Socially conscious rap re-emerges in Kashmir after a hiatus - an inevitable fate as the region's volatility seeps into every aspect of life.
Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir — On a sunny February afternoon along the Jhelum river, a group of young men, most of them in their mid-20s huddle in the corner of a park. Passersby might mistake them for a group just loitering and whiling away their time. But this nook is where Kashmir's political hip-hop is coming back to life.
A young beatboxer demonstrates his skills; a few other artists keenly listen in. As the beatboxer flaunts his craft, another artist sitting next to him spits his latest verse and Ahmer Javed, one of the known faces of Kashmir hip-hop, leans forward to listen and sways to the beat. And when the moment ends, compliments ensue.
A few yards from them, Roushan Illahi, aka MC Kash, listens calmly, as if reflecting on how far hip-hop in Kashmir has come. Or, perhaps, what could have been, if only the odds were in his favour.
As Ahmer chats with the young rapper, Mir Gazanfar aka SXR, who has been making music since 2010, he shares a promise: “Bro, it’s going to explode. This is the new hip-hop.”
It’s like a resurrection, and this was the announcement.
At midnight on March 15, 2021, SXR released his latest album, Shalakh. It premiered on YouTube, the album starting with the introduction: “Straight out of fu**in dungeon of living hell/where rap is just a medium for the stories I tell/High in the mountains the lone survivor runs/Tore the belly of the beast, the native son…”
And the voice on the track stirs excitement; it's MC Kash, making a comeback after a hiatus from music.
As it so often happens, artists are a product of their predicaments, and MC Kash is no exception. When Kashmir witnessed a massive and prolonged civilian uprising in 2010, an unknown MC Kash released “I Protest”, a song in remembrance of civilians killed during the insurrection.
It was an era when songs were made viral not over social media but through Bluetooth or through the exchanging of flash drives. Even then, the song spread like wildfire. It served as an anthem for the boys who were fighting Indian forces in the streets. The sudden fame in chaotic times attracted the Indian government's attention and his studio was raided.
But MC Kash went on to release several hits, all centred around the ongoing conflict in Kashmir that tapped into local political sentiment. Owing to his conscious and political rap, MC Kash is still referred to as Kashmir’s revolutionary rapper.
Around the same time, other hip-hop artists like SXR, Haze Kay, Shayan Banday, Kingg UTB and Renegade earned a name and built what can be called a political hip-hop scene in the Valley.
In a few years though, the fervour in Kashmiri hip-hop faded as MC Kash, SXR and others’ appearances in the scene became less frequent or, in a few cases, disappeared altogether.
“We could not pursue hip-hop as a career. It was not something that could support us financially. Then there were no platforms where we could continue making music,” says Gazanfar aka SXR.
In the absence of conscious and political hip-hop, the scene was taken over by the gangsta-style rappers whose lyrics would often be misogynistic and far from relatable to most.
Hip-hop in Kashmir started with strong political overtones in 2010. It sounded promising when the earliest Kashmiri rappers, inspired by the likes of Tupac, talked about politics and conflict – Kashmiri youth had found a new medium to express themselves.
But intimidation by the Indian government, financial constraints and a lack of opportunity drew the rappers, either out of the Valley, or away from hip-hop.
Then came Elaan (announcement) in the summer of 2019 featuring Ahmer Javed, then a lesser-known name in Kashmir, rapping in a mix of Kashmiri and Urdu.
Produced by Azadi Records, a Delhi-based independent record label, Elaan talks directly about growing up in Kashmir – a place shredded by a military conflict for several decades.
In the summer of 2019, when all of Kashmir was experiencing a months-long siege after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government stripped the region of its quasi-autonomous status and downgraded it into a federally-controlled territory, Ahmer landed in Kashmir to be with his family on Eid. The next night, Indian forces fired teargas and pepper gas canisters near his house in a Srinagar neighbourhood.
Ahmer says everyone in the house was coughing and choking because of the acrid smoke. Later, he penned this experience into one of his songs, Nazara: “Nazi soch inki, kamru mai sarey bandh/Pepper gas hawa mai, bachu ka gut’ta dum (Believers of the Nazis, they've jailed everyone in rooms/Air filled with pepper smoke, the kids choke).”
After Ahmer flew back to Delhi, he toured across India for his debut album with Azadi Records, taking Kashmiri rap across India.
Ahmer’s journey begins by experimenting with hip-hop in 2011, but it was in July 2019 when his debut album, Little Kid Big Dreams came out. Ever since, there's been no turning back.
One of the reasons the Kashmiri hip-hop scene of the 2010-11 era was nearly invisible was that every artist back then was confined within their zone and nobody was ready to collaborate to create a community of hip-hop artists. There was a lack of communication.
But this time around, Ahmer says, they are trying to keep it community-based and not limit its reach.
Ahmer says they are trying to move away from individualism towards a community-based hip-hop culture in Kashmir where anyone can come and share and learn – the defining line between the hip-hop of a decade ago and the one re-emerging now.
