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Battle Rap in Digital India: The Artists vs. The Arbiters

New Delhi’s MC Kode has apologized over controversial bars from an old rap battle, but the hip-hop community needs to step in to help fight misplaced moral justice

Rolling Stone India May 30, 2021

New Delhi's MC Kode during a rap battle. Photo: Courtesy of B3 India

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Just a few years ago, battle rap was a micro-scene in India. A fledgeling community, that used to pull in a throng, wherever it could materialize an event — from parking lots to clubs.

It has always found support in its formative years from artists who have gone on to be the biggest names in Indian hip-hop, and the community always reciprocated in kind with genuine word-of-mouth celebrity.

Now, before I continue, I must preface — to be an audience to battle rap, one needs to be in agreement with the context of the show, i.e. “bars that go too far” is understood as a means to an end — be it to justify a scheme, or to get to a punchline — everything is fair play and every attempt to a potential “fire” bar is encouraged.

Contrary to the beliefs of cancel culture, a rapper’s bars or the subject matters are not held against them in a kangaroo court, since subject matters are purely treated as literary devices for their bars. This is not news for people and audiences who have made the scene happen.

Unfortunately, some hip-hop meme pages that have become pedestrian conduits for many artists in the scene for promotions did not get the memo.

Last week, a campaign incited by the meme page Yo Yo Bantai Rapstar saw MC Kode aka Aditya Tiwari at the receiving end of vitriol from hip-hop fans, other hip-hop meme pages and the digital right-wing, including publications like OpIndia, who dedicated multiple articles to the internet drama.

This happened on the back of two video snippets, where we saw Kode saying extremely unsavoury things about the Mahabharata/Bhagwad Gita and the Indian Army — the former from a battle rap round from five years ago, the latter from an Instagram Live session.

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No one from the hip-hop community is defending the things that Kode said, even if they are his bars, or his opinions. While Kode took full responsibility for his words and has profusely apologized, a lot of damage had already been done.

Kode was doxxed on Twitter; anonymous accounts have threatened to harass him and his family — including one that put a hit on him of ₹50,000 in exchange for slaps to his face on camera. The brand support that Kode enjoyed has been withdrawn. Now, Kode has taken down all of his material –  battles, music and online appearances – from the Internet.

With Kode at rock bottom now, we as fans of the art don’t know if we’ll see him spitting his fiery schemes again, or whether Spit Dope — the battle rap league that Kode manages in New Delhi — would organize another event. At the time of writing this, Spit Dope, Battle Bars Bombay and a few more Indian rap leagues have taken down their online presence and content.

One is reminded of the backlash that comedians Agrima Joshua and Sourav Ghosh faced for tamer words, and how that escalated to rape and death threats against them respectively.

Word is that hip-hop meme pages, like the aforementioned one, are threatening other battle rappers with out-of-context clips of their old videos as a means for shutting them up from speaking up about the Kode incident. This brings a grim darkness over the state of hip-hop and its fandom.

Battle rap is organized and published online in good faith, knowing very well that many things said by the performers, if taken out of context, would only serve shock and offence. Battle rappers trust their fans to understand the aforementioned context to fully enjoy the art, and not to weaponize it against the art-form that although receives pop-culture acknowledgement, is still underground enough to hardly enjoy brand deals.

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I wish for the following — for the meme pages rendered as  promotional tools for artists, to just play their part, and not take the niche audience of battle rap for a ride with their misplaced sense of social or moral justice. They need to understand that the fans came way before the Instagram pages and followers can see through the charade.

Also, encouraging trolls and keyboard fundamentalists who are far from the fringes of hip-hop, to attack an underground artist, his family, his fraternity and the culture, reeks of lopsided sinister one-upmanship.

As a parting note, I understand that a lot of big names, especially the ones who were made and celebrated by this culture, have not stepped forward to help Kode. It is difficult to stand with bars and opinions that leave a bad taste, but it is also when the heroes of the culture need to step in and help him mend his ways and inspire confidence in fans, than to let Kode give up on everything that he’s worked so hard for, over a chance encounter with a foul arbiter of hip-hop.

Gaurang Bailoor is a writer and host with sketch comedy group Tadpatri Talkies. The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the aforementioned writer, and do not represent those of Rolling Stone India as a magazine.

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