In the cold winter of 2019-2020, in the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood in Delhi, calls for inquilab (revolution) and azadi (freedom) rang out. People were protesting against the Indian government passing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which provides citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. (Yet to be implemented because of pandemic delays, it has been alleged by critics to be part of the “Hindu nationalist” agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aimed at marginalising India’s Muslim population, though the government has said it is simply a way of helping those fleeing religious persecution.)
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As the protests intensified, crowds kept vigil at the Muslim locality of Shaheen Bagh for days and nights on end, even as the police cracked down on student protestors at the city’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Jamia Millia Islamia Universities.
Arivarasu Kalainesan, better known as Arivu, is among the rappers who have raised a clarion call of protest (Credit: Kalpana Ambedkar)
Amid this, a young journalism student at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, Shumais Nazar, joined voices with Manosh Kochi, studying at Azharul Uloom Arabic College in Ernakulam, in the southern state of Kerala, to declare that “inquilab is the new Hindustani beat“. This came on the track Streetocracy, a rap track by the pair in support of the anti-CAA protests.
Meanwhile, down south in Chennai, singer Arivarasu Kalainesan, popularly known as Arivu, raised a clarion call for protest with the track sanda seivom (let’s fight) which featured the lyrics “Naa yaaru, nee yaaru/ Un paatan endhooru/ Thondi edukkumaam NRC” (“Who are you to tell me who I am?/Who are you? Who is your grandfather?/The NRC is coming to dig up all that”) – referring to the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was recently updated by the government to determine who is a legal citizen. The NRC has also been accused of being a tool by which to deny rights to many long-term Muslim migrants, although the government has said its use is a necessary measure to help identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Around the same time, Sumit Roy from Kolkata wrote and recorded “Go protest” in the early hours of the morning, in response to the pushback against student protestors from the government, in which he declaimed: “Poora desh cheeke/ chowkidar chor hai” (“The whole country is shouting/ Those who are the guards, are the ones looting)”. That particular line refers to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has referred to himself in campaigns as the nation’s chowdikar or ‘watchman’.
And further up in the northeast state of Assam, amidst curfews and lockdowns, rapper VAN M (pronounced Venom) declared “Assam aaj jal raha/ khoon mera khaul raha” (“my blood is boiling/ as I see my state burning”)
These rappers collectively coming out in force against the CAA follows the rise within India of hip-hop as protest music. In Gully Boy, the 2019 Bollywood movie about rappers in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums, when the protagonist Murad (played by actor Ranveer Singh) is asked by his friend and mentor MC Sher to sing his protest poetry in front of a group, he demurs and says he is not “comfortable” performing. To which MC Sher replies, “If everything was comfortable in the world, then why would anyone make rap?”
The urgent issues being raised
Chuck D, rapper of the popular band Public Enemy, once famously referred to rap (a term used interchangeably with “hip-hop” in India) as “the black CNN”. He was referring to the fact that hip-hop and rap began in the African-American community in the New York City borough of the Bronx, as a tool for broadcasting issues of social injustice, racism and discrimination.
The Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were the catalyst for a number of hip-hop musicians (Credit: Getty Images)
In the last few years, young people in India have similarly begun to use rap as a means of dissent, even as human rights organisations have alleged that the Indian government has increasingly come down hard on critics of its regime. What they are speaking about is somewhat similar to African-American rappers, ranging from discrimination and marginalisation to governmental apathy. “I use rap to convey the anger inside me, the anger I have had for many years. Rap allows me to speak about my own life experiences,” Arivu, who speaks for the Dalit community that he belongs to, tells BBC Culture. Dalits were previously known by the reprehensible term ‘Untouchables’, and are still considered the lowest in India’s insidious caste system: the oppression and violence associated with the caste system is the topic, above all, that has exercised rappers in India. Arivu says that he is inspired by Nina Simone’s words that “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”
Protest music and poetry is not new in India, and has been used during the Independence movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and through the years since, by activists across the country to speak out against perceived social and political injustice. But no musical genre has caught the popular imagination in India in recent times the way rap has, with popular songs gaining thousands upon thousands of views in a matter of days.
One of the earliest such protest rap songs was I Protest (2010) by Roushan Illahi, or MC Kash, about the ongoing violence in Kashmir Valley in India’s only Muslim-majority state. Other Kashmiri rappers have come and gone, while elsewhere in the country, young people have rapped about acid attacks on women, farmer suicides because of crop failures, atrocities against Dalits, and politicians who think of their people only at election time. Rapper Duleswar Tandi, who goes by the name Dule Rocker, even released a song about poor migrants having to walk back to their hometowns from the cities where they had been working following the sudden and stringent pandemic lockdown imposed in India in April 2020. “Sarkar, jawab de” it went, meaning “government, answer us”.
