“Everyone is playing themselves. I’m the MC who is participating in the rap (battle),” says Deepa Unnikrishnan, who goes by her stage name Dee MC, of her role in the Ranveer Singh-starrer Gully Boy, set to release on February 14. Rappers from the underground scene may finally get their place in the sun if the film kick-starts a period of hip hop. “Bollywood is the biggest medium of entertainment in this country. So many people will come to know about what has been happening. When they search over the internet on this, they will realise this has existed for a long time,” says Unnikrishnan. Unnikrishnan and three other rappers have been pumping up the heat by raging against issues of discrimination, one rhyme at a time, of caste, race and gender. A look at how they all hopped on to the bandwagon:
Deepa Unnikrishnan, 24, Maharashtra
Raps on: Women’s rights, sexism, menstrual hygiene
“I can write hundreds of articles, deliver thousands of speeches, but people will take it as the rant of an angry woman. They will eventually get bored and not take me seriously,” says Unnikrishnan, adding that rap entertains even as it informs.
The editor-in-chief of the online platform Desihiphop.com, started rapping about herself which struck a chord with people. The focus gradually shifted to menstrual hygiene, importance of education, racial prejudices and breaking stereotypes. “The basic idea was to challenge the taboos and silence around menstruation. The aim of the video was to spark a conversation and make people talk about it. The song got around 2 million view,” she says. “While starting out, I didn’t choose my audience,” says Unnikrishnan, most of whose followers are youngsters.
For one of her songs, No More Limits, Unnikrishnan tied up with Menstrual Hygiene Day, observed every year on May 28 and initiated by the German NGO
The knack for rhyming started in school. “Writing poetry, reading and writing stories is something I’ve grown up doing,” she says. But it wasn’t until college when the hip-hop dance crew left her awestruck and she tried her hand at b-boying (breakdancing), but soon swung towards rapping. Attention to lyrics more than music had taken precedence in her life by then. The Mumbai-bred singer-songwriter, who writes in her mother tongue, Malayalam, is equally fluent in Marathi, and says she has a long way to go in getting the vocabulary right.
Arivarasu Kalainesan, 25, Tamil Nadu
Raps on: Caste discrimination
A 17-year-old schoolgirl, J. Snowlin, was shot by the police during a protest to shut down a copper plant in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, last year. As her body was laid to rest, rapper Arivarasu Kalainesan, better known as Aviru, was present at her funeral to perform a song he had written in the girl’s memory.
Kalainesan, 25, writes and raps only in Tamil. He says he aims to be informative as well as entertaining in his songs. His journey as a rapper started in school where he’d write poems. He’d also write a lot on various social issues that he faced. “Gradually, I began to mix my poems and music and I surprised myself when I found myself rapping,” he says.
Kalainesan feels that the younger generation is disconnected with what’s happening around them as they are no longer interested in reading news or newspapers. Rap, he says, allows him to make people aware of the social issues that affects him. “Rap is such a catchy genre of music that the lines just stick and before you know it, you are singing along,” says Kalainesan. “I write about reality. Whether it was my poems earlier or my raps today, it all springs from things that I experience and witness,” he adds.
Kalainesan is also a member of The Casteless Collective, a platform set up by renowned film director Pa Ranjith that encouraged hip-hop, rap artists and singers from the Dalit community to register themselves as Tamils without caste. Last year, on September 17, the 140th birth anniversary of Periyar, Kalainesan wrote a song Kalagakkaran Periyar (The Rebellious Periyar), which strings together ’40s and ’50s music with rap. It was produced by OfRo aka Rohit Abraham for YouTube.
The young rapper is going to launch his eight-song album Therukkural soon. Theru means treat and Kural is voice in Tamil. “It is a semi-political album which has songs in which I speak about the society I grew up in,” he says. Even though he mostly raps about social issues, Kalainesan has also written love songs. He has also contributed lyrics for the Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala (2018). “Writing lyrics for that film was a dream come true,” he says, with a smile.
In the afterglow of his professional success, Kalainesan insists that money doesn’t drive him. It’s the by-product of his “good work”. “My message to any young artist is that if you do good work, money will follow,” he adds.
Kekho Chiamkho, 24, Arunachal Pradesh
Raps on: Racism, migration
Kekho Chiamkho, from Lower Chinhan, a small village in Arunachal Pradesh, around 350 km from the capital Itanagar, wanted to become a teacher. “Even though they did not teach English in my school, I made it a point to buy and read English books,” says Chiamkho, better known by his stage name K4 Kekho.
Even though Kekho did not personally face much racism, his first hit was a rap on the racism that people from the Northeast face when they step out of their states. “I had never travelled to ‘mainland India’,” he says, “Whatever I wrote was after listening to stories of my friends who studied and worked in the mainland.”
His song I am an Indian gathered around half-a-million views on YouTube where Kekho, who plays himself, is bullied by another Indian who mistakes him for a foreigner. When Kekho tells him that he’s from Arunachal Pradesh, the man looks puzzled. The video, that has lyrics such as Pardon your highness, I am an Indian, not Chinese is an outburst against the ignorance and intolerance people from the Northeast often face.
Kekho travelled outside the Northeast for the first time in 2015. “I felt quite homesick to be honest,” he says, “Today, I am working with my team full-time in Itanagar and we are always trying to upgrade our equipment and create more content for YouTube, besides live shows across the country.”
Sumeet Samos, 25, Odisha
Raps on: Caste discrimination
Sumeet Samos recalls how in 2016, as a final-year student of Latin-American literature at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he could not get a recommendation letter for a scholarship for higher studies in Spain. He claims that this was one of the many times he faced discrimination on account of his caste. He sought an outlet in that ’70s thing — he began rapping to voice his angst.
He looked towards one of his adolescent heroes, American hip-hopper Tupac Shakur, and his raps about crime and the issues faced by his neighbourhood, Manhattan’s East Harlem. “There is always this anger inside me when I am rapping,” says Samos. “The first rap I did was in the aftermath of the death of the Hyderabad university student Rohith Vemula. I was present at his funeral too and was really affected by his death,” he says. Rapping in his mother tongue, Odia, came naturally. “I still think in Odia,” he says, “I can deliver messages best in it and reach out to more in my own society.”
His last year’s popular track Desia Pilla was composed after an intense conversation with his mother. “I was trying to persuade her to let me leave my slum in Odisha to move to the city to work,” says Samos. His mother eventually agreed but reminded him that he was a desia pilla (one who grows from the ground), and should not forget his roots.
He has also composed raps about buying old nostalgic tales about Odisha sold by the government. To convey “that while focusing on the state’s glorious past, food and culture, they have forgotten about us, the Dalits, who continue to clean toilets and gutters.”
But Samos eschews the use of bad language and cusswords in rhymes, and maintains an arm’s distance from rap battles, which are “about who puts down whom and who uses more abuses. That is not what I stand for,” he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘It’s a Rap: A look at rappers amplifying social issues across India’