ECHOING GLOBAL MARGINALISED VOICES: A STUDY OF RAP MUSIC IN INDIA
Hip hop and Rap Culture
The emergence of the hip-hop culture in 1970 in the Bronx lies in the political seclusion and power vacuum, crime and mystery which gave the culture a rebellious spirit to stand out from the mainstream culture. Although started out as an opposition to mainstream culture, today rap being an inclusive part of hip hop gives a different essence. During the 1980s, hip hop was thought fit for broadcasting in television and radio leading to it becoming Music Television (MTV) ready. Hip hop got huge recipients among the middle class, suburban teenagers. “During this period a split in hip-hop culture began: rap music, a facet or by-product of hip hop culture, was broadcasted to the general population while underground hip-hop music continued to remain outside of the mass market system.” Rap music got a wider dissemination ground owing to its considerable presence in TV channels, radios, as part of commercial propagandas to speak in the wider context. A published work of philosopher Herbert Marcuse centring on music discussing broadly on the position of art in revolutionary movements picks up the idea of black rock music which he says is “life music” and rock music of the Whites.
According to him, “Life music has indeed an authentic basis: black music as the cry and song of the slaves and the ghettos. In this music, the very life and death of black men and women are lived again: the music is body; the aesthetic form is the “gesture” of pain, sorrow, and indictment. With the takeover by the Whites, a significant change occurs: White “rock” is what its black paradigm is not, namely, performance. It is as if crying and shouting, the jumping and playing, now take place in an artificial organised space; that they are directed toward a (sympathetic) audience.”
There is little difference between Black rock music and hip hop since the origin of both the music genres smack of an escape route from the harsh realities of poverty, racism induced oppression aimed at youths with harsh socio-economic backgrounds who could correlate themselves with the messages of rap music. The emerging rock music upon getting channelled into the notice of the White promoters turned into an industry shedding its raw form that had once been defined as “life music” which also indicates changed lyrical meanings.
It is noteworthy that underground rap music hardly used to meet a large number of target audiences. Also important is the fact that large scale commercialisation of rap music leads to erosion of lyrical essence that it actually seeks to transmit. So, is it possible for rap music to remain true to its lyrics yet welcome a huge number of audiences? Hip hop music as a form of resistance has a certain “shock” element in it which paves its route away from the mainstream culture. It has also come to notice that in America over the years this music genre has given a voice of expression to the underprivileged section. “Power relationships” constitute the crux of this genre of music as is evidenced from the writing of Robin D.G Kelley on gangsta rap which according to him “creates an imaginary upside-down world where the oppressed are powerful.” Lastly, rap music takes a very political stance and thus encourages resistance of all sorts. Although rap music emerged from hip hop and gained immense popularity as opposed to hip hop culture which has long remained an “invisible” underground music genre, the terms hip hop and rap are often used interchangeably. Hip hop today as a form of underground music criticising the social set up of America as well as “inauthentic” rap culture survives side-by-side with rap culture. The reasons behind its survival are more than one. One of them is the acceptance of hip hop within the artists’ own community even today allowing them to produce any art form that is rebellious in nature. This freedom of innovation is somewhat limited within the rap artists because they produce for a target audience. Since, underground hip hop music remains untouched by big corporations and government, it definitely loses mass appeal, which according to H. Lavar Pope is a drawback since the reach of hip hop is constricted within those who can relate to the lyrics and thus he says, “hip-hop artists often deliver messages to those who do not need to hear it.”
The answer to the question, what kind of audiences are attracted to hip hop involves a study of the number of both White and Black consumers. According to Chuck D, in early 1900 hip hop appealed to 60% of the Whites. Thus, it is true that the Whites constitute an integral part in the hip hop consumption market. However the Whites who were attracted to hip hop belonged to middle and upper class Americans. But, such fans had a rebellious attitude. Janise Marie Blackshear in his Understanding the White, Mainstream Appeal of Hip-Hop Music: Is it a Fad or Is it a Real Thing? (2005) says that they were particularly against “parental structure.” It has also been found from a study that the rebellious attitude of the Whites stems out from their need to locate their identity within the White, middle-class community. The belief of the White parents was that jazz, a “voodoo” music did nothing but corrupt the young white minds. This parental attitude led the White youths to take the path of defiance. In fact, a lot of statistical study shows that since time immemorial, White audiences of Black music are rebellious in nature.
The carefree or rebellious nature of hip hop or rap music has also become a subject of disgust for many and in this light the negative impact such lyrics produce require critical scrutiny. Apart from the misogynistic statements, the constant use of violence, drug use in the songs produce a “negative stereotype” in the minds of the youngsters. According to Pew Research Center, 2008, in a poll conducted in 2008, it was found that more than seven out of ten US participants irrespective of race sided with the idea that rap music bore negative results in the society. Such negativity should however be seen through the prism of marginalisation. Criminal activities or such other negative demeanours are not particularly the prevalent urban cultures; in fact they are the results of an ugly reality. Hip hop artists’ dealing with such themes points at the societal conditions that favour marginalisation.
Rap music and hip hop hence, though has become a mainstream culture now not devoid of criticism, is still a highly acceptable voice of the marginalised in general and youth in particular. There is no denying the fact that this music genre creates an atmosphere of resistance, negative or positive as is evident from what Dr. Crooke of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music says, “I think that the ability to be able to disrupt society…is sometimes very necessary, especially when you’re speaking from the position of communities that have been marginalised and dispossessed or who have been subject to inter-generational and structural racism.”
Rap Music in India
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is one of those rare artistic presentations that highlight music as a strong protest against the prevailing socio-economic divide in India. In the film, a scene shows Murad, the protagonist getting fascinated with the rap music that he listens upon confining himself inside a car and sings with it, till his voice coincides with that of the rapper. The setting of the film is based in Dharavi, Mumbai where since decades rap culture has been creeping in the hearts of the youth. But, the question of mass appeal of this genre of songs in India remains. Indian rap music has been able to consolidate its position now. According to Nyshka Chandran, “Right now, the dominant sound of India’s street poets is both political and emotionally charged. Production ranges from hard core to lo-fi, but the lyrical content is always socially conscious. Verses discuss life in slums, police brutality, women’s rights, corruption, and state led oppression-topics that are a reality for most Indians, but remain grossly underrepresented in the country’s mainstream entertainment.”
According to Mohammad Abood, co-founder of India’s leading community radio station Boxout.FM, hip hop music with a true Indian identity began when the Indian artists rather than imitating the western lyrics started producing music in their own dialects. When “Mere Gully Mein” was released in 2015 by Mumbai-based MCs Naezy and Divine, it brought underground rap music to national fame. Some of the rap artists who have become household names are Honey Singh, Hard Kaur, Baadshah. No wonder rap music gained wider response among the Indian youths through them. Gully Boy’s fame hence circles around Divine and Naezy, the struggles of whom as rappers are perfectly portrayed in the film. One of the popular songs in the movie the lyrics of which goes like- “Uth jaa apni raakh se, Tu udd ja ab talaash mein, parwaaz dekh parwane ki, Aasman bhi sar uthayega, Aayega, apna time aayega” provides a motivational spirit among the youths to rise high in life with the fast rhythm of these songs acting as boosters in order to add vitality to the lyrics.
The idea of pop music as the music genre of the deprived also gets geo-politically translated which is evident from the prevalence of Chamar Pop. It is a form of Dalit music which finds concentration of audience in Punjab among the Dalit communities. A sense of Dalit pride and identity through frequent mentions of Baba Saheb Ambedkar and saint Ravidas is what constitutes this form of music. Jibonmukhi songs of Bengal bearing influences from Latin music and American folk songs which gained attention through Suman Chatterjee marked an end of an era when romantic songs ruled the hearts. A very urbane music genre which portrays the tribulations of an urban living has paved the way for the revolutionary Bangla rock band movement of 21st Century. There are many such protest movements such as the Meghalaya Pop Songs which draw from the tails of Western Protest movements and create a fierce ground for open protests.
Thus, unlike the Dharavi rap artists who gain inspiration from the western rappers, other forms of music such as folk songs ignite such protests against caste-class-gender oppressions. Since the Independence Movement, Burra Katha tradition has gained significant attention. Mostly performed in Telangana in the form of stories addressing socio-political challenges, it has also been adopted by Dalits who use it as a medium of venting out frustration.
I ain’tno Eminem, no T-Pain,
I’m a young Dalit guy using his brain,
To speak of his people,
Who are made to work in your sewers…
Let me tell you they are real human beings
Who are made to go through your stinking pit.
