Meet Shen B from Jammu: The Next Breakout Artist in Indian Hip-Hop
The multi-faceted poet/producer/rapper/video ninja discusses bullying, censorship, faith and more in his debut EP ‘Zamaana’; the eponymous single is the first track out
Hip-hop artist Shayaan Bhat aka Shen B is an artist stuck between the spectrum of duality. The maternal grove of his family tree is a thriving tapestry of poets, painters, dancers and musicians, whereas the trunk’s paternal patchwork is home to pious devotees and protectors of the law. It’s perhaps in this domestic divergence that he first found the basis for his music. Introspective and illuminatory, Shen B’s hip-hop is a chronicle of the world around him; it’s his way of proclaiming and preserving humanity’s living, breathing, changing history.
From revealing the realities of his home state Jammu’s once perennial confinement on “LockDown” to unraveling the mind and role of artists in the rise and fall of corrupt countries on “Fankaar,” the poet/rapper’s tracks have always dabbled in two polarities; the two sides of a coin, if you will — the war outside and the war within. “Whenever I am writing, it’s a fight between two perspectives: what I think of myself and what I think of the world. It helps me create a balance; the world is not well and I am not perfect either,” he says.
Divergent in thought and action, Shen B didn’t have it easy in school either. He was a constant target for bullies in the classroom and as he would soon find out, the playground tends to be a cruel metaphor for the world beyond. Trying to find his place in this puzzle, the hip-hop artist honed himself into a multi-faceted maverick. Always hungry, always learning, he inhabited every creative role between his time in Mumbai, New Delhi and Jammu: guitarist, drummer, producer, lyricist, poet, film director, video editor, cinematographer, graphic designer, art director, et al. He DIY-ed every project under the sun.
All this knowledge came in handy when Jammu experienced a 17-month clampdown (between August 2019 to February 2021) on 4G internet services. In the span of one year, Shen B put out 10 releases — an unprecedented number from any other artist in the region. Now out with his latest single, an anthem called “Zamaana,” Shen B hopes to turn over a new leaf with the villains of the world. It’s his open call to bullies and the bullied: “the past won’t stand; the present will conquer, the tide will turn,” he says.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Shen B breaks down “Zamaana,” teases his upcoming titular EP, speaks about the core message of his music and more. Excerpts:
“Zamaana” is your message to the world about standing up to bullies. The song also speaks about nostalgia, corruption, censorship, faith, self-esteem and more through various popular references in the lyrics. What led you to make this track and what message do you hope people take away from it?
To be honest, both “Zamaana” the song and my upcoming EP are my way of letting everyone know how fed up I am with the complexities of life, what it has become, in general. I come from humble beginnings and a simple life was all I had seen until I went to Delhi for my Masters (in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia University) and then, Bombay for work in the film industry. Life has taught me a lot of things, but the Nineties era was the best teacher, in all aspects.
There are many Indian pop culture references in the “Zamaana” music video. I’ve tried to tell people how I used to love sharpening my pencils, sometimes, without any need for it. Now, I have to sharpen myself to deal with people. You’ll notice a lot of TV references. We started with an antenna on our rooftops and used to watch whatever came on TV. Later on, shows like Shaka Laka Boom Boom, Son Pari, etc. were my pass time until I jumped into the video game revolution with games like Mario, Contra and Road Rash. Everyone has played those games. I just related them with modern scenarios. So, in a way, I am just comparing my past and present selves throughout the song; what I was and what I have become.
The message is as simple as it can be: let the simplicity of life survive. We’ve become so dependent on technology and social media that it has blurred the line between what’s personal and what’s not. Learn from the life we have lived and not shy away from accepting who you are, no matter what anyone says.
When it comes to social issues, your music — tracks like “LockDown,” “Fankaar,” “Chal Beta,” and “Mujhe Dekh” — provides both a spotlight as well as personal introspection. It’s about both the world outside and the world within. How do you bring this duality to your sound and lyricism; why is this important to you?
