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Coming of Age – The Self & Indian Hip-Hop

Written by Armaan Yadav, 27th July 2020

I don’t quite know where to begin, for I’ve been a drifter all my life. When your life is a constant blur, beginnings, middles and ends tend to smudge together into a spectrum of emotion. Changing cities and schools every two years growing up left me with one such emotion–– the feeling that I’m on my own. 

It was in the middle of the 10th grade that I’d moved to Army Public School Bhopal, the beginnings of which weren’t easy. As a newcomer into yet another military school, I knew what to expect–– the bullying, the ragda. Starting at the bottom of the pack meant I could never once lose the fight inside, for that would mean being subdued for the rest of my time in the school hierarchy. I couldn’t show my fear, my frustrations, my weakness, but I needed an outlet. After spending countless nights listening to a certain angry blonde hip-hop icon narrate struggles far worse than my own, I finally found it. I owed it to his legacy to channel my rage through rap music. As I scribbled secret rhymes onto a pad in the middle of the night I wondered if there were others like me. I wondered what it would be like to see Indian influences in the genre that had been there for me so often and how! So, I slithered my way to my computer and hopped on YouTube to run a basic search for “Indian Rapper 2012” and found my way to a title that spoke to me. It read “Brodha V – On My Own.”

I was stunned. Here was an actual Indian kid “spitting bars” alongside what seemed to be Hindustani classical vocals. I was blessed to discover an artist who was genuinely innovating within hip-hop in a way that I could vaguely imagine but not translate. Yet here he was, translating these novel ideas one after the other like originality was no big deal. Soon after, I stumbled across yet another track by him titled “Aathma Rama,” and that’s when he truly had me as a fan. He was now mixing Indian Bhajan music with hip-hop, an absolutely unheard of crossover. My friends and I had often joked about how the Hanuman Chalisa sounded like ancient Hindi rap, but here Brodha V had taken things a step forward and introduced the enchanting popular melodies of Bhajan music into the hooks of his tracks. I would listen to his music alongside my favourite international acts at the time but didn’t think much of it till years later I realized that a man from Bangalore had given birth to a new subgenre of hip-hop – Bhajan Rap. 

In the complexities of coming of age and its confusions, I’d forgotten all about my little unfinished verse. Instead, I’d gone about my life following the regular duties of an Indian teenager that included getting a college degree, and so I found myself studying business at Christ University, Bangalore. It was two years into the place, institutionally and intellectually repressed, that I realized I needed to break free and pondered over the decision to drop out. I was lost in thought, sipping on beer at a bar on Church Street as I glanced upon the table in front of me and saw the man who inspired me many years ago, Brodha V. Memories came rushing back as I spoke to him about his music for a brief while before excusing myself to not be much of a bother, realising that if I did leave traditional education I would totally be on my own again. With faith in my heart and my love for words alive, I dropped out of college and started writing poetry on a daily basis. Soon, I started performing spoken word poetry at events hosted by Airplane Poetry Movement, and got selected to be part of the select few to be mentored by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye–– two of the biggest names in performance poetry. My poems and I travelled over seven countries that year, reassuring me that even though I had nobody to rely on but myself, I could do just fine without a college degree. Yet funnily enough, now I wanted one, for the incessant travel had worn me out and I yearned to refine my passion for words. 

On a whim, I applied to Ashoka Univerity’s literature program and found myself jolted to a newfound stability devoid of travel. With a functioning recording studio available to use, I began to think back. I remembered that unfinished verse from high school, and contemplated if I could do this for real, if I could infuse the poetry with rhythm. I was already confident in the poetry that I’d written so far but I needed more to evolve my craft. I found a producer (Shaayak Chatterjee) in my hostel dorm and recorded my first three singles with him. I now started getting features and interviews for my work and decided to delve deeper into the music industry. If I was ever going to be signed to a label as an artist, it would be reckless to do so without a knowledge of how the music industry works. So to remedy that and to  earn some money on the side, I started working two management jobs at Azadi Records (a record label) and Elements Agency India (a music distribution agency) respectively through which I’d meet Smokey The Ghost. It was surreal to go from listening to his music to distributing music for him as well as a large chunk of the indie hip-hop market countrywide.