The afore mentioned poem is an instance as to how a Dalit student as in this case Sumeet Samos of Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) articulates his despair and disdain against the 2500-year old oppressive caste system through the popular medium of rap, marking a breakthrough in musical activism. He voiced his grievance about the ills of manual scavenging his community was unquestioningly subjected to, the frequent suicides of Dalit students, the dearth of opportunities, the harrowing realities of everyday life etc. via his rap renditions popularly called ‘Ambedkarite rap’. This new genre is surfacing to the forefront in an attempt to annihilate the atrocities arising from eons of ingrained segregation and caste discrimination. Needless to reiterate how the rigid social hierarchy and the associated class injustices has forced innumerable Dalit children and adolescents to suffer from an identity crisis and also induced a sense of inferiority since their birth. Sumeet’s lyrics reflects a fraction of the biases and the resulting plight for the marginalised community as a whole-
Look what you’ve done
The pain has still not gone.
You made me question my parents,
My birth, my human existence,
My appearance, my food, my clothes,
my smell, etiquette, mannerism.
Considering how rap has and hip-hop have served as instruments in battling classicism, racism, and tyranny in the West, Sumeet’s accomplishment is groundbreaking as far as the Indian hip-hop scenario is concerned in terms of how it has aided in ‘de-Brahmanising’, posing a veritable resistance to the Savarna (upper caste) gaze and in promoting emancipatory ethos.
Another widely acknowledged quite outspoken underground MC in the country known for skilfully pointing out the inconveniences confronted by the people of his societal background is Prabh Deep who hails from Delhi. The unique lyrics composed by him in traditional Punjabi language portray the problems of soaring unemployment rates, increasing impoverishment, and the menace of drug influence or other forms of substance abuse that the misguided Sikh youth of his suburban locality are currently reeling under. He conveys a powerful and meaningful message in his song Suno-
My ears are open, my streets educate me…
There’s danger hiding behind every corner…
One’s an addict, while the other profits,
People are trapped in a prison of addiction
(Why do they enjoy it?)
Even dealers need to make ends meet, feed their sons,
Their kids are looking at them to put food on the table,
You’ve sold your dreams and bought and education,
Educated yourself but haven’t learnt anything.
In this fashion he challenges the dominant trend followed by mainstream Indian music that merely speaks of the glamour and extravagance of the cities whereas, he establishes himself as the ‘messiah of hip-hop culture’ and a messenger of truth by exposing the ugly truths of his neighbourhood.
BBC Asian Network’s Straight Outta Mumbai documentary by Bobby Friction reveals how gradually Indian hip-hop is witnessing stars rising from the slums and poorest areas of the country which were otherwise ignored by the rich so far. These blooming talents or ‘gully rappers’ talk about the environment they find themselves in, their ordeals to achieve a life of name and fame; there is no glossing over these daily inevitable struggles. They not only aim at securing their own futures but also strive to ensure greater well-being of their community. Hence they are “actively trying to get kids involved in the world of hip-hop”.
Not only urban culture, but Indian rap artists have also successfully portrayed the rustic lifestyles of India. For example, Indian rap artist, MC Mawali after having met an Adivasi activist, Prakash Bhoir a couple of years back, brought his Swadeshi hip hop crew there to delve deep into tribal culture and their everyday ordeals. Their constant interaction with the tribal people gave birth to Warli Revolt, a protest music that featured Bhoir folk elements. The songs of Swadeshi, inspired from UK grime and US hip-hop music thus create a mish-mash of local and global cultures to bring to life the mundane happenings in the streets of Mumbai.
Rap Music and Women
It has been found that the rap songs paint a disturbing picture of women like the lyrics of the 2005 Academy Award winner “Three 6 Mafia’s” Its Hard out Here for a Pimp. Soon after its performance at the Oscars, it invited ripples of criticism for “glorifying the exploitation of women.” Some of the scholars have also pointed out rap to be a movement which aims to reply back feminist movements with the condition of heavily portraying men’s empowerment and women’s subjugation. According to Bell Hooks, “Gangsta rap is a part of the anti-feminist backlash that is the rage right now.” But, Witzer and Kubin through their article “Misogyny in Rap Music” say that “misogyny does not characterise rap music as a whole.” According to them not all music that they have examined points out to a non-egalitarian concept. But, at the same time they feel that even though the lyrics were not misogynistic, the absence of a favourable representation of women cannot be denied.
Again, rap and hip-hop’s tendency of secluding women artists from an otherwise ‘masculine’ culture is also a domain of criticism. The women rappers have ever been waiting for recognition and never remain away from the tentacles of criticism which constantly threatens to push them into voiceless oblivion. The online protests like the #MeToo Movement, #TimesUp enable louder voices from among the women to be heard. The question that Scholar Erik Nielsen in 2014 puts forth , “When do we concede that mainstream hip-hop has become largely defined by the negation of female voice and perspective?” brings up a broader question – does rap music pay heed to those voices?