In my younger days, I was always a rebel at home. But my mother taught me values and the importance of looking inwards, always. This made me a sort of hybrid between the two. I was different in school; I hated school — I always thought it was an institution where they were making clones and not pushing kids for who they were and what they had in them. My mother, a senior lecturer, always taught me to question everything and not accept things as they seem. So, I tackled a lot of jealousy and bullying because of my ideology in those days. But, I was a very emotional and friendly person; people liked talking to me and often took advantage of those aspects of my being, again and again. I couldn’t change myself, so I built a barrier around me. All those feelings were stuck within me and slowly, I started writing about them. That’s how these songs and the songs on my EP Zamaana were born.
Whenever I am writing, it’s a fight between two perspectives: what I think of myself and what I think of the world. It has become a habit that I can’t get rid of, but it helps me create a balance; the world is not well and I am not perfect either.
You come from a mixed lineage of pious people as well as artists. How has that shaped and impacted your musicianship today?
I grew up in a strict Muslim family, but my mother was a very open-minded person and my dad was always away on duty as Superintendent of Police. This gave me an environment to really explore myself and discover what I was capable of. My mother’s side had creative people in it (the rebels as I like to think of them): poets, painters, dancers, musicians who couldn’t really pursue what they loved due to societal pressure as well as religious reasons. My maternal great grandfather, Abdullah Khan aka Taalib Bhalessi, was a Kashmiri shayar who was well known and well respected. I want to continue that legacy in my own way; it is like a duty on my shoulders.
Growing up in Jammu was very peaceful. It is somewhere one can find a good mixture of religions and cultures. So, I grew up adopting them all together. As far as my music goes, I am all for peace. Nothing else.
You were previously a drummer in indie rock band MoonDogs before the collective disbanded. Before that, you jammed with friends on the guitar. What sparked your transition from rock to hip-hop — how has this journey been? Also, how did your time in the band ready you to undertake your journey as a solo artist?
As unusual as it is, I was introduced to rap through rock with acts like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park) was actually my first rap influence. Later on, I discovered Eminem on a CD mixtape that we circulated at school.
Being with the band showed me all the ups and downs I could have seen at that age. I mean, I was 17 and was playing around India on the biggest of stages which included NH7 Weekender, the Red Bull Tour Bus of 2013, Live from the Console alongside incredible artists like Sid Vashi and The Ska Vengers, Balcony TV… and when we come back to our home town, we were nobody.
We have even played empty gigs, by which I mean that there was no crowd, as well as houseful shows whenever we got lucky. In short, we had seen our days and learned what we had to and I am glad for that. From jamming with my band in my bathroom/makeshift jam room to playing big gigs around India, these experiences have only made me more humble and patient as an artist.
I couldn’t quit music after we disbanded, I had to do something. So, I taught myself music production over the years. I made songs and released them on YouTube, and even deleted them, time and again, until I finally knew I was ready to go all out. People used to laugh at me for my cheesy songs. Well, I can’t see them laughing now. The past won’t stand; the present will conquer, the tide will turn.
There’s a particularly beautiful spirit of local collaboration in the music video for “Zamaana.” Being an artist from Jammu, what was it like to band creatives from the region together for this project and what was it like to film the video in your hometown?
Despite being a small city with little exposure, Jammu is now growing. The hip-hop culture is growing. I was here when the hip-hop movement started between 2008-10. I was a b-boy who shot dance videos and remixed songs for others. So, the boys you see in the music video are from the same dance school I was in all those years ago. “Zamaana” is just me going back to my roots and paying homage to whoever supported me from the very beginning. The experience was brilliant. These are hardworking boys and that added character to “Zamaana” in the best way possible.
The artwork for your debut EP Zamaana is particularly interesting and features a lot of mysterious background motifs. Could you break down the idea behind this graphic?
