Change has been the only constant for a country like India. With an economy of 1.6 billion people, immense cultural diversity, and swells in the social, economic, and political systems, many voices have, and continue to speak up – braving their way to the forefront of Indian Protest Music.
For many, music has always been a portrayal of raw emotions, often used to express a state of mind, or to be vocal during a situation of deep unrest. Protests have been organized and carried out, whether to address the historically infamous corruption within India’s political system, all the way to standing up against ecological devastation.
In more recent times, we’ve witnessed a staggering volume of protest music begin to surface, owing to the changes within India’s ruling government. The use of music as a medium has not only served as amplification for existing protests, but it has also unified multiple voices to rally for the same causes. Using rhythm to chant slogans, or even songs to combine efforts is a facet of music that has been recorded in historical counts, the world over. Speaking to Outlook India, emcee and social activist Delhi Sultanate said, “Music is a quintessential part of all many fundamental aspects of human life, and protest is no different. You will find that most protest movements and revolutionary movements have songs and their importance should not be underestimated. Music can effectively communicate feelings and forge a sense of unity, it can also galvanize people into action.”
In no particular order, we’ve put together a list of songs by Indian artists that have gained mass appeal owing to the various themes they explore in their music. These are voices that deserve to be heard, and felt, for miles from their epicenter. We’ve included a variety of genres, coming from artists based in different parts of India – light unlit flames, further shedding light on the multitude of protests and social movements that continue to take place within this South Asian country.
Zor – Ahmer x Delhi Sultanate
Genre: Hip Hop
Kashmir’s finest, Ahmer Javed, embodies the resilience of the Kashmiri community with this scorching new single. Zor released in June 2020, and is a self-produced record featuring veteran MC Delhi Sultanate. Drawing attention to the state’s violent dismantling of the resistance and the anti-CAA protests that took place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Zor doesn’t shy away from delivering a much needed, albeit scathing, reminder of the unfortunate state of affairs in Javed’s hometown.
Communal Politics – Kaali Duniya
Genre: Drum n Bass
The title of this single says it all. DnB producer, Kaali Duniya, explains the motive behind Communal Politics. “The song is based on communal politics which isn’t a new concept here. This has been going on for too many years! Dividing people on the basis of caste and religion, this is a kind of politics that has been going on for ages. Some people have developed a negative mindset about our Muslim brothers and sisters. They face a lot of discrimination not only in India but in other countries as well. That is because the mainstream media and IT cells portray Muslims in such a way that it has created this perspective against them. If any one Muslim does something wrong, then they show us as if the whole community is doing something wrong.”, he said. The music video for Communal Politics also boasts searing visuals consisting of some of the most infamous moments in history with regards to communal violence in India.
Scalp Dem – Delhi Sultanate x Seedhe Maut
Genre: Hip Hop
Released under independent label Azadi Records, this unsparing single was uploaded with this message:
“A majoritarian mandate does not give any state, especially one founded on democratic and secular principles, the right to suppress dissent. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the current government shed its facade of developmental politics and resort to communal and authoritarian policies – demonizing any community that dared to raise its voice in protest. That stops now.”
Having been taken off YouTube multiple times, Scalp Dem is a lyrical assault, boasting supremely skilled Delhi Sultanate’s and New Delhi hip hop duo, Seedhe Maut’s lion-hearted thematic approach.
Lullaby – Imphal Talkies
Genre: Folk/Alt Rock
This 2013 single was released by Manipur-based folk-rock band, Imphal Talkies. Lullaby starts off with an uplifting guitar riff, paired with footage of children playing in a grassy park. However, the song is much more than, and quite possibly far from, what its name suggests. Lullaby talks about the devastating lives of children growing up in war-ridden areas – with themes ranging from the loss of their childhood and childlike innocence to their struggle with access to education. The music video hits hard, with the chorus sung by children in Meiteilon, spoken by the Meitei community of Manipur. Much of the impact in the song lies in the chorus, and contemplates the negative effects of war on children and subsequently the youth of such nations.
The ‘Swadesi Movement’
Genre: Hip hop
This Mumbai-based hip hop collective consists of poets, rappers and producers that have quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with within India’s ever-growing independent music industry. Swadesi are best-known for basing their music around issues of social and ecological injustice. With bars of steel and serves that heal, Swadesi quickly found themselves becoming one of the few prevalent voices of socially-conscious hip hop in India. Their anthem-worthy single, The Warli Revolt, became a rallying cry for the protestors at the infamous Save Aarey Movement in Mumbai, proving to be a career-defining moment for the crew. They furthered their stand against this ecological issue by actively participating in multiple protests aimed towards protecting the thousands of trees to be cut down, allegedly in the name of development.
Staying true to their socially-conscious path, their February 2020 album, Chetavni, featured a tracklist of powerful, well-rounded songs that each took on its own socio-ecological theme. One such track from Chetavni is Kranti Havi – which translates to English as “we need revolution”. Kranti Havi features Delhi Sultanate, and the music video was shot amidst the anti-CAA protests that took place in Mumbai during the month of February 2020.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised But It Will Be Heard – Heathen Beast
Genre: Extreme Metal
2nd full length album from Kolkata-based extreme metal band, Heathen Beast, holds back no punches. This honest 12-track album is very literal and to-the-point in its approach towards everything the band sees wrong with the system. ‘F**k’ is a standard prefix in all song titles on this release. Coming from one of the more extreme genres in music, it is one for fans of punk or heavy metal. With many videos being taken down by YouTube for the violent footage used to compile them, nothing stops the band from putting their message across. Here’s an example of a song and video from their EP that has managed to stay uploaded.
‘Krantikari’ – Park Circus
Genre: Hip hop / Funk
The 3-piece band from Kolkata draws influences from hip hop and funk to make some tasty music. In an article about dissent in The Hindu, rapper BC Azad said, “For six years, I’ve been watching the world go crazy. At the moment, there’s a battle for the consciousness of India, where idealism seems to be lost to our generation. But a lot of people have begun to question their status quo. I wrote this song so that people could step out and reclaim their country.”
In every democracy, exercises that arguably border on dissent have always been questioned, if not directly laid to rest, by authorities in power. While there may always continue to be discrepancies with regards to social, political and ecological sectors, there will also be an equally powerful, united stand, consisting of new and seasoned voices within India’s independent music industry. Music has always healed, hurt, questioned and even devastated mindsets – shattering the metaphoric glass ceiling. Here’s hoping that never stops. Here’s to every artist out there pouring their hearts, souls, beliefs and questions into music. If there’s one thing we know, it’s this – Music is a universal language. Music unites. What a time to be alive!
Feature image via Swadesi’s video for song Kranti Havi shot at the Anti-CAA protests in Mumbai, January 2020