gangs and political hit squads exerted iron-fisted control over large swathes of Lyari, squashing economic growth while residents battled with the fallout, including rampant drug abuse and poverty.

"Lyari was a notorious place because of the gangs and the war. It was almost impossible for outsiders to even think about entering," explains resident and new rapper Mohammad Omar.

But in recent years, the gangs have been brought to heel following a heavy-handed operation by paramilitary forces that kicked off in 2013 and saw the streets turned into virtual war zones.

In the battle for Lyari, gangs infamously used rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles to fight security forces, with the crossfire shuttering schools and businesses and also keeping kids off the streets.

"Children used to cry listening to the fierce gunfire," says Omar, adding: "The poor people were the victims of those gang wars. We witnessed all those things."

But the worst of the violence has abated, and an increase in security has led to flowering creativity.

The embattled neighbourhood now clings fiercely to its reputation for producing top footballers, iron-chinned boxers, and most recently socially conscious rappers.

The rise of hip hop in Lyari mirrors the genre's own birth decades ago in New York's Bronx borough, where it largely centred around street performances and featured lyrics that addressed social ills and life in urban ghettos.

Hip hop became a global phenomenon, but the genre initially failed to generate much traction in Pakistan where music fans tended to listen to pop, Bollywood soundtracks or traditional Sufi music.

The occasional forays by Pakistani musicians into hip hop over the years largely served as interludes in pop songs that veered closer to comedy.

Not so in Lyari where rappers were influenced by the likes of Tupac Shakur and looked to their own experiences for lyrical inspiration.

"In other cities and provinces, there's rap but it's mostly about beautiful women and luxury cars," says producer Qammar Anwar Baloch.

"We are showing reality."

This artistic expression with a bass line first burst onto the nation's airwaves in 2017 following the release of the hit song and video "The Players of Lyari" by the Lyari Underground.

The anthem doubles as an ode to the neighbourhood's love for football in cricket-obsessed Pakistan along with a fiery rant lambasting the country's sporting authorities for neglecting the neighbourhood's football talent.

"The young people in Lyari represent one of the first times in Pakistani history where kids from the working classes are contributing to the music that upper classes listen to as well," explains writer Ahmer Naqvi.

"They're using this moment to sort of assert their own place within Pakistani society, to not be content with being on the margins," he adds.

For years, their voices and stories were largely invisible in Pakistan.

With little performance space available Lyari's rappers have largely turned to the internet to share their clips of their songs, which generate millions of views online.

"I want to highlight the issues in Karachi and my own area in Lyari," explains eight-year-old rapper Waqas Baloch, who released a video under the moniker Thousand earlier this summer.

The young MC is just one of dozens of rappers to pick up a microphone in recent years, according to residents following the scene closely.

For cleric Jameel Ahmed -- who runs a madrassa in Lyari -- youth interest in music and personal expression is a welcome relief after years of tough times.

"It is far better than drugs, booze and other such menaces. Music is helping them stay away from such things," says Ahmed.

He adds: "Now, their minds are opening up."

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox