The Rolling Stone Interview: DIVINE
India’s biggest hip-hopper’s rise from an artist to an entrepreneur is a story of audacity, hope and hard work
As music journalists in India, we are just not used to telling stories of incredible successes; we are more than grateful when some of our favorite acts finally release a well-produced EP or make an average effort to curate an audience online. If they amass millions of fans or chase their dream armed with a publicist, a stylist, a digital agency and a sponsor, we are quick to dismiss them as sellouts. God forbid if they start playing stadium-level shows or herald a pop-culture revolution – in that case we often love to write their music off as too mass-y or mainstream. Perhaps, we the critics haven’t trained ourselves to witness greatness.
And then comes along an artist like Vivian Fernandes, better known as DIVINE, who can do without a real introduction really. To call him an overnight success, which neo enthusiasts of hip-hop often label him, is a humongous disservice to the Mumbai rapper’s arduous path to excellence in the past decade. There’s the unmistakable bravado – on the opening track of his new album Punya Paap, he sings “jwala laya main game mein/dollar laya main game mein (I started the fire/I brought home the dollars)” – but stripped of his on-stage and in-studio armor, you’d rarely find him celebrating his laurels. “It’s not just me — it’s the whole movement that’s making noise,” says the 30-year-old rapper.
DIVINE has taken the wildest risks and made the wisest investments lately. Both as an artist and a businessperson. I remind him of the many meteoric milestones he’s claimed in the past two years: two commercially successful full-length albums, a record deal/alliance/collaboration with his hip-hop idol Nas and a billboard splashing his face at Times Square. Oh, and making it to the cover of Rolling Stone India for the third time. “Oh yeah! This is the third time! I was with Naezy once (in 2019), and in the first one (in 2016) I was with Tony (Stony Psyko), Bob (Omulo), Ace and Naezy,” he says, still as thrilled as he was four years ago, posing for the cover with his homies. “I am very happy because this is for hip-hop; this is for the whole scene. Indian hip-hop has been at the top for two-three years now. I am one of the guys who’s blessed and lucky to be on the cover for the third time. A big shoutout to everyone in the hip-hop movement.”
Till early 2019, all the career highlights above were still a dream. In February of that year, DIVINE had traveled to the Apple Music Beats1 Studio in Los Angeles to be the first-ever Indian guest of master presenter Ebro Darden on his hip-hop show. During the lunch break, DIVINE, a colleague and this writer had driven down the city and decided to take a ride on the Ferris wheel at the famous Santa Monica Pier. It was an exceptionally windy afternoon while walking down that wooden pier, the wind almost stealing his snapback, Divine shared with us some of his biggest goals. What he said, in a nutshell, was, “Jwalamukhi explode hone wala hai! (A volcano is about to erupt!)”
You have become the de facto representative of Indian hip-hop. Is there more pressure and responsibility now than before?
No, I am having fun! There is no pressure because I don’t think it’s only me now. There’s noise coming from the South, North, East and West. So it feels very natural and real. I was always waiting for this day, and it’s happening.
In the last four years, you’ve had milestones that have been incredible and also very high-level, high-impact. There’s been commercial success and also artistic excellence and the love of fans. When you look back, what do you see?
I think if you work on your craft properly, things start falling in place. I have a very good team that backs me up. Also, our listeners are growing. I think the listeners are making this movement bigger. The greater the listeners the bigger the movement. And it’s grown to an extent that I never imagined. I feel it can get even bigger and we can give Bollywood a run for its money!
With the new company and the label, you are now moving from being an artist to being a creative entrepreneur. Do you think so?
I think I am a guy who has always been calm and collected. And that’s a side of me that I always wanted to explore more — I always wanted to work on a label, I always wanted to do merch and I am working on a bunch of stuff that is not related to hip-hop. So that’s just in me. It’s also got to do with what people around me — my peers — pushed me to do. If you want to become something, I think you should always need four to five things to do at any given time.
How important was it to have your dream team together early on so that you could focus on the creative things and everyone takes care of everything else?
It is very important for every artist to have a good team. It’s very necessary. You can’t do this alone. I don’t think any artist has done it alone. Everyone who has done something for the scene or is doing something for the scene always has a good team. I have been lucky because all of my friends have supported me right from the start, so they know exactly what I want, and I hang out with them as friends more than as just work colleagues. I think it falls very naturally.
In “Top 5 D.O.A.” you are acknowledging the fact that you have come so far. There’s this line: “Sapna tha sapna/Aur abhi bhi sapne mein chal rahe apan. (It was a dream once upon a time/And it still feels like a dream).” Tell me about that dream…
I have never thought that I am the biggest hip-hop artist in the country. I think that we should be the biggest movement of hip-hop in the world and that’s why I say those things — because it’s still a dream, and I’m still dreaming [about the movement]. This album has received a lot of love. My first album Kohinoor did too but this one has got me to the next level. I feel like the production has gone up. The fans have gone up also. I have received messages from many people who are really talented and they have told me the album is good. So it feels very good!
