Reggae Rajahs: ‘Reggae Music is Not Commercially Accepted’
On their eighth anniversary, the New Delhi party starters discuss their biggest challenges, new goals and that odd SulaFest filler set
Reggae Rajahs aren’t simply veterans of India’s burgeoning reggae scene–they created it. For this reason, the New Delhi-based collective’s eighth anniversary celebration this week is likely to celebrate the growth of Indian reggae culture as a whole as much as it will their accomplishments as a group.
That’s not to say that the Rajahs fall at all short on the accomplishment scale: over the years, they’ve amassed a fairly large national following, helmed their own reggae-centric music festival, and opened for the likes of electronic music giants Major Lazer and hip-hop old-timer Snoop Dogg (then in his reggae-loving Snoop Lion era). “When we started out, it was very much a hobby,” says rapper Raghav “Diggy” Dang, one of the group’s founding members. “We thought it was necessary to have a reggae scene in India, but we didn’t really have an end goal when we first started.”
Dang and the like-minded reggae lovers DJ MoCity (Mohamed Abood) and General Zooz (Zorawar Shukla, f.k.a. Mr. Herbalist) came together to form Reggae Rajahs in 2009. The group started out playing mostly clubs gigs in New Delhi for audiences made up of friends and expats who were already familiar with reggae. Thanks to their first-mover advantage, they managed to establish themselves in the local music scene in no time. From there, their dreams of creating a reggae culture in India grew bigger and bigger. Many of those visions for Indian reggae became a reality in the last two years, when the Rajahs created their own Jamaican-style soundsystem, dubbed ‘10,000 Lions,’ and helped organize Goa Reggae Sunsplash, India’s first reggae festival, in both January 2016 and 2017.
It seems strange that genre vets with their own festival and a slew of high-profile gigs and tours under their belts would accept anything less than a headlining slot at a music festival, and yet recently concluded vineyard music festival SulaFest found the Reggae Rajahs resigned to a somewhat disappointing filler set fate. The 10-minute slots saw the band hyping up crowds in between acts, perhaps indicating that despite their veteran status, the Rajahs might be in a bit of a slump.
Dang seems to see SulaFest as less of a setback and more of an opportunity for the Rajahs to get through to an audience that wouldn’t normally pay attention to reggae. “We performed [at SulaFest] the year before, and they gave us an early slot,” Dang notes. “There weren’t that many people there, and we got the crowd together and the party going by the end of our set. SulaFest really liked that, and wanted us to be MCs this year.”
Dang believes that one of the Rajahs’ biggest challenges is getting venues and events to take them seriously, citing a perception of reggae music as being slow and hard to play in a club setting. “Reggae music is not considered something which is popular; it’s not commercially accepted. A lot of venues are apprehensive, or we might get a raw deal at a particular event, timing wise, just because they think that reggae music is a different genre. They think it’s slow. But reggae is a huge spectrum of music,” says Dang, citing heavy dancehall influences in works by contemporary pop icons such as Rihanna, Drake and Justin Bieber.
Instead of taking SulaFest’s request for the Rajahs to MC as an affront to their caliber, Dang sees it as a sign that the versatility of the reggae spectrum is finally being understood. “I think SulaFest recognized what we do: we not only play music, but we connect with the crowd and keep them entertained,” he says. This makes more sense when coupled with the fact that the Rajahs place a striking emphasis on audience experience, sometimes even over the music or their own positioning. “People get so alienated by music that they’ve never heard before. This is the best way to introduce it to them,” Dang says, talking about how the Rajahs used their 15 short sets at SulaFest to teach the crowd dances from Jamaica and Trinidad and play songs on the more acoustic end of the reggae spectrum. “You do it step by step, showing them different aspects of it,” explains Dang. If the super success of their ska version of Indipop singer Daler Mehndi’s “Bolo Ta Ra Ra” was anything to go by (they turned the entire main stage audience into a frenzied wedding baraat in a matter of seconds), Reggae Rajahs did a great job of educating the masses at the festival.
Even the Rajahs’ soundsystem was designed with the idea of spreading reggae culture in mind. The band has been touring with the 10,000 Lions system for the past year with the intent of showcasing the more dub and roots sides of reggae music. Dang describes intrigued passersby at last year’s VH1 Supersonic stopping in front of the soundsystem to receive what he refers to as a “musical massage.”
The Rajahs’ contemporaries, a crew called BASSFoundation, have also created their own soundsystem, a fact which Dang sees as a triumph rather than as competition. “Our aim was not to just become artists ourselves, it was to support and build a community, and build a culture,” he says, pointing out new reggae bands that have sprung up across the country. “If there was no culture, no matter how much music we put out, it wouldn’t make any difference, because no one would be interested in it.”
This week’s anniversary sees Reggae Rajahs founding member DJ MoCity return to the group after several years abroad. To celebrate, they’ve released a music video for “Dancing Mood,” the buoyant single off their 2015 EP Beach Party. Though there are no further releases planned for the immediate future, Dang is positive that the fluid, message-conscious nature of the band and the culture they’ve cultivated around it will keep them prolific and relevant for years to come.
Listen to Reggae Rajahs’ “Dancing Mood”: