One of the most popular rappers in the mountain country of Bhutan, Kezang Dorji, 28, remembers the first time he heard the song Lose Yourself by Eminem. “I instantly fell in love with rap. I didn’t understand the lyrics, but the way he was rapping and the pace — I really liked the energy,” says Dorji, who was 14 then. “Later, I read his life story and learned how his parents were separated, how he lived with his mother through hard times. I realised that if children like him can make it, so can I,” says the musician, who was born in Wooling, a remote village in the Samdrup Jongkhar district.
Dorji is one of the most popular hip-hop artists in Bhutan, and the first solo artist to tour the country in 2016. A prominent face in the country’s burgeoning independent music scene, Dorji, who performed at the ninth Mountain Echoes Literary Festival last month, had started off with a college band — Sherubtse Rockers — in 2011. A local music label, M-studio, picked up his songs in 2013, and has been producing his music ever since. Last year, he released The Kuzuzangpo Album — a compilation of 16 songs. These were numbers from his 2016 tour which he released via USB drives for sale — another first for a Bhutanese artiste.
During his national tour, Dorji, who is based in Thimpu, performed the song Kuzazangpo (Hello), in which he narrated his life story for the first time. “We didn’t have electricity or roads in my village. I had never seen a vehicle. You had to cross two rivers to reach my house, which was in the middle of a forest,” says Dorji, who lived with his mother and elder sister. When they shifted to a bigger town, Dewathang, he was six. That was when his mother told him about his estranged father. “I didn’t like the fact that my parents were not together. Also, he was rich and we were poor — that made me angry, too,” he says.
Coping with his personal baggage was difficult. Perhaps, that was why Dorji chose a music genre seemingly at odds with the country’s happiness tag. And it seems to have worked for him. The rapper now works closely with organisations on issues such as waste management and segregation, besides promoting vegetarianism and use of local products. He lives by what he preaches, too. “I use everything local. I don’t wear the gho — our traditional dress — in silk, as it is produced by killing millions of worms. I use the cotton variation only,” he says. A unique problem that he points out is of vast swathes of agricultural land lying abandoned because of urban migration. In that context, Dorji advocates equitable development in Bhutan as “everything is becoming Thimphu centric” and people are leaving traditional occupations to move to the capital for better job opportunities.
In his song, Dear Prime Minister, Dorji raps about the problems that come with democracy — families and villages getting divided on party lines and freebies becoming a factor to determine the capability of leaders. He also encourages the youth to vote. “They are influenced by Bollywood, K-pop and the West. I want to use a musical form they can identify with and talk about what the Bhutanese are known for — Buddhism and their happy and peaceful nature,” he says.