I am very curious to ask — in your artistic history, sabse bada punya aur sabse bada paap kya tha? (What have been your biggest virtues and vices as an artist)?
I think everything was balanced. That’s why I named the album Punya Paap, because everything has always been in balance for me. I always kept my head high and never gave up.
Oh, okay! Vivian, do you remember the first time that you heard, maybe in your childhood, the specific sound that hooked you? Maybe a particular song or something that really kind of pushed that button for you, telling you ‘This is what I want to do.’ Do you have any memory of that time?
You know, “Juicy” (The Notorious B.I.G) is one of the songs that really drives me, and I love that. That song is one that I really relate to because he is telling a story in it, he is talking about his life. And I was really into it. And that was one song that made me always want to make a song like that, but it never happened. Maybe I can never make “Juicy” but I made “3.59 AM.”
Yeah, course! And how were you when you knew that it was going to hip-hop, nothing else…
This was when I was 17. This was when we would be waiting outside college and doing cyphers!
When you started the cyphers, you needed people who believed in you too. Did you find a lot of people who saw in the scene what you saw?
You know, they kept saying it. And I think that that thing drove me a lot. And we wanted to get it [started] and do something about it [the scene]. So I think it was not just me — I think the whole movement made noise together. That’s what it was!
Who were your close pals then?
My friend JD (Joel D’Souza) was with me all the time. And then there was Encore and D’EVIL. D’EVIL has been my friend since 12 years. My friends and I used to be big fans of Eminem. So he used to give me stuff by Eminem I used to give him my music – we exchanged music a lot.
And living in Bombay, in your neighborhood, do you think you got to experience certain things at a very young age?
Yeah, because all my friends were older. I was hanging out with friends who were 10 years older than me. So that’s what I think made me say a lot of things and do a lot of things that I shouldn’t have. But I think it’s only working in my favor now.
Are there things and memories that you ever look back on and want to erase?
Oh, I don’t want to erase anything. I think I lived my life to the fullest, and I have no regrets.
And now in your neighborhood — how much has changed in the past 10 years?
I don’t hang in my neighborhood because I get mobbed there. You know, everybody knows me there. But from what I know — it’s good now.
It’s not like how it was before because the generation has changed. Everything has changed. It’s much more cleaner. Back then what used to happen is that people used to smoke, sell drugs all, but it’s not happening anymore. I don’t think that those things are happening.
Vivian, the one thing that has kept you in good stead is that you always kept doing your thing. You have always been a doer. Where do you get that ethic?
I think it’s just by staying alone. My work ethic is mainly that I don’t try to force myself, like I’ve been free for the past few months. But now when I’ll go back [to Bombay], I know that in the next few months, I’ll make music. But this time, I’m going to take it easy. Like I’m going to make an album again. I’m very sure that I want to make an album. And yeah, I’m going to take my time. I’m going to travel. I’m going to Dubai, to New York in the next two, three weeks. So let’s see if I want to make some songs there. If I don’t feel like it then I’ll come back home and make some music.
Lovely! Speaking of New York, how was that feeling being on a Times Square billboard
Time Square! Yeah, it’s a great feeling. It’s the biggest achievement I have.
Wow! How did the family and friends react?
Oh! my mom forwarded that picture to everyone.
Beautiful. How does she feel about your success?
She won’t tell me because she knows that I won’t have a reaction. But I know she’s very happy.
What are the expectations that she has from you at this point in time? Is there anything she wants you to do?
Oh, she wants me to start two more businesses!
That’s a great, entrepreneurial mother. Amazing!
She always tells me, ‘You have to find three-four different ways to make money.’
And you already are in that direction, right, with everything you have done so far…
Yeah, I think I’ve done it. See, she thinks that that’s the safest way to do it. I too think you cannot make money one way alone.
And does it mean that while are being an artist, you also have to nourish an entrepreneurial, business side too?
I have friends in my circle who are very business-minded like Chaitanya (Kataria, co-founder, Gully Gang Entertainment) is my manager and heads the business. For us, it is always about making new moves and making room for others to come in. So we’ve always been like that. Concentrating on music is my part of the job!
Right! In terms of songs and projects, what is coming up in the next few months?
Oh, we have two big collabs coming in the next two months. I can’t name the artists but these guys are my favorites.
These are global collabs?
One is global, the other is one from the country.
Do you think that at this point, when you have received so much success and so much love, that you are also misunderstood?
I don’t expect that everybody will love me, love my music or love the movement. But you know — I get a lot of love. And I’m happy with it. I can’t please everyone. So I keep doing my thing. And I know that there will always be a criticism against my music and against my lifestyle. But that’s all okay; it comes with a price and I’m ready for it.
Have you seen that kind of criticism a lot lately because there are these big symbols of success — whether it’s the car, the Times Square billboard…
I’ve seen some big journalists write about me, like, you know, they try to troll me and get a reaction from me. I won’t drop names, but these are very old journalists from the music scene. And I’m like, okay, it’s cool that they’re watching me. That’s the best, right?
