“Hip Hop has done more than any leader, politician or anyone to improve race relations.”- Jay Z
The genesis of Hip Hop in the west is attributed to racial discrimination and police brutality. Hip Hop artists such as Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five wrote songs about the atrocities committed against black individuals in the 1980s. The songs spoke about the continued discrimination on the basis of skin color leading to poverty, which unfortunately pushed black communities into violence and drug abuse. Hip Hop in the west was always the voice of dissent, the voice that spoke boldly against society and its hypocrisies. New York was the center of racial discrimination and police brutality towards the black community. Some of the stories in those early Hip Hop songs still hold true in current America, with frequent cases of police brutality targeted towards black civilians. After the death of George Floyd (Minneapolis resident and father) at the hands of police officers, American citizens took to the streets, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent riots in 2020.
In India, activism and dissent have always been part of music and musicians through centuries. Saints, authors and musicians have been at the forefront of activism using the arts as a medium. India’s freedom struggle poets are the doyens of Indian poetry, and voices against injustice. The pen has always been a weapon in India with innumerable poets weaving words and powerful lyrics to inspire people to join the freedom struggle.
Hence, it’s no surprise that the gullies of India brought forth a new sub-genre of Hip Hop, expressing the discrimination lower-income families face, both societal and internal. Rapping to express anger, disappointment and sadness is not limited to a particular language, making for a multi-lingual mix of talented activists spread across India. Today, there are Hip Hop activists that rap in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Kasheer or Kashmiri, Hindi, English, Bangla, Gujarati, Assamese, Urdu and more.
The Hip Hop revolution has given birth to a generation of rappers and musicians in India who write lyrics and weave poetry that serves as social critique, exposing injustices and raising awareness. Today’s 20-something Hip Hop artists are spitting words about various issues in India including reckless deforestation for urban development, atrocities against tribal communities, farmer protests, problematic government policies, caste discrimination, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, etc.
India’s Swadesi movement is as they say, and I quote, “a multilingual hip-hop movement that fuses rhythmic rap alongside Indian languages and tunes. We preach ‘Swadesi’ i.e. embracing all things Indian. Swadesi is a group of socially conscious rappers whose verses serve as a mirror to society. The multi-lingual crew believes in ‘music with a cause’ and go by a sound that is traditional yet global. With their unsparing lyrical content intertwined with folk and bass music, Swadesi has created a unique sound and brand of its own in the Indian music landscape.”
I had the opportunity to talk to one of the main rappers of the group, Aklesh Sutar, (MC Mawali) who is one of the co-founders of the Swadesi movement. MC Mawali grew up in Kolhapur in a rural village and has seen the displacement of tribes and the atrocities they face thereafter first hand. He later moved to Andheri, Mumbai, and went to a school where teachers didn’t know English. He started writing poems in Hindi and Marathi when he was in class VI and soon discovered the rapper in him when he was introduced to artists like Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-One, Rakim, Tupac Shakur and Guru Gang Starr.
When asked about the causes he stands for and raps about, MC Mawali says, “My focus is mainly on reckless deforestation and displacement of habitats and tribals. Maharashtra/Mumbai has three main tribes – Warli, Koli and Agri. I have worked closely with the Warli tribe and I have seen that no matter which government comes to power, they don’t care for these people and their lives.”
MC Mawali has been one of the most active protesters against the cutting of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey colony. But what about the argument on the other side? Deforestation on such a large scale come with severe ecological repercussions, however, some may argue that the construction of a metro in exchange helps ease environmental issues that come with a city as congested as Mumbai, making it a crucial move towards development.“Yes, it is crucial,” he says. “I have nothing against the metro. My only point is why are metros being constructed at the cost of trees? Is there really no other way to make metros? Now that a lot of trees have already been cut, the government has put concrete in that area depleting the soil, making it useless for planting trees even. When you cut so many trees together, you are killing natural habitats of animals and birds like owls, peacocks, hummingbirds, snakes. In recent years, we have also endangered the habitats of leopards in Mumbai. And planting trees elsewhere is not the solution. Trees take years to grow, we need them now, not 20 years from now.”
Another Swadesi movement Hip Hop artist is Saurabh Abhyankar AKA 100RBH. Coming from a humble Maharashtrian family, Saurabh grew up in Amravati, Maharashtra. He raps about the problems of Marathi people and mentions Amravati quite a bit in his lyrics. He grew up listening to the words of the legendary Babasaheb Ambedkar and the teachings of Buddha. Saurabh discovered through the course of time that he could rap and he began rapping about daily life and the various issues residents of Amravati face.
Dharmesh Parmar AKA MC Tod Fod is a Hindi, Gujarati activist Hip Hop artist also belonging to Swadesi movement. Tod Fod and Mawali pretty much grew up together, and would hang out in the forests of Aarey, talk about Indian history and get inspired by stories of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad and Rajeev Dixit. During his teenage years, Tod Fod started to involve himself in political morchas and rallies. At that point he didn’t care about politics but only went because he was paid Rs 100 and got a free lunch. But today, Tod Fod stands rock solid in the fight against cutting of Aarey trees. He says, “Aarey is like home to us. It’s very personal. We have been hanging there for years now. There are animals and tribal people there. It’s their home too. How can you just displace them without even making a different arrangement for them? When we go there and perform for the villagers, it makes them think, motivates them to stand up for what is right.”
Well, with Indian Hip Hop rising from the slums and the most unexpected streets, it seems like it’s time for a revolution soon. While so many Hip Hop artists making their way into political rallies, taking a keen interest in politics and development of the country, fearlessly voicing their opinion to empower people, the future of Hip Hop and activism seems to be in good hands.