“All over the world, it is only the communities who have been pushed to the margins who ask difficult questions through art, and that’s what is happening in India right now,” comments classical musician and activist TM Krishna. “Many of these communities have no choice but to raise their voices and challenge the listener.” As Arivu says: “Rap is a people’s art – it does not belong to the elite and that is what attracts me.”
There have also been rap tracks about environmental issues, one of the most significant being 2015’s Kodaikanal Won’t, a riff on Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, which was a protest against alleged mercury poisoning at Unilever’s thermometer factory in the hill town of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. The catchy rap by Chennai’s Sonia Ashraf that rhymed “hill station” with “contamination” and “devastation” was released in August 2015. Then in March 2016 the Dutch multinational company, while denying wrongdoing, agreed to settle with 591 ex-employees who claimed they had been harmed by working with mercury there – 15 years after this company shut up shop, but within just a few months of the song going viral.
Social activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been involved in the protest since the beginning, tells BBC Culture that mainstream media showed no interest in reporting this story, and so they had to find a way to reach the company, and specifically the CEO. “Our voices from India were not being heard, and so we wanted young, white people globally to put the pressure on him. And this rap video worked.” It worked, he adds, because “facts don’t appeal to people, but art has the power to affect your feelings, and shake your value system.” Indeed, Nicki Minaj herself reacted to it on Twitter, and the video and the issue blew up overnight.
Rapper EPR Iyer calls himself the “newspaper rapper” for the way he brings attention to newsworthy issues (Credit: Sreedip Debnath)
Krishna – who himself rapped in the 2018 follow-up video Kodaikanal Still Won’t – says that rap works as protest because “it is direct and in your face, it demands attention and dares the listener to ignore it. Rap artists deliberately use language that makes the listener uncomfortable, because the idea is to ask uncomfortable questions.” Krishna adds that such artists are talking to multiple audiences: coaxing their peers to step up and speak up; telling elders in their community that it is time to stop mutely enduring injustice; and challenging larger institutions, including the upper class and the government.
A watershed moment?
Indian protest rap arguably came of age in the wake of the anti CAA and NCR movement in late 2019. Talking about why he dropped Sanda Seivom in support of the protests, Arivu says: “They [the government] are trying to divide us on the basis of language and religion, and I won’t take it.” Sumangala Damodaran, professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and an accomplished musician, who took part in the CAA protests herself, describes rap as speaking truth to power. She says that it allows the artists to use their voice and their body to connect instantly and directly with their audiences. “It is all the more powerful because much of it comes from personal experience,” she explains.
Eventually, the pandemic put an abrupt end to these protests, and temporarily paused the CAA narrative. But then came the tidal wave of the farmers’ protest, in which many thousands marched in opposition to agricultural reforms, which again played out on the open streets of Delhi in the bitter winter months of 2020.
Kolkata Rapper EPR Iyer’s Ekla Cholo Re, released earlier that year in solidarity with struggling farmers, gained more attention during the protest. He calls himself the “newspaper rapper”, because he uses his music to become the voice of the voiceless. “We are part of the system that we keep complaining about, so what can we do about it? My way is to speak up for people’s rights through rap,” he tells BBC Culture. Arivu adds that rap allows him to talk about things that affect both him personally – such as the way upper castes treat lower castes – and the people around him – such as the way he says CAA discriminates against Indian Muslims.
Protest rap has also been so popular in India because most of the artists have chosen to rap in their own regional languages – whether Tamil or Punjabi or Assamese. This not only allows them to express themselves fluently but also connect better with their peers in the hinterlands. (One of the notable exceptions is MC Kash, who used English to make audiences outside India aware of the situation in Kashmir). It is also interesting that these young rappers have drawn from the traditional music forms of their own region or community. Krishna says that there is no single uniform rap style in India. “For instance, Tamil rap has its own characteristics, it derives from local koothu and gaana tradition. These rappers are not just copying African-American rap, but are making it their own,” he says.
India’s young rappers are taking on society’s Goliaths through their music. And they say they have nothing to fear. As Arivu puts it, “Privileged people may not understand this, but for millions of people, our daily life itself is a struggle. If rap lets me talk about this struggle, then why should I be afraid of anything?”
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