“Rap is basically poetry with rhythm”, Imbachi reveals, in an attempt to explain what rap/hip-hop is to a middle-aged man who is curious about this newly emerging music genre in India’s regional music scene. In an excerpt posted on Instagram from one of his interviews, the Kerala-based rapper is seen opening up about his knowledge of the genre and his approach towards his rap.
“I don’t see myself being too politically associated, but my politics is whatever I see in front of me, and if I think it is wrong, I talk about it”, Imbachi asserts, when asked about hip-hop’s emergence as a genre that speaks up about socio-political issues. It’s just that simple.
As self-assigned torch-bearers of the movement, these rappers will rise up against injustice, write verses that reflect the struggles of the people, and bring the revolution home through music we can stream from our devices. Human struggles have always shared an innate relationship with the representation that they seek in forms of art, and poetry placed over hip-hop beats has become synonymous with the voices of protests in India lately.
At the start of 2020, the women-led anti-CAA-NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh were invigorated by popular hip-hop acts from India’s independent music scene, such as Prabh Deep and Ahmer. They performed in solidarity with the movement on a stage at the protest site. The distinguishing trait about rappers such as Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi is that they can rap in their regional languages, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Malayali. While the growth of hip hop culture in India is similar to how it originated in 1970’s New York, these Indian rappers are pushing boundaries with regional and often multilingual rap. By rapping in the vernacular, these artists build a platform for oppressed, marginalised communities to be heard, stepping outside the more common English or Hindi rap which has been popularised by Bollywood. Turning a Western import into something of their own, these rappers have begun to embrace the expressive medium that rap originated as. Gradually, an entire nation is now waking up to the stories that are usually not covered on mainstream media through independent rap music.
Elaan, a multilingual track from Ahmer’s debut record, is a compelling collection of verses that reveal the harsh realities of growing up in the Kashmir valley. These verses placed over a gripping beat will leave you terrified, as Ahmer raps:
Kahan se aata mein?
sab se darrawni jagah se
Insaaf hi mana hai, gunegaari mein mazza hai yahan
Tu talve chaate toh bada hai, sach paale toh saza hai
(You wanna know where I come from?)
(The most dangerous place on the planet)
(Justice, they deny it, violations bring them joy here)
(If you lick their boots, you stay relevant, otherwise you’re a criminal)
Straightforward, without filters or fear is the style with which Ahmer fiercely delivers his verses. Making the listener aware about the grave, repressive conditions he grew up in, he portrays what life in Kashmir is like. The central government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A gave this song more relevance. Ahmer became Kashmir’s new, rising spokesperson in the independent music scene. Even though Ahmer raps in Hindi here, ad-libs such as “Asli Koshur Hip-Hop”, which translates to “Real Kashmiri Hip Hop”, are intended to create a regional imprint.
Prabh Deep, who features on the same track, delivers a bold verse in his quintessential, casually outspoken Punjabi style. The verse culminates at the hook,
“Jedde border ni tappe
Karan jung da Elaan.”
(those who have never crossed the border)
(are the ones declaring war),
proving to be highly relevant since most of the opinions being circulated across India after Kashmir’s special status was revoked, were coming from self-proclaimed experts who have never actually witnessed the situation in Kashmir. Prabh Deep highlights the irony in this case, claiming that the decision-makers are always the least affected. As a consequence they fail to take into consideration what is actually being demanded by the people.
Not only do Prabh Deep and Ahmer raise awareness about what they have personally witnessed, they provide an anthem that resonates with every affected individual who is part of the movement. They help a crowd mobilise and rise together, and provide a universal symbol of unity through their music. Ahmer’s narration of his personal experiences, and Prabh Deep’s call for action complement each other perfectly, validating the views of the protesters and the need to voice their neglected opinions.
This growing independent hip hop culture in India is incredibly encouraging in the sense that the movement is not restricted to individuals who have personally experienced gruesome circumstances. Multiple rappers have taken the initiative to raise awareness about socio-political issues that do not directly affect them. In a song titled Atithi Devo Bhava, Imbachi speaks up against the Modi government’s ideologies and attempts to expose the general demeanour with which they conduct themselves. In reaction to the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, he raps,
Hindu rashtriya malla yilla mulkul
atithi devo bhava
(Not a Hindu State)
(But one that includes everyone our India)
(Atithi Devo Bhava)
Nammal kanda Bharatham maani pogumo kanmunbilnilna
Secularism ennula vakyala veendam beleyilla inna
atithi devo bhava
(Will we see our India fade away right in front of our eyes)
(There’s no value for the word secularism anymore)
(Atithi Devo Bhava)
By constantly invoking India’s supposedly core value of “Atithi Devo Bhava”, Imbachi brings out the bigoted manner in which the government is acting on their agenda to turn a secular state into a Hindu rashtra.
With independent hip-hop gradually cutting across India’s regional and linguistic lines and finding its comfort zone at the heart of the revolution, the movement only promises to grow bigger. While the government can censor the narratives being broadcasted or published in mainstream media, the growth of the independent hip hop movement shows how the people’s voices can never be silenced. With Indian rappers carving out their own niches by choosing to represent and reach out to their people with regional vernacular, they provide a voice to the communities that were never heard before, while also instilling a sense of belonging to the larger community of India. It is not long before the movement spreads across the entire country, and gives birth to newer voices who take inspiration from the likes of Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi.
Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.
Picture Credits: Jamun, YouTube
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