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How Kashmir Is Taking To Hip Hop

Mumbai rapper Ashwini Mishra aka A-List traveled to Srinagar and gave us a glimpse of the emerging hip hop scene in Kashmir; Watch Illsane aka Rizwan Qazi’s recently released video “Million Bullets”

Rolling Stone India Feb 05, 2014
Graffiti at the Perzoo Graffiti Gallery in Srinagar. Photo: Ashwini Mishra

Graffiti at the Perzoo Graffiti Gallery in Srinagar. Photo: Ashwini Mishra

During my time in Kashmir in October last year, I met a few rappers, activists and writers. But perhaps the one statement that helped me understand the political nature of Kashmiri hip hop best was made by filmmaker Bilaal Jaan: “Everything in Kashmir is political. Everything is linked to the occupation. One cannot even speak of a Chinar tree without speaking of politics.” With that context, it’s clear how it would hardly make sense to not rap about the issues that literally surround the artists.

In a region that’s taking to rock, metal and electronica, protest rap is finding an outlet for political opinions in Kashmir. Hip hop culture in the border state between Pakistan and India is also extending to graffiti artists such as Srinagar Outlawz and crews like Coup De Varnus from Baramulla. A walk down the landmark Lal Chowk towards the Bund in Srinagar includes several writings on the wall in clear ink. A wall reads “Perzoo Graffiti Gallery,” sprayed over with slogans like “The Revolution Is Loading,” “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Welcome to the PSA Zone” [The Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978, gives local police the power to arrest and detain anyone, including minors, in the name of public safety]. Other graffiti is sometimes just signatures of the artists or crew, but more often than not it includes political content. Graffiti like this is found across the city and near Srinagar University.


Shayan Nabi aka Syn9. Photo: Ashish Sharma

Shayan Nabi aka Shyn9. Photo: Ashish Sharma

Political themes fuel Kashmiri hip hop. Although rapper Haze Kay aka Zubair Magray started off in 2009, hip hop really caught on in Kashmir after the popularity of MC Kash aka Roushan Illahi in 2010 with his most famous song, “I Protest.” Besides MC Kash, artists such as Shyn9 aka Shayan Nabi, KayTwo aka Fahad Idris and Illsane aka Rizwan Qazi are currently releasing new material. While Illahi has released his full-length album Rebel RepubliK in November 2012 and an EP, Liberation, in February last year, Nabi released his debut album Shine On Darkness in October last year. On Republic Day, Qazi released his single “Million Bullets,” hitting hard at America’s war crimes while sympathizing with nations “oppressed by the real decision makers of this world.”

Most of these rappers became active in 2010, a dark year for Kashmir. Many innocent civilians were killed in the brutal repression of the uprising for independence. In the wake of the uprising and the endless curfews, a new generation of poets and artists from Kashmir sat down in their homes and used basic recording equipment such as laptops and mics to tell the stories of rebellion and pain through art.  It just so happened that for this crop of artists, their medium of choice was hip hop. Although mainstream rappers such as Tupac and Eminem figure as influences, Peruvian-born American political hip hop artist Immortal Technique aka Felipe Coronel is also a major influence. In an email interview with ROLLING STONE India, Coronel says his own peers such as Ice-T and KRS1 did not categorize their music as political hip hop, preferring the term “reality rap.”  Says Coronel, “The institutionalized racism of the prison system, drugs, the legacy of slavery, violent repression, this is what hip hop was born out of, if anything I see its rebirth coming not from the empire [America], but from places like Latin America, Africa, Asia and The Middle East.”

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When asked about Jammu and Kashmir taking to rap music, Coronel says that their fight is an important one, “to tell their story to the world.” Coronel adds, “I am inspired by these regions; they always remind me of the poverty and violent strife I was born around in Peru. But I just wish to remind people, that the odds seem impossible until you start fighting.”

MC Kash

MC Kash

The first time I heard MC Kash was when I stumbled onto a YouTube link while searching for documentaries on the Kashmiri resistance movement against Indian occupation. MC Kash was the subject of Take It In Blood, a documentary on missing persons in Kashmir. Says MC Kash aka Roushan Illahi about the upcoming scene, “We all are inspired by our daily lives and by what we see in the streets. And that is what we pen down in our rhyme books.” Illahi also agrees with Coronel’s view about reality rap: “I don’t think we can categorize the hip hop music coming out of Kashmir as political and commercial. All rappers take inspiration from their own lives. [”¦] So if I’m saying in my music that I have shouldered coffins, then it is something that I have done, and it doesn’t become political to me, since it’s an aspect of my life that has shaped my perception. And so, I am keeping it real. It’s also true that if while living in Kashmir, I’m rhyming about how much ”˜dope I sling,’ then I’m absolutely faking it.”

