Sumeet Samos Deconstructs the Politics of Caste in India on ‘Jaati’
The anti-caste rapper on performative activism, the on-ground reality for a DBA artist in the music industry and why he needed to release his latest track now
For Koraput/New Delhi-based anti-caste rapper and activist Sumeet Samos, the state of Indian affairs reached a boiling point earlier this year in May, when in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop, a host of popular Indian figures lent their support to the on-going Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. The support stood out to Samos like a strike to the gut, a performative token tainted in hypocrisy, given that the same voices stand silent over the alarming rise in cases of caste-based violence in the country; the most recent of which saw a Dalit man being brutally assaulted for allegedly touching a dominant-caste man’s scooter.
“Despite the (COVID-19) pandemic, there has been a series of gruesome incidents of caste-based violence on Dalits across the country, and a big section of the country has nothing to say about it. All of this reminded me of a popular phrase — JAATI JATI HI NAHI HAIN (Caste just doesn’t end),” says Samos who, frustrated by the static state of events, puts out a call to action through his latest track “Jaati.” Influenced by the roots of old-school hip-hop, as well as a history of contributions by people pushed to the sidelines of popular recall, the song is a ready reckoning for masses oblivious to their own social privilege. Panning over the vast open spaces of Samos’ hometown Koraput, the music video follows the rapper as he drops compelling bars about the on-going history of caste in India. The underlying question in the hard-hitting track is: When, in India, will Dalit lives finally matter?
What particularly stands out in “Jaati,” apart from Samos’ reminder of a millennia of pending justice and accountability, is a celebration of the roles and contributions of systemically oppressed people, especially those who once inhabited great civilizations and empires. While popular academic writings about the history of India often delve into the lives of Hindu and Muslim rulers, their battles and dynasties, Samos recognized a need to fill in the missing blanks. The rapper particularly alludes to the invisibility of caste when speaking of the Vedic age of ancient India, the recorded history of which often details the ceremonies, scriptures and hagiography of Brahmins, but not the “abominable lives of the oppressed castes.” With caste having been the bedrock of Indian society for centuries (although abolished by the Constitution, the practice of “untouchability” or India’s insidious caste system continues to influence and shape modern India), Samos turns to the writings and legacies of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule to construct a complete image of the times, while also tuning into a vibrant stream of anti-caste epistemology, that continues recall through the songs, books, leaflets, events and writings of contemporary and past activists.
“The history one is reminded of is one of humiliation, indignation and lowly existence. Identities are deeply connected with a sense of history, and I believe in the process of reconstruction of history and identity for the oppressed communities with their long lost civilizational aspects, icons and resistance movements. In this regard, on ‘Jaati,’ I refer to Machu Picchu and the Incas as an analogy to the lost thriving Buddhist culture and the present oppressed castes who were not invaded by caste back then,” says Samos. The anti-caste rapper adds, “I am very well aware of the fact that what I speak will not have popular reception — given the hostility it causes to the existing hegemonic knowledge of the Indian society and its higher caste upholders — but I believe I can at least influence the youth who are in the scope of my reach.”
Sumeet Samos has been a part of the music scene for almost two years now, dropping his debut single “Ladai Seekh Le” in 2018, wherein he narrates his own experience of caste discrimination, followed by “All You Know is Five Words” later that year, a song that sparked discourse for how it confronted the popular narrative surrounding merit, affirmative action and caste in India. The rapper has since put out a steady stream of hard-hitting tracks, speaking of localized histories and incidents, and cases that make national headlines, as well as the everyday violence that people from DBA (Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi) communities continue to face in the country.
A powerful DBA voice himself, Samos advocates for more DBA musicians to be spotlighted in India, recommending that listeners watch out for artists such as Tamil rapper Arivu aka Arivarasu Kalainesan, Ambedkari artist Kadubai Kharat and Odisha rapper Dule Rocker aka Duleswar Tandi. About what could help make the Indian music industry more inclusive, Samos says, “There are hundreds of DBA musicians and collectives across the country, but their cultural labor does not receive the required appreciation and payments. More DBA musicians and collectives should be promoted, given space in music festivals and sponsored, with media coverage starting from the local level.” The rapper also reveals that the independent music scene is a particularly difficult space for DBA musicians to pursue and thrive in. “It is not just a creative process, but also a means of livelihood and sustaining of families. Without regular income and investment, there is very little scope for them,” he says.
Samos’ purpose behind releasing “Jaati” was to create a shift in the conversations surrounding caste. “The moment you utter the word ‘caste,’ the immediate response would be quota, vote bank politics or a thing of the past,” says the rapper. Samos adds, “When I say ‘caste,’ I raise the question of land for Dalits, the disproportionate representation of higher castes across institutions, higher caste violence, resources for DBA communities, livelihood, education, etc. The mainstream hip-hop scene in India seems almost oblivious to this reality and yet they talk about transforming society.” Samos’ hope is that the Indian hip-hop scene, at large, continues to break ground while furthering the conversation against caste in India.
Next up, the artist has an English track in the mix. Inspired by American rapper Joyner Lucas’ landmark single “I’m Not Racist,” Samos describes the song as an ambitious project around caste. “It’s quite time-consuming, but I’m looking forward to it,” he says.