How rap became a powerful form of protest in India

Krishna – who himself rapped in the 2018 follow-up video Kodaikanal Still Won’t – says that rap works as protest because “it is direct and in your face, it demands attention and dares the listener to ignore it. Rap artists deliberately use language that makes the listener uncomfortable, because the idea is to ask uncomfortable questions.” Krishna adds that such artists are talking to multiple audiences: coaxing their peers to step up and speak up; telling elders in their community that it is time to stop mutely enduring injustice; and challenging larger institutions, including the upper class and the government.
A watershed moment?
Indian protest rap arguably came of age in the wake of the anti CAA and NCR movement in late 2019. Talking about why he dropped Sanda Seivom in support of the protests, Arivu says: “They [the government] are trying to divide us on the basis of language and religion, and I won’t take it.” Sumangala Damodaran, professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and an accomplished musician, who took part in the CAA protests herself, describes rap as speaking truth to power. She says that it allows the artists to use their voice and their body to connect instantly and directly with their audiences. “It is all the more powerful because much of it comes from personal experience,” she explains.
Eventually, the pandemic put an abrupt end to these protests, and temporarily paused the CAA narrative. But then came the tidal wave of the farmers’ protest, in which many thousands marched in opposition to agricultural reforms, which again played out on the open streets of Delhi in the bitter winter months of 2020.
Kolkata Rapper EPR Iyer’s Ekla Cholo Re, released earlier that year in solidarity with struggling farmers, gained more attention during the protest. He calls himself the “newspaper rapper”, because he uses his music to become the voice of the voiceless. “We are part of the system that we keep complaining about, so what can we do about it? My way is to speak up for people’s rights through rap,” he tells BBC Culture. Arivu adds that rap allows him to talk about things that affect both him personally – such as the way upper castes treat lower castes – and the people around him – such as the way he says CAA discriminates against Indian Muslims.
Protest rap has also been so popular in India because most of the artists have chosen to rap in their own regional languages – whether Tamil or Punjabi or Assamese. This not only allows them to express themselves fluently but also connect better with their peers in the hinterlands. (One of the notable exceptions is MC Kash, who used English to make audiences outside India aware of the situation in Kashmir). It is also interesting that these young rappers have drawn from the traditional music forms of their own region or community. Krishna says that there is no single uniform rap style in India. “For instance, Tamil rap has its own characteristics, it derives from local koothu and gaana tradition. These rappers are not just copying African-American rap, but are making it their own,” he says.
India’s young rappers are taking on society’s Goliaths through their music. And they say they have nothing to fear. As Arivu puts it, “Privileged people may not understand this, but for millions of people, our daily life itself is a struggle. If rap lets me talk about this struggle, then why should I be afraid of anything?”
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