COVER STORY: Divine & Naezy: अपना Time आ गया!
The poster boys of desi hip-hop narrate the story of their hard-won success in their most honest interview yet
In August 2016 Vivian Fernandes aka Divine and Naved Shaikh aka Naezy made it to the cover of Rolling Stone India among three other peers. At that time, the story we were reporting was of a rising trend, an infant scene waiting to explode. Barely two-and-half years since that Internet-breaking cover, almost everything has changed for Divine and Naezy. As the faces of Indian hip-hop, the two artists have gone on to release a series of songs, headline festivals and embark on tours. But the biggest testimony to their skyrocketing stardom came last year when director Zoya Akhtar announced her new film, Gully Boy, based generally on the scene and particularly on the lives of the two rappers. The whole of last year also witnessed the film’s lead actor Ranveer Singh turning into a bantai himself—Instagram posts of him hanging with local rappers, spitting verses in his car or in the recording studio were consumed and shared delightfully.
What does all this mean to Divine and Naezy? As we sat down for a chat post this month’s cover shoot—co-incidentally in the same Kalina studio the August 2016 cover was shot in—we got hit by a burst of nostalgia and elation, the kind that screams, ‘look how far we’ve come.’ Here are the excerpts:
When we speak of desi hip-hop, your names are the first that come to mind. Things seem to be moving at such a rapid pace for you both. How has life changed?
Naezy: Life hasn’t really changed, it’s the same. Like always, I still wake up every day with the feeling of wanting to write something new, something different. My routine hasn’t changed much but yes, creatively, the responsibilities have increased. People have high anticipation and expectations of what we are up to – the rhymes we are performing and the songs we are releasing. So yeah, we have to now think twice before every move. But the [hip-hop] is also changing so much – there are so many new rappers now. The space is crowding a lot but it’s also a good thing—it has helped each and every one of us to hone our unique style.
Divine: Whatever Naezy has just said is so true! There are new platforms, new stages and new responsibilities. It has all gone a notch higher now. There’s only upwards now—upar ki taraf ab, rukna nahi hai (there’s no stopping us now). And it’s a great time for the whole scene, not just for me and Naezy. The whole scene is flourishing for everybody—sabke liye jagah hai (there’s space for everyone).
Now that you both have made your Bollywood debuts, there are two different opinions that are emerging from people. One says that you both have become ‘sellouts’ and the other says that this will pave way for more indie artists to cross over and find opportunities. Is it a double-edged sword for you both?
Divine: Arrey, they should listen to our songs! We aren’t writing typical Bollywood songs. We are writing from our heart. In Gully Boy, we wrote the songs from our heart. Koi zor zabardasti se main track nahi karta Bollywood ka (I will never do a film project under any kind of pressure). The whole idea for us is to expand our own scene and our own audiences via Bollywood.
Naezy: Haan bilkul. (Totally). We aren’t dependent on Bollywood because we have achieved so much already without it. But at the same time, I feel Bollywood is playing a very important role in giving us the exposure to reach the masses. The Yo Yo [Honey Singh] and Badshah-listening audience doesn’t naturally look for underground sounds and artists like us, so without Bollywood we wouldn’t have been able to reach that public. Also, with Bollywood, we’ve crossed another boundary—people listen to Hindi film songs not just in India in every home, every TV, but across the world.
Divine: And even in small villages and cities. It was important for us to hit that sixer with this
project and I am sure it will be quite the sixer! Our music will now reach every home.
Naezy: As far [as] the creative side is concerned, Bollywood today has a lot of directors that understand our kind of hip-hop, like Zoya ma’am and Anurag Kashyap. And we are also very choosy—we don’t want to do every Bollywood project that is offered to us. And even when we do these film projects, we ensure that is our authentic hip-hop.
Divine: Yes, totally! We also know that they will call us only if they want something that is authentic. We definitely don’t want to end up being ‘fillers’ in songs!
“Koi zor zabardasti se main track nahi karta Bollywood ka. The whole idea for us is to expand our own scene and our own audiences via Bollywood.” – Divine
When you guys were first approached by the Gully Boy team and were told that the film was based on your lives, were you apprehensive that your story would be told as a dramatic, melodramatic Bollywood saga?
Naezy: We knew that Bollywood market ke hisaab se chalta hai, masala-mirchi toh rahega usme (that it will be an exaggerated version). We tried a little to pull the narrative towards reality—show the indie stuff and reality—but we were powerless. And we had to understand that the film has to do well in the market too. If someone is investing in our scene, it’s natural for them to want returns. But yes, if we were to make a film ourselves, we’d make it absolutely real.
