YOU’VE GOT to hand it to DIVINE — he really does write some of the most high-recall hooks in the country. In his latest single, One Side, the 27-year-old Mumbai rapper coolly notes, “Jeele beta aane vali maut hai, Paisa nahin rap mera shauk hai, Udti panchi dekh kar kutte bhaunkte, Jahan vahan tu kabhi na pahuche (Live your life because there is only death ahead, I rap for myself and not money, dogs bark when they see a bird in flight, going places you’ll never reach).” It’s par for the course for rappers to boast and talk themselves up, but for the first time since his debut, 2013’s Yeh Mera Bombay, where he sang about growing up in the gully and experiencing the Maximum City’s minimum pleasures, DIVINE feels that he’s earned his bragging rights. “People may feel that I’m saying all this because Zoya Akhtar is making Gully Boy, inspired by my life and the Gully Gang (the Mumbai-based rap crew he founded), but that’s not it. My first rhymes in school were about how cool I am, but now I have a body of work that I can be proud of,” he says.
To those clued into India’s fledgling but growing rap and hip-hop scene, the story of DIVINE is well known. Born Vivian Fernandes in JB Nagar, Andheri East, his formative years were difficult; when his abusive father abandoned the family, his mother moved to the Gulf to put food on the table, and DIVINE and his elder brother moved in with his grandmother. “I have always been loved but that didn’t stop the circumstances from affecting me. Gully life is like that, you make the most of what you’ve got. But you’re not alone, I had my friends with me, older guys in the gully who looked out for me,” he says. When a friend gave him a CD containing music by Eminem and 50 Cent, the young Fernandes was hooked. “I’d come home from school and labour over a verse for hours, trying to make it sound good. My grandmother would often take me to church in Marol and the vibe there was so peaceful; when I began to rap, I called myself DIVINE. No other name came to mind,” he says.
About a decade ago, rap crews and MCs in India began to make themselves known. Mumbai’s Finest, Asian Coast Soldiers in Delhi reared their heads, and Taru Dalmia began to rock the mic as Delhi Sultanate. Barring Dalmia, the rest were heavily inspired by American hip-hop and rapped in English with American accents. “I did the same. The more I learnt about hip-hop, I began to understand that it is about representing who you are and where you come from — so I switched to Hindi, to the language we speak at home, and that’s when people in my gully supported me,” says DIVINE. He soon put out a home-made video for Yeh Mera Bombay, shot on the streets of his neighbourhood, on YouTube in 2013. Rapping over a sample of the title track of Malgudi Days that used to air on Doordarshan, DIVINE broke new ground in the scene, and the video garnered over a lakh views in a few weeks. Soon, with its unique vocabulary and cadence, Bambaiyya Hindi would become the lingua franca for the city’s hip-hop artistes — all the way from Dharavi’s SlumGods and Dopeadelicz, to the kids spitting rhymes in Nala Sopara, an impoverished township crammed between Virar and Vasai.
But it would be 2015’s Mere Gully Mein, a track he wrote with fellow Mumbai rapper and MC, Naezy, that would blow up on social media. That year, Sony Music would sign him up, but DIVINE desisted from releasing an album. “I know what my music is about, but how many city people want to hear about gully life when they return home from work? I understand why Bollywood rap is popular, because it’s about club culture — it offers an escape; and I am talking about reality,” he says.
From the very beginning, DIVINE has been faithfully speaking his truth. If Mere Gully Mein was an upbeat ode to gully life, then Jungli Sher (2016) is a defiant anthem about growing up in a fractured family, where the lack of material comforts served to toughen the hide of all the wild renegades who roam Mumbai’s streets. What makes DIVINE’s music so accessible across class and gender is that it never sounds like an exaggerated version of events, neither is it brimming with the righteousness of those who have known a hard life — at all points, DIVINE walks the tightrope between sentimentality and awareness and never misses a step.
One of the few rappers to perform with a full band featuring Randolph Correia, Jai Row Kavi and The Spindoctor, DIVINE’s shows pack in anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people. “This is also a recent phenomenon. Between 2013 and 2017, I played about 45 live shows. From 2017 till now, I’ve played 45 live shows,” he says. And last year, Bollywood came calling again — Anurag Kashyap’s heartland sports drama, Mukkabaaz, features the hard-hitting Paintra, his third collaboration with electronic music producer Nucleya. “Vineet Kumar Singh originally wrote the song, and I worked with him for the final version. Paintra is about how everybody has to hustle because the game is rigged. But that’s changing too, whether it is somebody like Vineet playing the lead, or Nucleya being featured in a mainstream Bollywood soundtrack. I put my music out on YouTube and it’s free, but if people dig your stuff, they will come for your shows,” says DIVINE.
It was at one of his shows, three years ago, when somebody tapped his shoulder after the performance. “Zoya introduced herself and asked me for my number; she said she would like to meet and chat. But when she said she wanted to write a story about my life, and the lives of other Mumbai rappers, I couldn’t quite picture it,” says DIVINE. But Akhtar, whose recent work has focussed on the inner lives of the rich and entitled, was determined to know about the world of his hood in Mumbai 59, Gully Gang, and about the kids from the other side of the tracks.
Starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, Gully Boy, due for release in February 2019, is inspired by Mumbai’s independent hip-hop artistes, their struggles and their indefatigable zest for life. “We’re showcasing Indian music, including hip-hop and rap, in the film. Everybody from AR Rahman to Honey Singh has used rap as a filler in a song, because they can’t comprehend that rap can be an entire song. What ends up happening is that all those verses sound the same and are about being cool, or drinking and partying,” says DIVINE, who is a consultant for the film, and has also composed songs for its soundtrack. It’s funny then that one of hip-hop’s latest patrons in India is the beer brand, Bira91, which promotes live shows and bring down international artistes to major cities. “Yes, and there’s Puma, that put together the Suede Gully video last November, and Homegrown, that held a street culture festival in Delhi recently. There’s a hip-hop scene in Mumbai and Delhi, but there are crews almost everywhere now — from Khasi Bloodz in Shillong, Madurai Souljars in Tamil Nadu, MC Kash in Kashmir — and I hope that with Gully Boy, it keeps spreading,” he says.
For all that he has achieved in a span of four years or so, DIVINE is remarkably humble. He rapped about his “boys from the naka” on his first outing as the first Hindi rapper on BBC Asian Network’s Fire in the Booth in 2016 with British DJ Charlie Sloth; he will talk up fellow rappers like Emiway and Kaam Bhaari at every opportunity he can get; and he won’t miss a call from his mother (she comes up often in his songs, and inspired his 2017 hit Farak), even if it’s in the middle of an interview. “My mother’s love means the world to me, so I often bring it up in my music. But that’s what hip-hop is about, you know? You talk about what’s important to you,” he says.