With time I heard other artists from the valley including Haze Kay, Illsane and Shyn9. What impressed me right from the start about this crop of emcees from Kashmir were their mic skills combined with the political content of their music. As an Indian hip hop artist, I can attest to the fact that both these qualities are not that common in this part of the world. Even now, you can only name a handful of Indian rappers who are both as political and skilled on the mic as some of the Kashmiri hip hop artists. Nabi produces and collaborates with other upcoming rappers such as Kingg UTB and Saaqi Bhat and Illahi has mentored 19-year-old Fahad Idris aka KayTwo. Says Idris, who is currently studying engineering, “Some people paint as a form of story telling, but I rap about the situation in Srinagar. For my next single, I’m talking about the torture that people go through in Kashmir, featuring samples from Mozart’s music.”

Mir Gazzanfar aka EssXaar. Photo: Shayan Nabi

Mir Gazzanfar aka EssXaar. Photo: Shayan Nabi

As much as protest is the word on every other rapper’s lips, there is also non-political hip hop. One of the more popular young emcees is Delhi-based Mir Gazzanfar aka EssXaar, whose music is not focused on politics. Says Gazzanfar, “I still write about social issues that plague the world, not just Kashmir. But I also wanted to become popular among people who wanted political rap and mainstream hip hop, so I pulled this stunt where I wrote a song called ”˜Love at First Sight’ [a straight up love song].” There are even a few detractors who feel non-political hip hop artists like Gazzanfar are “not really rappers.” Gazzanfar waves them off saying, “We don’t care about them. I’m used to criticism now.”

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Although the B-Boy movement, also a part of the hip hop culture, seems to have taken off in other parts of India, it has not caught on in Kashmir yet due to lack of public spaces that are free from state control. The overbearing presence of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) also acts as a constant deterrent. Now, with the state sponsoring music events and even rap battles where artists are only allowed to perform if they steer clear of politics, a clear message is being sent against dissent in art. Gazzanfar goes back to Srinagar often, but only performs once or twice a year. Says Gazzanfar, “I launched my album [Resurrection] at a college event in December 2012 and since then, I’ve only performed once or twice.” Even if they’re past security hurdles to perform, there’s the more cultural issue that some in Kashmir feel Islam forbids performing and writing music, considering it to be a sin. While there is considerable debate on this, what with Kashmir’s rich history of Sufi music, it does add to the laundry list of obstacles these young rappers face in the valley.

Fahad Idris aka KayTwo. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Fahad Idris aka KayTwo. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The likes of Illahi, Nabi, Gazzanfar and Idris prefer to concentrate on the message and the medium rather than the challenges they face. They find their best friend in the Internet to download music programming software and often record on laptop mics and upload it on websites such as ReverbNation. Kashmir’s political hip hop remains online to a large extent, but rappers are wary, intimidated even because of the government watching over their shoulder. Says Illahi, “If it’s that difficult to speak your mind on the Internet, then one can only imagine the form of censorship one faces in the streets. And since most of us Kashmiris agree that Kashmir is a police state, such repressive tactics are to be expected. But a rapper is bound by the rules of his art to rebel, and speak up.” While Kashmiri rappers don’t ever take down their music pages, they use several email addresses and constantly create new profiles on social media to avoid too much attention. Srinagar and Kashmir need what artists elsewhere have easiest access to ”“ the freedom to gather and express themselves. Says Illahi, “Rappers shouldn’t be expecting a police raid after every other song they make.”

But hip hop is here to stay. Illahi adds that it’s equally important for rappers to get organized before anyone can start organizing festivals and cyphers (a gathering of rappers). Says Illahi, “This way, our dependence on the Internet, as a medium of showcasing our art, can also diminish to some extent.” On a personal note, I am hopeful that the next time I am in Srinagar, we will be able to do a rap cypher without fear of authorities. But perhaps that is too optimistic.

With inputs from Anurag Tagat.

Watch Illsane’s video for “Million Bullets” here