Divine: Haan, ek banana chahiye (we should make one!)
Naezy: Bombay 70! ‘Bollywood Se Hatkar’!
What do you think stops indie artists from aiming for higher? Is there something within that causes a hurdle?
Divine: Nobody wants to take a chance in the scene. They don’t want to play on the front foot.
Naezy: They should learn to take risks. They should not be dependent on things other than their art to get traction, whether it is trying too hard to bag a Bollywood song just to get traction or wanting playing certain kind of shows. If we are confident and have faith in ourselves and our art, we really don’t need to depend on any one thing to succeed.
Divine: Yes, one has to take risks. And today, the game is changing for both music and cinema. Take Sacred Games for example—khatarnaak series tha (it was mind-blowing!). We’ve not seen anything like that in Bollywood but with its popularity, maybe we will get to see more such kind of content. And with music, there’s more quality rap emerging. The bar is rising every day.
Naezy: Competion itna ho gaya hai ki agar koi kuch likhta hai toh doosra bolta hai main usse bhaari raap likhoonga (there’s internal competition among local rappers to write better verses).
Divine: Hamaare se acche-acche rappers aane walein hain (soon there will be better rappers than us on the circuit).
Naezy: We witness such great talent all around us. Some of them—if they work on their craft, say for a year, they’d spit rhymes better than us!
Divine: If a good song releases today, there’s a better one that comes out in the next month that beats it.
Naezy: There’s competition and there’s also craze.
Divine: As we speak today, I’m sure there’s someone writing a verse!
Do you think there’s also a herd mentality amidst all this? A lot of aspiring rappers see the
so-called glamour, the flashy clothes and bling and want all of that?
Naezy: A lot of people look at us and think ‘Wow, these guys are rapping, getting popular and making loads of money, so let me also try it.’ But that’s such [a] flawed way to look at things—you must pursue things that you are good at. I mean, now all of a sudden everyone wants to rap in our style—how can that be possible? Original jo hai andar se aata hai —jiske paas bhi hai, woh apne aap nikal ke aayega (the originality comes from within).
Divine: You can’t fake it. Fans pakad lenge. Aur tum nahi tikoge (fans will see through your gimmickry and you won’t last).
Naezy: Aur mujhe lagta hai ki hip-hop aisi cheez hai jo agar tu gully se hai bhi nahi tabh bhi kar
sakta hai (anyone can embrace hip-hop).
Divine: You don’t have to be from the gully to rap. If you’re a student, rap about your school or
college. If you have a family situation, rap about that.
Naezy: Agar tu nahi hai gully se, toh tu nahi hai bhai (but if you aren’t from the gully, don’t try hard to seem like one).
Divine: Haan! (Yes!)
Naezy: Toh yes, there is a herd mentality. Sab behti ganga mein haath dhona chahtein hain (everybody wants a piece of the pie).
Divine: Chalti train mein sab jump maarna chaah rahein hain. Lekin nahi hota aise. Pakad mein aa jaata hai (laughs) (everybody wants to ride the hip-hop wave right now).
How important is it for you guys to rap in your mother tongue?
Naezy: It’s very important. Till the time you express in the language in which you think, you can’t make a connect with the audience. And when the audience listens to it, they can relate too. Mother tongue mein jab likhtein hain, toh andar se aata hai. Woh direct hit karta hai (when I write in my mother tongue, I can express more honestly, and it hits hard). And when it is packaged nicely with music, we forge a bond with the listeners immediately; they begin to understand us better. I can express myself best only in Hindi and Urdu; English thoda nakli lagta hai, thoda plastic lagta hai mujhe (English feels fake, plastic). Hindi aur Urdu aisa hai jo ghus jaata hai andar tak, aur tumhaari ruhaani taaqat ko feel kar sakta hai (Hindi and Urdu manage to invoke my deepest thoughts, even spiritual expression).
Divine, do you feel the same way?
Divine: Oh yes, I feel that the connect is more. When you speak to your family, you speak effortlessly, on a personal level and that’s how artists should approach their content—relatable. In my rhymes, I try to speak the same way I would talk to my friends and family. And because of that, zyada log aate hain shows mein aur machaate hain (there are more people enjoying the shows now). Whether it is an autowalla or a businessman, they all enjoy it.
What is the message you want to give to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Divine: I want to tell them that hip-hop isn’t just about rapping; and rapping isn’t everything.