I got consumed listening to his album The Human Form, and went further back to explore his earlier work. I found out about the rap collective Brodha V and Smokey had started–– Machas With Attitude (MWA) and found myself metaphorically crossing paths with Brodha V yet again. Now, MWA was clearly inspired by the US rap group NWA (N****s Wit Attitude) and discovering them is when I started recognising Smokey The Ghost’s growth as an artist. The Smokey I could see in the earlier MWA days had a distinctly caricatured African-American rapper inspired get up, much like many artists at the time. There was the bling, the loose clothing and a distinct accent, and of course the American influenced content. Smokey The Ghost, however, was a different artist altogether. He would claim himself that the old Smokey is dead, and this is the Ghost–– the socially conscious rapper, the mature artist, the more authentically culturally confident one deciding to start over. It was a bold move of staying true to one’s convictions. 

This was something that resonated with me, because when I looked at the Indian Hip-Hop scene I saw a lot of mimicry of the West and therefore a lot of cultural inconsistency. A lot of Indian rappers would brag about lives they never had, go overboard with appearances trying to look ‘Black’ and at times reinforce certain negative stereotypes in the process. It made me think of how one could see a version of the philosopher-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s theories at play in a different context. Fanon argued that the culture of colonialism often impedes the colonised in determining an independent sense of identity which can have a negative psychological impact. He also argued that this, in cohesion with the popular Western culture that propagates whiteness with purity and blackness with evil leaves the colonised Black people aspiring to be White, causing dissonance because of the obvious impossibility. When I look at the Indian Hip-Hop scene today, I see this dual aspiration towards English and African-American culture due to the lingering effects of British colonialism and the almost neo-colonial hegemonic force exerted by the United States on the so called ‘Third World.’ So, while it’s true that brown people from the subcontinent have co-opted forms of resistance of marginalised communities in the United States, it is also true that we have appropriated certain elements without understanding the complete relevance of these things. As the scene grows we have rappers constantly trying to be more ‘White’ or ‘Black’ than their immediate context of ‘Brown’, leaving a lot of hip-hop from the subcontinent feeling hollow and inauthentic. Would we ever address our immediate context?

Wanadaf at Indiranagar Basketball Club

Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking of the various problems in Indian Hip-Hop. In 2019, rappers Nex (Mohommed Affan), Agaahi Rahi (Farhan Ahmed), Inner Rhymes (Sidhanth Ashok) and Akx (Akash Rawat) joined forces with producer CJ (Chandan Jindal) and videographer Karim Poocha (Vyshnav Vinod) to co-found Wanandaf, a hip-hop collective based out of Bangalore. With Smokey The Ghost guiding them closely, they started uniting the different rap crews in Bangalore and hosting rap cyphers. When venues shut down, they took their music to the streets. They consolidated different rap groups that would earlier not come together, but now for the first time Bangalore had a voice that was both Kannada, English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil. Wanandaf succeeded largely in their mission to make hip-hop more inclusive and educative. I went to one of their first cyphers in 2019 and found myself among eager emcees talking about their immediate context of caste, class, mental health, linguistic difference, education policies and the likes. There was no toleration of homophobia, racism or anything that has had a free pass in a lot of hip-hop spaces in the country. Wanandaf, much like other independent collectives in the country, is creating safe spaces with inclusivity ensuring that those who don’t fit in find a home and a voice.

In 2020 as I reflect on the beginnings of Indian hip-hop and my own journey with it, I see a coming of age at the horizon. It is a scene still masking various insecurities much like I did on an individual level as a kid in highschool, but it is about to bloom and mature in the most beautiful way soon. The emcees don’t seem to be on their own anymore.    

Featured Image Credits: Akshay Kapoor

Experience Further: Legacy is a track that has been there for me consistently, every time I have felt like the underdog and buried under circumstance. It gives me the reassurance that I have the fight in me to make it out not merely surviving, but conquering.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

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