WITH A YOUNG POPULATION THAT IS RAPIDLY GAINING ACCESS TO THE INTERNET, HIP-HOP IN INDIA HAS REACHED THE HEIGHTS DUE TO THE AVAILABILITY OF CHEAP SMARTPHONES.
Words by Uday Kapur
Photography Samrat Nagar
As the Indian government seeks to promote the idea of a homogeneous Indian culture, hip-hop is acting as a grassroots resistance movement against a singular identity, writes Azadi Records’ Uday Kapur.
On his verse in Jungli Sher, Mumbai-based hip-hop artist Divine uses food as a placeholder to paint a picture about wealth inequality in India. “Mere daal mein nahi tha tadka” (“We didn’t have the luxury of garnishing our food”).
By using the staple tadka as a vehicle to talk about the economic gap between his upbringing and that of prominently represented middle to upper-class Indians, he introduces a socio-economic critique that is instantly relatable to South Asian audiences. While the context in which the lyrics were represented was hyper-local to his suburban Mumbai neighbourhood, it also spoke to the nation at large. That line is one of the prime examples of how India’s hip-hop community is weaponising its everyday vernacular to express its opinion about Indian society.
Last September, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu declared that the English language was an ‘illness’ plaguing the country; left behind by the British and hampering the progress of the Indian populace. Speaking at a function organised by the Union Home Ministry of India, he gave wing to an idea that has been steadily pursued by the current Narendra Modi-led Hindu-Nationalist government to promote Hindi as the country’s unifying language.
This idea isn’t new. Yet due to the majority enjoyed by the government the current climate represents a unique opportunity for it to implement its belief that there is a singular Indian identity that should be defined by a common language and culture.
Traditionally, resistance against this idea has come from regional political powers who seek to represent the different communities and regions that make up the country. It also comes from a constitutionally-mandated prerogative to promote and preserve India’s diversity. However, recently the Indian hip-hop movement has served as a grassroots resistance movement against the idea of a singular Indian identity, emphasising and highlighting the cultural value of India’s 780 languages.
In a society where the English and Hindi languages are valued as prime social and professional currency, vernacular languages amongst migrant communities in India’s metropolitan cities tend to be forgotten – erasing a significant part of the history and culture of the people that inhabited the sub-continent for millennia. Through artists who are intensely proud of their local culture and history, hip-hop has emerged as a medium to preserve these languages and is breaking class and language barriers that often stifle cultural exchange amongst India’s communities.
Over the past few years, Indian hip-hop has emerged as one of the most exciting alternative music movements in the country’s flourishing independent music industry. Hailing from urban, lower-income communities, the artists driving the scene forward are bringing their brand of ‘authentic’ hip-hop culture to mainstream Indian consciousness, highlighting hyper-local issues that plague the common man in vernacular street slang that is instantly recognisable. Artists such as Divine, Prabh Deep, Naezy, Street Academics and more are refuting the idea that an artist needs to adapt to a homogeneous culture in order to be successful in this country, and are proudly representing their local communities.
Hailing from all corners of the country, the hip-hop community is helping paint an accurate picture of India as a whole by raising local issues and providing an ear-to-the-ground narrative from areas and communities that usually struggle to break through to the mainstream
In an article for The New Yorker headlined ‘The Diverging Paths of Two Young Women Foretell the Fate of a Tribe in India’, author Raghu Karnad highlighted the Indian government’s efforts to homogenise children belonging to India’s tribal communities and to eradicate their ancestral culture. The piece detailed how a young tribal girl was being forced to adapt to the Indian government’s idea of an ideal citizen, coerced into giving up her community’s name, language and practices under the garb of joining a new, developed Indian society.
Resistance to this comes in the form of a multi-lingual hip-hop group called Swadesi. Based in Mumbai, the group actively highlights issues affecting the tribes surrounding the financial capital of India, and their struggle to preserve their culture in the face of an ever-expanding, resource-hungry metropolitan city.
In the north-east, artists such as Khasi Bloodz, Kingdom Culture and the Cryptographik Street Poets are using their music to address an acute substance abuse epidemic that has spread like wildfire in the troubled region. By choosing to express themselves in their vernacular, these artists are also introducing the rest of the country to a culture that’s given no mileage in mainstream Indian culture. This is true with the hip-hop community at large. From Srinagar (Kashmir) to Kannur (Kerala), artists are creating hyper-local narratives that are then being employed to piece together an image of the country through each song.
With a young population that is rapidly gaining access to the internet, hip-hop in India has reached the heights it has due to the availability of cheap smartphones and even cheaper data packages provided by competing telecom companies. It has also emerged as the medium of choice for a lot of young artists who belong to these newly-connected communities to express their ideas and beliefs.
The Indian hip-hop movement is serving as a battleground for the exchange of ideologies – a place where artists who express their caste supremacist ideas compete with anti-caste rappers, or where the frustrations of disenfranchised and marginalised communities are brought to the forefront.
Language is important. In his 2005 album The Rising Tied, Japanese-American rapper Mike Shinoda recounts the story of his grandfather being interned by the US government during the Second World War. “They called him immigrant,” he raps. Almost always, the words we use impact the relationships we have with each other, both as individuals and as communities. Language lies at the heart of hip-hop culture. In New York they incorporated the various dialects spoken by immigrant, working-class communities into culture, and in doing so helped it become a movement for the people.
This is the role that the Indian hip-hop community is playing. It is helping to introduce audiences and artists to different cultures across the country and helping them gain a more holistic understanding of the country. It also serves as an introductory experience to the diversity of Indian society, letting you sneak a peek into how people from different communities and regions live, love and celebrate.
Featured in Sole Magazine Event Edition 2018. Available in select retailers in the region including Amongst Few, FRAME and participating brands including adidas, Reebok and PUMA.
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