Naezy: Yeah, I wrote a rhyme on this called “Dhoondh”—Dhoondh le maksad/Tu kyon aaya tha is duniya mein…Rapper banna hi sab-kuch nahi hai. Aaj kal public aisa-aisa rap kar rahi hai aur public ko lagta hai kya Divine aur Naezy ne paida kiye hain. Woh log naam kharaab kar rahe hain (some of them can’t rap to save their lives and somehow our names get spoilt.) What the young folks need to understand is that they need to discover and hone their own unique talent. And this takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.
And everybody is chasing instant fame…
Naezy: Woh jitna jaldi upar jaate hain utna jaldi neeche aate hain (the ones that get instantly famous end up fall down harder too).
Divine: I’ve been doing this for 10 years.
How much do you write everyday?
Naezy: I recently started writing with pen and paper. My new diary of 150 odd pages is almost full! It’s a different feeling to hold a notebook in your hand and scribble in it.
Divine: My phone is filled with my notes of my writing. And my rhymes are always swimming in my mind. I get ideas anywhere and everywhere.
Can you guys share the latest rhymes you wrote maybe today or in the past few days?
Divine: I would love to but if I put out my unreleased work, there’s a chance someone will pick it, rehash it and use it as theirs. That’s why I am always wary of performing unreleased pieces. It’s happened with me once!
Naezy: Sahi mein, aisa hota hai (yes, it happens).
Naezy, I have to say, the whole hip-hop community was waiting for your comeback. The scene was missing you…
Divine: Wohi, I was telling him about the stuff that happened in the scene while he was away. We missed him a lot, the whole scene [was] missing him a lot because Naezy jaisa koi rapper abhi tak paida nahi hua hai hamare yahan. Aur kabhi koi doosra Naezy nahi ho sakta hai (there can’t be another Naezy). His style, the way he uses his syllables, and the feeling he communicates — his rap has comedy, aggression, satire, sarcasm. Naezy mera favorite rapper hai scene mein (Naezy is my favorite rapper).
Naezy hamara bhi favorite rapper hai! (Naezy is our favourite rapper too!)
Naezy: Arrey, mujhe kya charge kar diya tum dono ne (the two of you have motivated me).
Divine: Honestly, I saw so much content this past year, so many good releases came out, but whenever I want to listen to authentic Indian hip-hop, I play “Asal Hustle” (Naezy’s 2016 single). As an artist, Naezy has an original power, unlike anybody else.
Naezy: I missed the scene terribly, life seemed very empty without performing, but it was important for me to take this break. Just before my hiatus, I remember Divine had released a song, daaru-waaru karke, toh mujhe laga ki yeh banda na chal lega, mujhe dar tha (I was scared, I thought his song won’t work.) But when I returned after a year, I saw every other rapper was on shaky territory but Divine was there, like a rock. I was very happy. And it is inspiring to see him maintain his originality through all these years.
Divine: Like I said before, if you’re authentic, there’s space for everyone.
Naezy: A lot of people say our styles are very similar but I don’t think that’s true at all…
“Mother tongue mein jab likhtein hain, toh andar se aata hai. Woh direct hit karta hai. English thoda nakli lagta hai, thoda plastic lagta hai mujhe.” – Naezy
Divine: Our real fans know how distinct we are.
Naezy: It is only the outsiders that think we’re alike. Maybe because we are from the same city.
Divine: The uninitiated new fans need to listen to a lot more hip-hop to know how and where it all came from.
Naezy: Today this conversation is in the zone—apun ne sab khol dala (We have bared it all).
I think these kind of conversations between two artists like yourselves are very significant, even if they’re part of an interview, because it causes you both to affirm, validate and encourage each other. How often would the two of you express love for each other’s art in such depth!
Divine: Yes, and it’s very important for us to tell our fans what we think about each other. Saath mein upar jaayenge, maza aayega! (Success in each other’s company will be even sweeter!).
Divine, which is the one artist that inspired you to pursue hip-hop?
Naezy, which is the one song/album that can make you cry?
Naezy: “When Thugs Cry” by 2pac.
Divine, what is that one typical thing about Bombay 59 that people might not be aware of?
Divine: That it’s a humongous area! People think it’s a small cluster, but it’s spread over many localities And, we get the best anda-pav served with Schezwan chutney next to the JB Nagar circle.
And what about Bombay 70, Naezy?
Naezy: Bombay 70 is full khatarnaak but it’s turned into this swanky area with malls and express flyovers—SCLR. Modi bhi guzarta hai wahan se. (Modi has been spotted taking that route too!). People also think Kurla means pocket maar lega koi. (That you will be mugged). But geographically, this area is the heart of Bombay—it falls right in the middle of town and suburbs. It’s full gangsta’ but we are trying to clean up its image, now that so many artists are emerging from there. People like me. Now Kurla boasts of all kinds of people—the educated folks too.