Well, your work is getting noticed…
Yeah, it’s necessary, I feel.
When people criticize you as an artist and the art that you put out sincerely, does it ever prick and hurt somewhere?
No. I know as a fan of music that even I don’t like all kinds of music. So it’s fine if some people don’t like my music… I’m just looking forward to the next generation — I think it’s time for them to bring a new sound and I think it will happen.
Where do you think the movement is going? Is there a pattern you have noticed in the way things pan out?
The quality is increasing. I’m amazed by the kind of songs that are coming out. The masters are sounding well, and the videos are coming out nice. It’s all going in the right direction.
And a lot has to do with artists choosing the right producers?
Also, they are investing in music now — that’s what was very important and now it is happening.
Who are the budding rappers you are digging a lot?
I think MC Altaf is very promising. Though he’s from my camp, I still am a fan of his. Sammohit is another artist who I really like.
There’s still not enough women in the music scene, not many female voices in hip-hop? Does that bother you?
So we always have this discussion in my team, that there are very few women MCs. I think it is because most of them perhaps succumb to parental pressure and choose paths that their parents have chosen for them. And this art form is not as popular as it seems to be. During Gully Boy, it seemed to be going upwards, but you must have seen that after Gully Boy, it’s only been a handful of people who are really making money and really making something out of this art form. I think that’s why it’s so difficult for budding artists.
So apart from the glory and the success, the change in mindset is yet to happen, right?
Only when the mindset changes will we be able to do something, especially when it comes to women artists. I think only Dee MC (Deepa Unnikrishnan) and a few others are really putting in the work right now.
It is also because music doesn’t guarantee an income. We need to find incentives for people to create and money is a great incentive…
That’s the most important thing right? It’s very important for you to get money out of your art form. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense at home. I hope it makes sense outside but it doesn’t make sense at home – if you can’t run a home.
Do you think there are certain expectations that other artists have from you? Do you have people reaching out to you for help or support a lot?
So, this is something that I’ve always tried to do — whoever I can help whenever I can. We made Gully Gang Records for this. We have a roster of like eight guys who’ve been with us, and we’ve been helping them shape their music, their branding, you know. Whatever we can do, we are doing. But you also know that me being an artist still and me being at just the tip of my career, I have to concentrate on my own self also. So I always have to balance it out. It’s been a tough time, but I’m still managing.
And what about the other side, you know, as a son, as a brother, as somebody who’s got a family to focus on. How do you balance expectations and responsibilities on that front?
Oh, I think I have never been a clingy family person. I’ve always been outside, I always lived alone, so that part hasn’t always been like, you know, bothered me. I’ve always been independent. And I’m still independent. And I think that that’s why it’s really easy for me to get into my music zone. And there’s no pressure for from my mom. My mother’s chill and my brother’s chill. Oh, and my friends — my friends are always with me. So it’s always been fun for me.
Yeah, quite a blessing!
It is a blessing.
And with all of these global milestones, you think that your creative playground is now more global, more crossover?
It is slowly growing, like the collabs are coming in. There’s Mass Appeal that is coming from outside and there are so many labels who are pumping money into the scene. But the thing is, like, we need artists also to work like that and make bigger songs. And then there’s more room for money to come in. I talk about money all the time because, without money, we cannot do anything.
For sure! Around two-three years ago, there was a lot of brand interest. They all wanted hip-hop anthems and promos, and whatnot! That trend has subsided now, right?
Yeah, now they’re switching to whatever’s hot. These guys always do that. When hip-hop is hot, they will go to them, when electronic music is hot, they will go to them — they’re just going to ride the train. That’s why you have to be consistent as an artist; you have to keep doing your thing.
Are you prepared for a time where people might not care for hip-hop as much as they do now? Would your commitment still stay the same?
I will always be on my A-game, and I think that it won’t go down. There’s no way it’s going down. It will be a slow process going upwards but it won’t go down!
The past year might have been a big blow to the industry but what are your hopes from 2021? As a scenester, do you feel a sense of uncertainty or positivity?
I think it’s slowly falling in place. I have two shows this month; I think this COVID situation should clear and then everything will fall in place.
What are your biggest dreams right now?
I think I am living my dream, so that’s really big for me. I am very thankful and I am very blessed!
What do you want to tell the young folks who want to make a career in hip-hop?
For the young budding artists or guys who are established and still trying to achieve something, just keep trying and keep doing. That’s the only way to do it. Karte raho! (Keep working!).
Right! What is the legacy that you want to leave behind? Say 10-15 years down the line, what would you like to look back on?
I just want to keep this hip-hop thing in India forever. Yeah, that’s what I want to do.
More power to you!
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India
Fashion Assistant: Foram Kubadia
Hair and Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine India
Wardrobe Courtesy: Budweiser Gully Gang Collection