In his debut album, Little Kid, Big Dreams, which was launched on July 5, Ahmer Javed, the 24-year-old rapper based in Srinagar, tracks the story of Kashmir over the decades — from its early struggle for “independence” to the recent call for Azadi and crackdowns on people. Featuring eight songs in Koshur, it was produced by Sez On The Beat, who has been at the forefront of the country’s hip-hop scene, in collaboration with Azadi Records, a Delhi-based independent label. Weaving strands of his family history in his tracks, Javed manages to capture the complexities of Kashmir and its people. “There are many who think rapping doesn’t sound good in Koshur, but I wanted to deviate from this norm,” says Javed. His music is not very different from his contemporaries and shares a common theme: dissent.
Javed is one among many in Kashmir making their voices heard through songs. Amid conflict, these new singers and songwriters have struck a chord with the youth in Kashmir, giving resistance a new vocabulary. For singer-songwriter Zeeshan Nabi, 26, his passion for music has become a means to “political expression.” A blend of progressive rock, pop and indigenous music, his songs combine elements from Kashmiri folk, Western classical and electronica. In his music, Zeeshan tries to create a fusion with traditional instruments like santoor and rabab.
Zeeshan owns a recording studio, Miraki — only the second artist to have one after underground rapper and hip-hop artist Roushan aka MC Kash, 29, currently on a break from making music — through which he wants to reach out to artistes who want to compose and sing original music.
Zeeshan, who graduated in Western and Indian classical vocals from Chennai’s KM College of Music and Technology in 2012, says, art has been “a part of every single revolution” throughout history. At college, while his friends were composing songs about love, Zeeshan was making music steeped in sadness and despair. “There has always been a melancholic tone to my music. It’s because I have been observing conflict since my childhood,” he says. While MC Kash’s songs were more explicit (his song I Protest, for instance, advocates stone-pelting), upcoming artistes, including Zeeshan, have chosen to keep their songs subtle and less inflammatory. While MC Kash’s songs are particularly about Kashmir, Zeeshan says he leaves his songs “open-ended”. The traditional Kashmiri folk music form, ladishah, combines satire and poetry to elucidate the cultural and political facets of the society and has inspired new artistes, including Zeeshan.
Kashmir’s first female rapper, lyricist and composer Mehak Ashraf, 19, known as Menime (Eminem spelt backwards), sources her material from the news and chronicles her response to it. Her songs are laced with the angst at the sustained unrest in Kashmir since Independence. Ashraf started rapping when she was 12. “When I stumbled upon Eminem, I felt a connect at some level,” says Ashraf, who was first noticed in 2016 by a local radio channel that wanted her to rap like Eminem. “He doesn’t rap about money or girls or things like that, but social issues,” says Ashraf, a college-goer. Inspired by Eminem’s accent, rapping style, rhymes and rhythms, she started talking about social issues and conflict through her songs. “It is the instances of killings and violence that trigger me to write about Kashmir,” says Ashraf, who got attention after releasing a freestyle video online under the label AHM Dexterity, which she and her friends founded to promote hip-hop in the valley and give opportunities to budding artistes, especially women.
While new artistes are coming into their own, some, like Shayan Nabi, 29, have not been composing but continue to write songs. One of the earliest rappers in Kashmir, Shayan says he was inspired by MC Kash, his friend. “MC Kash showed the way how things were done, how you can show your skills by staying true to your roots,” says Shayan, who uploaded his songs on streaming and downloading websites, like AudioMack and ReverbNation. “Kashmir is a place full of stories. So, as an artist in Kashmir, it is my responsibility to take these stories forward,” says Shayan.
MC Kash’s studio was once raided by authorities. The upcoming artistes, aware of the consequences if they do not work “moderately”, tread cautiously. “When you put your content out there, you know you are on the radar,” says Shayan. “Art needs to be smart for it to sustain,” says Zeeshan.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Songs over stones’