Smokey the Ghost: ‘This Whole Album is A Protest’
The Bengaluru rapper’s debut LP addresses Trump, Modi, war, religion and more
If there’s one thing you can say about Bengaluru hip-hop artist Smokey the Ghost aka Sumukh Mysore, it’s that he’s been around the block.
Having traversed both the indie space and the commercial route with Bollywood, the seasoned rapper presents dauntless in The Human Form, his debut album. Sonically, the The Human Form is empathic and intuitive. Smokey’s bars are personal and political tornadoes punctuated with layers of synth, sax, bass, keyboard, carnatic vocals and more; the sound both calm and unhinged. The nine-track LP is “full of questions and possible answers,” exploring the perspective of a mysterious flower as a metaphor for the album’s title.
Produced by Bengaluru electronica duo Aerate Sound comprising Joe Panicker and Naquash and mastered by London-based Metropolis studios’ John Davis (whose lengthy credits include Led Zeppelin, Gorillaz and The Killers, among others) and Mumbai producer Sahir the Magician aka Sahir Nawab, The Human Form is an amalgamation of experience.
Over 15 years, the rapper has shed pretense and gained grain. “I toured extensively during the making of this album with Aerate Sound. However, the aspect of my rap revolving around socio-political topics and my moral ground on ‘how I was being treated as an artist’ was met with a lot of resistance from many individuals and organizers from the so-called music industry,” he says, citing discrimination during his collaborative sets at Bengaluru’s Boiler Room and Magnetic Fields Festival in Rajasthan in 2017. The Human Form captures this experience and many more as the seasoned rapper calls out alcohol marketing, exposure traps and favors in the music industry while taking on Trump, Modi, war and religion. And at this juncture in time, he is mad about plenty.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Smokey the Ghost talks about The Human Form, the music business, criticism and more. Excerpts:
In “The Return,” you delve into music industry politics. Why did you want to open the album with a solid confrontation?
The current music industry is based on favors (ass licking) and liquor sales, thus forgetting that music by itself is the centerpiece. Conscious and socio-political music requires paying attention, and being drunk does not really help the audience, so they do not drink that much. No one sees that the plugging of music into alcohol, cocaine sniffing organizers and their treatment of music and musicians is a problem. Venues and organizers and now residents join the queue in making the artist more expendable. Frustrated by all this, I wrote “The Return.” The song ends with Smokey dying and “Breathe” begins the new chapter of the Ghost.
“Breathe” is a track that explores a lot of realities, it’s almost like a recap wake up call to the whole world. What was it like penning this track?
“Breathe” is the first song I wrote for the album and we made the song in about 20 minutes (Joe and I have always been magic like that). RJT (Bengaluru saxophonist Rahul Joshua Thomas) banged out the trumpets and we had a song. I was struggling to finish The Colours of Violence by Sudhir Kakkar when I was putting together the lyrics for it. The book really moved me, especially with how political figures use religion, fear and propaganda to cause misery to the common people. It is no secret that politicians/criminals do this for money and power, yet the people say nothing ‘cause fear. The very aspect of humanity is in question and no one is taking a stance ‘cause they will kill you if you say anything. All they want you to do is breathe and let it go. “Breathe” was me expressing my frustration that humanity is dead and so was Smokey.
What was it like working with Aerate Sound on this album and having John Davis and Sahir the Magician master the project?
Joe and Sahir have wanted to make music with me since day one and we never stopped. It was always about the music for us and everything from audience applause to making money has been put aside. We have always just wanted to make great music and let it heal us ‘cause this is therapy to us. After we mixed the album, I approached Metropolis studio, London to master the album but specifically requested for John Davis to work on The Human Form. John was always pressed on time and did not take too many projects. However, to my pleasant surprise, he listened to the mix and immediately agreed to master it.
The Human Form is quite autobiographical and reflective. What do you hope people take away after listening to the album?
Nothing. I do not expect anything from people. I was always selfish about making music for myself. Why must I consider an audience while creating? I am not an entertainer, I am an artist. Now that I made this album, and now that I put it out, my expectations have ended right there. However, I encourage my people to keep the human form alive, do not kill your human side while chasing money and fame and all that crap.
What experiences truly shaped the album in the three years that it has been in the making?
The most overarching experience has been what my mother felt about flowers. She loves flowers and has always been super excited about them. She has been through hell and struggled extensively, but flowers always brought a smile to her face. She has been the greatest inspiration and experience that shaped the core values I put into the album. Therefore, the album is full of questions and possible answers from the perspective of a mysterious flower called the human form.
As a socially conscious artist, do you worry about skirting the line between offensive and reflective, and what do you think about using the word ‘Brahmin’ in “When You Move” (because of its casteist undertones)?
I use the word ‘Kal-Brahmin’ in “When You Move.” Its meaning is quite the opposite of a Brahmin. ‘Kal-Brahmin’ is usually used by Brahmins to describe a fake Brahmin who does not deserve to belong with them. I believe that although I was born into a Brahmin household, in the course of forming my morality, I discovered that my very existence is against Brahmanism. I do not feel like I belong to the Brahmin community or the Hindus or the Muslims or even the Atheists. I belong to the human community. I believe that this is the key ‘identity’ we forgot to place above all others, ‘cause irrespective of being Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Atheist, we are the human form.
The problem, with venues and musicians and this country as a whole, is that they are too quick to get offended and they get defensive with criticism. How can you get offended if someone is protesting against something? That’s fascist and selfish thinking. This whole album is a protest. If the facts that I wrote about humanity and its doings in this album offend anyone, so be it.
Stream The Human Form here.