I created the artwork in collaboration with another artist named Wackyfingers who I found on Instagram. He did the character design and I did the colors and texturing.
The artwork itself has three layers to it. The background depicts my dreams and imaginations soaring above the clouds. The middle ground comprises all the people who track my every action — close relatives, so-called friends, society; people who are waiting for me to fail. In the foreground is me, saying what I want and have to, doing what I need and have to, even if they don’t approve of it. Once a rebel, always a rebel.
You’ve been a DIY artist from the get-go. Whether it’s production, creative direction, songwriting, filmmaking or beyond — how have you been able to build self-reliance as an artist and how necessary do you think it is, for an artist today, to have such an expansive skillset? What advice would you give to musicians who are just starting out?
I started out in the scene when I was in Jammu. Skilled people were scarce, resources were even further limited. I had to find a way out of it. So, I slowly started DIY-ing everything. From cinematography to editing to color grading to music — everything. It took me a lot of years of failure, trial and error, until I really got the nitty-gritty of doing it right. Then, I met Wikki (Koul, filmmaker). We shared similar ideas about films and filmmaking, and we both were unpredictable people. Wikki goes from listening to Bach to Adnan Sami in like 0.25 seconds and I’m the same. Consider my tracks “LockDown” and “Sone Do” — they are polar opposites. This is our strength, this is who we are. A duo of overgrown children.
I would advise every musician who is just starting out to just do it yourself. It looks hard at first, but trust me, you’ll get the hang of it. Make shitty projects, fail, let people laugh. They will eventually see your learning graph and respect you for all you have become one day. Who wants a boring story anyway?
Having toured all over India with MoonDogs and particularly lived in two of the country’s hip-hop hotspots — New Delhi and Mumbai — what’s it been like returning to Jammu and what do you think about the local scene, especially as you, yourself, are an active MC in the region?
I restarted my hip-hop journey when I came back to Jammu in 2019. The busy lives of Delhi and Bombay only made my anxieties worse. I am not a party person or even an outgoing person. So, both cities were no more than walls for me. Jammu gave me peace of mind and a space to create what I wanted to. Also, I met Danish Tak here who has since produced all of my projects. I received a lot of support from a few people here. Some arranged venues for me, while others arranged for shooting gear. All this wouldn’t have been possible in Delhi or Mumbai, without a decent budget and permissions.
I am a lone wolf. The scene will grow when all the parts of the scene will grow. I am particularly focusing on myself right now and pushing myself so that one day, when I am capable, I will push the scene as much as I can. All the Jammu hip-hop scene needs is exposure and the spotlight.
You released 10 songs in 2020 — a time during which the country was under the COVID-19 lockdown while Jammu experienced a clampdown on 4G internet as well. How did you manage to continue creating music during this period?
I had to do it. I am 26-years-old. The pressure on me of getting a government job was and is too much. I had to prove myself, that I wouldn’t back down this time. After my mother passed away, rather than breaking down, I began creating more and more to fill that emptiness and sorrow within. Whether I have to ask someone for Internet connectivity for half an hour to upload a video or borrow a mic or camera from someone, I was willing to do it all to survive in the game. I promised my mother that I’ll make a career out of my music and I am living to fulfill that same promise.
What’s next for you as an artist? What more can you tell us about the Zamaana EP and what lies ahead for your sound and fans?
I am and I will always be an experimenting artist. Changes in genre, flavor and mood give me a kick that nothing else offers. “Zamaana” is very special to me because I made the track 5 days after my mother passed away. Making it was like therapy and it was my only hope of ever getting back to life. And I am so glad, I did it. I am glad I made it through. The EP as a whole is very empowering and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. It’ll be out soon!
In the future, I would love to explore the commercial side of music as well. I have always loved good commercial music and also, no one wants to be ‘broke’ in the game.
I have already started collaborating with some big names of the music industry. As far as the experimental side of me goes, it will continue alongside and I will keep making good music for my listeners.