“We are also planning workshops. Everyone is welcome to be part of this community,” Ahmer tells TRT World.
“The thing about that era (2010-11) was that everyone was in their own zone and everybody was figuring it out. Now, we have to create a whole community,” Ahmer says. He said he connected with like-minded people like SXR who put him in touch with another rapper Imaad, who connected them to Arsalan and Tufail – a duo known by the stage name SOS: Straight Outta Srinagar.
The art of subtlety
The new crop of artists emerging today understand the nuances of the art: the essence of good lyrics, beats that complement the verses and how to pick a theme.
For example, Ahmer and Tufail collaborated on a song, Tanaza – Conflict. The song, as the description goes, is “about the corruption of the local police and Indian army who routinely harass the local population at so-called checkpoints.”
In one of the verses in Urdu, Tufail raps: “Kyu roke car ye humari inn nako pe, kyun dun main inko safayi? Woah. (Why should I pay them a bribe when they stop my car?)”
Next, Ahmer fires off his bar: Kyu karu inki ghulami? Azadi main rab ne thi duniya banayi woah. (Why should I be a slave to their demands? God made this earth with freedom granted to every man).
Towards the end of the video, as Tufail fires rapid bars while driving on deserted roads at night, there is an abrupt gunshot. The next visual shows his face, smeared in blood, resting on the steering wheel, and he raps in a mix of Urdu and Kashmiri that translates into: “My whole life is a conflict, every day is like a funeral.”
The visuals are telling because a few months before the song was released, a civilian was shot dead by the Indian paramilitary forces when they opened fire on him after he allegedly jumped a security checkpoint in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Somewhere in the rap, the duo says: “Gooel khewaan aess shaqas peth. Yimm laashay ni wothaan waen nakhas keth (We get killed over suspicion. Coffins too heavy, shoulders can't bear them).”
Whether or not the lyrics and the visuals symbolise that particular incident, it paints a larger picture and tells a brutally honest story, something the artists carry as a responsibility.
For Ahmer, his music is all about representing the streets, himself and the place he comes from. “It is for a cause and has a message,” Ahmer tells TRT World, adding that his music talks about emotive issues.
SXR, who has been experimenting with Kashmiri hip-hop since 2010, shares the same belief. “There is a message in conscious hip-hop. And living in a conflict, you cannot ignore a lot of things,” SXR says.
He says it’s impossible to detach music from the political situation in Kashmir.
SXR’s raps are layered and nuanced and he uses Kashmiri slang to make them more relatable. In his latest album, for example, SXR talks about a number of things including his journey, evils in society, his inner conflict; but he does subtly talk about politics, the Kashmir situation and living in a ‘warzone’.
For Tufail, taking Kashmir out of the lyrics is not an option, because, he says, it’s his responsibility as an artist to express dissent through his songs. But he makes sure to keep it subtle to avoid trouble.
To remain subtle, artists use metaphors or symbolism. And wherever it is possible, the visuals tell the story.
“I play smart,” says Ahmer. In his debut album, Ahmer says, the lyrics were direct and serrated. “But now we are trying to be smart. We don’t want to risk our lives and end it so soon,” the 25-year-old rapper says.
Tufail from SOS repeats the same mantra: “Play it smart.”
Fear and paranoia
Tufail says the threat level these days is much higher than what it used to be back in 2010-11. When SOS, Ahmer and another Kashmiri singer and lyricist, Ali Saifuddin, collaborated on a music video, Dazaan – Burning – the artists quickly realised the dangers of working in a place like Kashmir.
“You can’t even imagine, we had not even released the album, the shoot had just begun and we started getting threats. Those in the authorities knew that something was already in the making. These are the times we are working in. That’s why we need to play safe,” Tufail tells TRT World.
Hip-hop artists say they live in a constant state of paranoia and realise the dangers of making conscious and political music.
Ahmer says with every track he releases, he puts his life at risk. “We always wait for that phone call,” he says, referring to a summoning from police.
Ahmer recalls that when he dropped his two singles – Inqalab and Tanaza – he received threats on both occasions. “My friends got calls and they were told I should not make such music. They were told I should delete the video,” he says, unsure of whether the calls were from the police or intelligence agencies.
But the danger is real and tangible: “We’ve been under surveillance and we’ve been there since the very first day. Because the moment you get to know a Kashmiri has started doing it (making political music), you should know they are already under the radar.”
Arif Farooq, who goes by the stage name Qafilah, says there’s always a touch of politics in his songs. In one of his songs, Faraar, he touches the theme of the Kashmir conflict. He says the fear of consequences always looms large, “but the fear does not affect my writing.”
In the Hindi film Party (1984), directed by Govind Nihalani, the late legendary actor Om Puri, in one of his most memorable performances, says, "Art can never be separated from politics...if the artist is not politically committed, his art is irrelevant."
And every hip-hop artist we spoke to, said that politics and conflict inevitably seeped into their lyrics. That is, after all, their reality.