While it is truly sad that a culture that has developed to enable the marginalised negotiate over their existential crisis through music turns a blind eye to the African American women, since 2018, women rapper’s applaudable performances and acceptance also needs equal attention. The performances by City Girls, a Florida based music duo involving rap artists, JT and Yung Miami and other such artists who are currently becoming popular faces have no doubt shattered the old gender centric myth around hip hop culture. Still their success is considered a momental one, not a lifetime victory as Briana Younger, a music writer says, “If rap is to really become the necessary artform that its purveyors believe it to be, it must not only reflect but champion the multifaceted lives of black women. It must offer platforms for the expression of their lived experiences- without the requirements of selling something, being the culture’s moral compass, catering to fantasies, or answering for sexism and racism.”
The situation in Third World Countries like India is not very different. Although the reach of Indian hip-hop seems to expand, its confinement to only male artists and the prevailing patriarchy is a prominent impediment. There are only a handful of female rappers who contemplate stepping into this world monopolised by men. Crushed by the orthodox social norms and compartmentalised gender roles, being a rapper is nothing but a distant dream. “If more females have to get involved in hip-hop, first of all they have to listen to it. For that to happen, it has to go through Bollywood. At the end of the day, Bollywood is what reaches mass audiences in India, in small villages,” said Deepa Unnikrishnan or Dee MC, a female rapper in India.
Dee MC picked up the issue of dark-skin prejudice or sexism in India through her songs. The lyrics in Rangare-
Tan ko mere kuch aisa dikhaya,
Kaali hoon main iska ehsaas dilaya
Karti bhi kya umar bas thi panch
Rangeen thi duniya par main lagti thi daag.
Bengaluru-based rapper Siri Narayan, or Siri had to undergo somewhat similar challenging experiences in the hip-hop world predominated by men. She says, “The problem with hip-hop in India is that most of the consumers are male, too. And even when I am performing, it’s mostly men.” While dispensing the role of a feminist rapper, she believes that it does not simply suffice to incorporate feminist themes in her music. Rather she prefers “working with women in the industry and co-creating a product by having female professionals behind the scenes, or behind the camera.” Furthermore, she shares during an interview that it is mostly her father who is supportive of her career choice while her mother seems to show “cognitive dissonance” at times. Hence the path to her discovery has not been a cake walk.
Many of the female rappers including the editor-in-chief of the online platform Desihiphop.com have objectively used the tool of rap music to dismantle the taboos and question the silence around menstruation and menstrual hygiene. They intended to spark a conversation around the importance of education, the need to eliminate racial prejudices and break stereotypes by appealing to the followers who are predominantly the youngsters.
Globalisation of music has particularly made rap culture a transnational product of providing marginalised a voice. In this context, rap music becomes even more interesting because it has the ability to deal with the complex mental vicissitudes of the diaspora communities. Indian-American rap songwriter, Raja Kumari’s new single “N.R.I” talks about the “homelessness” that one faces while belonging to two different cultures with a hollow identity that invites seclusion. Her song which is a description of her upbringing as someone belonging to two nations brings up the idea of a borderless world through bridging East with the West.
The Middle East, the hot bed of conflict has also mobilised the indigenous rappers with musical weapons to combat misery. Through their songs they try to paint a better world. The rap songs of Ibrahim Ghunaim, a 26 year old artist who forever wanted to be the “the voice of Gaza” spreads awareness about humanitarian rights and vividly describes such other social issues that bear direct impact on the people living in the conflict ridden enclaves of the Middle East. He says, “I’m talking about what I see, I’m talking about what I don’t see and I’m talking about what I want to see.”
Rap music in India has made a remarkable breakthrough by appealing to the much neglected queer communities. Pragya Pallavi, an LGBTQ rap singer with Peter Wallenberg after overcoming several social difficulties made an album “Rainbow Riots in India” which not only talk about Swedish-Indian culture but also brings to our attention a melodious representation of same-sex love that transcends legal boundaries.
Authors’ Bio Note
Srija Mukhopadhyay is currently a master’s student in the department of history at Jadavpur University. Her research interests include cultural history, history of empires, decolonisation, diaspora studies, conflict area studies and gender studies. She has presented papers in several national and international seminars. She has also published commentaries and articles in online forums and magazines.
Sutirtha Mazumdar is pursuing her Masters in History from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research interests lie in Environmental History, Gender Studies, Global Diplomacy, Migration Studies and the study of Children’s Rights. She has presented research articles and papers in National and International forums. She has attended several University, State and National level seminars and workshops related to the topics of her interest.