Divine, what is your favorite Hindi word?
Divine: Gully. For me, it’s the biggest term ever. My first-ever rap had that word too—galliyon ke gul mein chhupta hai mera raaz (in the dusty by-lanes lie my deepest secrets). This word is now stuck to my artistry. Gully, for me, doesn’t mean poor or underprivileged, contrary to what many think. Gully means walking with your head held high. Gully ka matlab gareebi nahi hai, gully ka maltb hai gareebi se nikal ke aana (Gully doesn’t signify poverty but the will to emerge out of poverty). Gully is about being yourself. And it’s important for us to iterate this because people are misconstruing the meaning of gully. It’s amusing how almost every ‘gully rap’ music video today carried shots of gutters, gaalis (bad words) and what not.
Naezy: Gully bahut deep cheez hai. Jazbat hai, ehsaas hai (Gully isn’t mere a thing; it’s an emotion, an experience).
Divine: In the “Mere Gully Mein” video, we wanted to show the happiness and joy in a gully. We didn’t want to show poverty.
Naezy: The video was about how we are happy wherever we are!
Divine: And how we should do things from the heart. Yes, money is important. It creates more opportunities.
Naezy: It is a bitter truth that money talks. No matter what we might say, the truth is that without money there’s no life.
Divine: And what do you tell your family, your mother—you can’t just pursue hip-hop without earning a living. You need money to survive, raise a family, buy a house, car…
As far as monetary security is concerned, are you both in a more stable and comfortable space now?
Divine: Haan zaroor, aur bahut accha lag raha hai (of course, I am happy now) Now I can make music without worries. There’s no pressure—previously there would be a fear that if the song tanks, I would have to go back to a job. Today there’s a little more stability because there are platforms, brands, magazines that are supporting us.
Naezy: But my folks at home are still upset that I am pursuing music.
Despite seeing you on stage with a mainstream actor like Ranveer? Isn’t that a dream come true for Indian parents?
Naezy: All that doesn’t matter to my family—unko farak nahi padta (they don’t care). They see that as a nice, cute thing—they’ve been seeing me on stage for four years now. But their thinking is different. But now my mother is beginning to understand why I am pursing this—the poetry etc. I tried explaining to her how I am different from the other rappers. She’s been understanding but my father is still not convinced. He seems to be caught between the dilemma of letting me do what I want on the one hand, and feeling the societal pressure on the other—that he must be a strict father and show me the ‘right’ way. So yes, there are still many restrictions for me. Mujhe bola jaa raha hai tu rap chhod de. Lekin maine ek saal bina rap ke jiya aur mujhse nahi hota hai. Main bina rap ke nahi reh sakta. Woh mere rag-rag mein hai (I have immense family pressure to quit rap but I can’t. It’s in my veins. I can’t live without it). Maine koshish kari kaafi lekin ladai zaari hai (I am trying to fight the fight.)
Divine: Nahi bantai, kabhi nahi chhodega (He won’t quit).
What, according to your parents, would be a dream job for you?
Naezy: They want me to do an MBA and do a nine-to-five job. My dad, he is okay with me doing anything that keeps me from music. He thinks the industry is a very bad place. Or maybe he’s seen other rappers taking some bad routes. So he’s become very overprotective. He’s okay with me just sitting at a computer, or even doing a small job as long as it’s not music.
Doesn’t the Bollywood tag make them proud?
Naezy: If it does, they haven’t told me yet! I think they hide the fact that they are actually proud of me.
Divine: (Laughs). Aur jab gaana aata hai toh jhat se ek ad lib gaa denge! (And when our song plays, they’re the first to sing along to it!)
Naezy: But at the same time, I have to say my dad understands me a lot more now. Because I am sure he gets two kinds of opinions from people — if one set of people urge him to tighten his control over me, the other bunch must be praising me, and congratulating him. So I think he has mixed feelings.
How’s life changed for you and your mom? How’s she doing?
Divine: Meri maa saai hai bilkul (mom is doing great!) The most important thing is that I get to eat food cooked by her. I am very happy (laughs).
Toh apna time aa gaya ki nahi?
Divine: Time aa gaya hai par isko barkarar rakhna zaroori hai (our time has come but it’s important for us to keep it going).
Naezy: Apna time aaya tha, aaya hai aur aate rahega! (Our time had come, is here and will keep coming!)
Divine and Naezy photographed by Ishaan Nair for Rolling Stone India shot on iPhone Xs Max
Wardrobe: Numero Uno
Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva