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Swadesi: ‘We’re Not Faking Anything Here’

The Mumbai crew are using Warli tribal-inspired hip-hop music to save the world’s only natural urban jungle and its indigenous tribal populace from a controversial project

Sanjiv Valsan Dec 27, 2017
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“Tu Insaan hai ya plastic?

With their bluntly confrontational, anti-establishment and revolutionary lyrics, Mumbai-based multilingual and socially conscious Swedesi hip-hop collective say they’re trying to be true to the grassroots hip-hop roots of the Seventies.

Though their medium is Western, the message–delivered in five Indian languages–is distinctly local and anti-establishment, with street-level appeal. In Swadesi’s rap, you’ll find real stories from the India’s gallis, ghettoes, tribal padas, representing the concerns of India’s youth. The crew, who have been around since 2013, throw down about the extremes of a new freedom of connectivity, mobility and expression, oppressive corruption, environmental destruction and fundamentalist nationalism, and simultaneously dealing with their own personal existential crises, emotional health issues, identity confusions and economic anxieties.

In an interview following their recent performance at Aarey Forest’s amphitheater in Mumbai, and a spontaneous popup at a public discussion on Aarey Forest at a bookstore in Mumbai, Swadesi tell us about how they plan to use their music to bring about social change through the Aarey Forest Festival series, and also announce the inspiration behind their latest and most experimental project yet.

How would you describe your music?

Raakhsas: It’s revolutionary and it’s also young, because we are the youth. It’s all in the hands of the youth

NaaR: Being the majority of the population, youngsters are getting excluded from every place in society, so we represent that kind of voice.

You’ve performed twice for the Save Aarey Forest cause in Mumbai this week. What’s happening out there?

Raakshas: They’re trying to cut 4,000 trees here very soon. The excuse is a metro yard (for the upcoming Mumbai Metro Line 3 project) over there, and it’s just like a parking spot for the trains where they’ll be washed, and out of all the spots, they only found the last remaining green spot – Aarey Forest – in spite of having some seven other places where they could have done this. Aarey has been our favorite spot since childhood; it’s called the ‘Green lung of Mumbai’.

MC Mawali: Since seventh or eighth grade, I’ve been going there to swim and chill; I’ve seen crocs, deer, snakes, beautiful butterflies there and experienced so many of nature’s different colors and seasons there. We’re really been attached to the place. I can’t tell you how blessed Mumbai is to have such a place–a forest right in the middle of the city!

Raakshas: Once, ten minutes after getting out of the lake, I saw a huge croc coming out of the same spot where I was just swimming! It’s a jungle dude, and the government is now claiming there’s no wildlife in Aarey!

MC Mawali: And they’re also planning to put the animals in cages and make a zoo inside Aarey, dude. I’ve heard they bought penguins for Mumbai’s zoo and then they died! Why do you need penguins? (laughs) We’ve got leopards in Aarey…

All these thoughts, will they show up directly in your upcoming Aarey Forest tracks?

NaaR: Our next track is basically going to be about the Metro Shed project that is trying to come up in the forest. We’ll start from there, and then voice our opinion on whatever else’s connected to that. The objection is about where the project is coming up. We’re not really against any metro. They say it’s going to reduce pollution; that’s good, but not at the cost of forests! That’s going to be like cutting yourself and then applying balm.

MC Mawali: Every old tree also supports so many lives, and they’re just cutting it down, with no emotion at all–this is just about making money off the real estate.

Swadesi at a bookstore gig in Bandra, Mumbai. Photo: Sanjiv Valsan

Do you think common people are losing track of their own emotions?

MC Mawali: People are scared of their emotions… both scared and distracted.

So this is about saving trees?

NaaR: The trees can’t defend themselves, unless we defend them. .

MC Mawali: It’s even about the lives of adivasis in the forest, about the tribals.

MC Mawali: They’re trying to sell the forest land to make the project happen. This is not really about development. I’ve met some tribal people from Aarey Forest, and they’ve been tortured for at least five or six years. In some tribal padas (hamlets) they have been denied water supply, healthcare and electricity, just so that they are troubled enough to leave their land.

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Raakshas: They’re basically making a crisis situation for the tribals, so our aim is making people aware about what we have here before it’s too late, instead of repenting later. There’s still hope.

Who exactly are these tribals?

Raakshas: This is the Warli tribe, whose paintings are renowned the world over. Only, here it’s for real – they’re still painting on their walls and huts. These people are the original inhabitants of this forest, and they don’t want to leave their forest.

MC Mawali: We’ve met an inspiring Warli leader, Prakash Bhoir. He’s planted some 500 trees around his farm, and to leave such a place, the government is offering him a 250 square feet flat, which would be like a prison for him, because he is used to breathing in open air.

NaaR: The definition of ‘development’ should be to get an education, basic healthcare, basic necessities, sanitation–all these things, not a yard of metro train scraps or something like that right in front of their homes, or a one-room flat given as incentive for leaving a place like this. Their roots are too deep here.

Raakshas: I think these are the most conscious people, completely balanced in terms of how human beings should live. They respect every living thing around them. Wild animals are part of their lives. That’s what they’re saying to us–that they’re not afraid of leopards or snakes. In fact, they worship them.

The Warlis have a leopard God, don’t they?

Raakshas: Yeah, Waghoba. What these people say is they aren’t scared of the leopards, they’re scared of the government (laughs).

MC Mawali: They’re most afraid when someone comes and tells them about ‘development’ (laughs).

NaaR: So Swadesi is currently working on that. We plan to perform a lot more in Aarey.

Many feel that there’s nothing that regular people can do about such things. Do you think all this will make a difference?

NaaR: Of course it would, because this is a democracy. If we don’t voice our opinion…

Raakshas: Freedom of speech, man

NaaR: Yeah, there are many aspects to a democracy–all aspects lead to one thing: the people are the ones whom any government works for, and if the government forgets that, then it’s high time that people remind them.

Raakshas: It’s simple… People have to realize that the government is because of them, not the other way around. If you put one man in power, you’re a billion people – you have put him in power. If you stand up against it, I don’t think he can do shit, man.

NaaR: As artists, what we do is use our skills to reach out to the public and create some awareness, wake them up from their deep sleep. Even if they’re not doing something against that wrong, at least acknowledging it would be the first step, and then going ahead with other things would be a different scene, and in time that would happen as well. But it is our duty as artists and as people who have the power to influence a thousand or a couple of thousand people at least.

Raakshas: And to keep doing it consistently…

NaaR: We’ve been consistent in making music, talking lyrically and the core issue has been how we can make society a better place for everybody–adivasis, downtrodden people, people who are destitute, homeless people—by using our words, we try to get solutions for them, but then it’s a big task, so we just try to make people aware first.

Members of Swadesi working on their new track about Aarey forest. Photo: Sanjiv Valsan

It’s about using music as a weapon for social change?

NaaR: Music changes minds. It’s not just about beats, scales or melodies…

Raakshas: …It connects people

NaaR: At least for hip-hop, it’s all about the message in the lyrics. It’s for the larger audience–and people try to connect to it

MC Mawali: Because we’re talking reality. We’re not faking anything here. When we talk about ‘hip-hop,’ ‘Hip’ is knowledge and ‘Hop’ is movement. More than becoming a superstar celebrity or a rap star, it is about empowering people, making you aware of what’s going on between you and the ‘System.’ When hip-hop hit the Black Man (in the Seventies) it made him strong, because it gave him freedom of speech; he could finally express what was going on and share it. That’s where any movement starts.

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NaaR: We’ve used an adopted culture to spread our message. You can even do the same kind of thing using the music culture which already exists here.

MC Mawali: If I were to sing “char bottle vodka” five times in in a song, it’s going to get stuck in your brain. And if I were to say “Save Aarey Forest” 10 times in a song that would also stick, because it’s the same pattern. Fantasy is what they’re being shown constantly, so it’s our duty to also do what we’re doing consistently.

You’re adopting a culture, yet calling yourselves ‘Swadesi’ (indigenous), and rapping about what’s indigenous…

Near: There’s no contradiction here, it’s actually co-existence… of adopted culture, the Indianness involved in it. We have been brought up in all these cultures, but we also have our own perceptions. From our family we’ve got our bhajans, from our friends we’ve got our hip-hop, metal, our grime… we always have options to wander and return, but finally, our message is what we want to deliver. In what medium it is, we don’t care.

I remember Shantanu (Pandit) from your crew, once saying hip-hop cuts across socioeconomic divides, much more so than others genres of music…

NaaR: Hip-hop doesn’t have any rules. It’s basically about what message you have at the end of it. A musician might use a sample or any beats that they can get their hands on, and just record their vocals on it, and actually that’s how hip-hop started. We also started the same way. I used to make some very bad beats, give it to Mawali and he used to rap to them, but we kind of grew out of that and we now produce a better quality product at the end of it. Since hip-hop doesn’t have any rules, to start you don’t need to know music theory. The average rapper doesn’t need to know whether he is on a D major or…

MC Mawali: When hip-hop began it was about causes. Now people have changed it. The rich and the media have turned it into something for entertainment, getting famous, attention, showing off…

You’ve also started composing a new track about Aarey Forest, right?

Raakshas: Yeah, I composed a scratch beat, and our MCs will be writing lyrics over that. This is just our part, though. To take it ahead, we’ll be collaborating with a Warli leader who inspires us, Prakash Bhoir, and singing the song together. After recording him, I think the track will be complete.

Any message to artists about Aarey Forest?

NaaR: It would be really great if artists came here to check out the place. The moment they see it, they’ll be more than happy to do something. Because it’s really beautiful, and it’s being fucked. So it’s high time we fucked those who are fucking it up (laughs).

MC Mawali: Everybody needs to talk about the issue… especially every celebrity with a known face, and the power of a following. More influential people need to speak about it.

What do you think about protest art and music in India right now?

MC Mawali: It’s getting massive, because India now has these two soundsystems–BFR and the 10,000 Lions. So all this Sound System-style reggae culture is also coming down, which is also about revolution through music, straight up and in your face at the grassroots level, spreading knowledge and making people aware of what’s going on.

Sometimes all this seems kind of invisible, though

NaaR: Even if it’s invisible, it doesn’t mean it’s not there

MC Mawali: It’s not invisible, just covered up

Raakshas: I think people are trying to make it invisible, but protest artists are just going to go on doing their thing, nobody’s going to stop. No matter how hard anybody tries to stop us, the movement is going to go on, and I feel that if you do one thing consistently, eventually everyone becomes aware about it. Many people are not that aware, because they have too much to grab at the moment on the commercial side of things. Even if people have a deaf ear to all this, then we’re just going to have to push up the volume till it goes through their ears (laughs).

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