Rap Nadu: How Dravidian hip-hop arrived to pack a punch

Flood and fury: Kochi-based Fejo aka Febin Joseph raps about the climate crisis as well as being given a chance to be a Malayali rapper. - Fejo

Thanks to Gully Boy, the Hindi heartland may have woken up to the raw energy of rap only now. Down south, a slew of rappers have long been using their music to register pride in their language and identity, and define their politics of resistance

“Andariki namaskaram andi (namaste to all). I am a Telugu rapper. I didn’t come here to say ‘yo yo’. I came here to make you listen to kavitvam (poetry) in pure Telugu,” Pranav Chaganty intones, in chaste Telugu, to an audience largely attired in prim Kanjivaram silk sarees and dhotis. In the recording available on YouTube, from a 2017 cine award event in Hyderabad, Chaganty in his regulation hip-hop wear — low-slung jeans, sweatshirt, baseball cap, dark shades — does appear rather out of place. But when he gets started, to the thrumming of a solo ghatam, the audience begins to lean in:

Theyne kanna Theeyanaina Telugu Bhasha Palukutunna

Nalona abhayavala lona thrupti kalugutunna

(Sweeter than honey is Telugu, merely speaking it is deeply satisfying for me)

Modern poet: Pranav Chaganty channels his anger and Telugu literature to make his point. - Pranav Chaganty

 

These are the opening lines of Telugu Veera, his rap song on the poetic beauty of his mother tongue and its literature. He goes on to admire its speakers who put aside their language in order to learn new languages to fit in, despite becoming the butt of jokes for their imperfect pronunciation.

Chirunavvugaa thana baadhanu maarche vaade Telugu vaadu (A true Telugu is one who can smile away such humiliation).

The country’s Hindi heartland recently woke up to the raw emotion and irrepressible energy of rap, following the runaway success of the Bollywood film Gully Boy. But in South India, young rappers have for a while now used this music genre to reaffirm frayed identities, take pride in their mother tongue, and define their struggle for social and political change. The hyper-local versions of hip-hop also made their mark in regional cinema music. They have nimbly re-purposed the Dravidian cadences of Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu to blend with the rhythm and style of global hip-hop. And in this they have found inspiration from American rap greats Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and 2Pac — sharpening deeply personal stories into weapons of survival and resistance.

Telugu for better or verse

“I feel that Telugu people lack unity today. We have no collective pride. It is almost as if the world didn’t know we existed until [blockbuster movie] Bahubali was released,” Pranav Chaganty, 29, says over the phone from Hyderabad.

Contending that local rappers are not mindlessly aping the Western genre, he points out that classical Telugu excelled in the verse form. The vachana kavitvam (rhythmic prose) is to Telugu classical literature what spoken word is to rap, he says. “Krishna and Arjuna [in the Mahabharata] conversed in spoken word. Some of the oldest rap battles can be found in our scriptures,” he quips.

Classical Telugu poetry has wordplay that can sound like the running of horses on a battlefield or the pitter-patter of pouring rain, he says, adding that he wants to recreate all of this through modern-day rap.

Growing up in Hyderabad, Chaganty devoured Telugu literature. After a degree in civil engineering, he joined the merchant navy and spent long days at sea with no one to speak to in Telugu and constantly ridiculed by his North Indian colleagues for his poor Hindi. He found himself gradually turning into a passionate language warrior.

A fan of Eminem from his teenage years, he picked rap as his mode of expression. To bolster his prowess with Telugu, he looked to the modern Telugu poets, lyricists and writers such as Sirivennala Seetharama Sastry, C Narayana Reddy and Srirangam Srinivasa Rao, popularly known as Sri Sri.

One of the first rap lyrics he wrote was Nirbhaya nyayam (justice), an “emotional outburst” sparked by the horrific gang-rape and death of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in 2012.

Emotion and aggression are the two important elements in rap, he says. “I was always emotional even as a child, and speaking aggressively became a natural instinct. Society never stops giving me enough content to rage about.” Needhi ye kulam (What’s your caste?) is another of his songs that explores Indian society’s obsession with caste.

It’s not all serious, though. His other songs such as Panipuri Song and Hyderabadi Chai Anthem are lighthearted takes on the various facets of Hyderabadi culture. He also rapped for the Telugu version of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth’s film Kaala, besides singing for other Telugu films, which increasingly feature hip-hop and rap numbers.

The desi hip-hop journey

In 1994, when Chennai-based singer Suresh Peters rapped for the song Pettai rap (Patti rap in Hindi) for the Tamil movie Kadhalan (Hum Se Hai Muqabla in Hindi), music director AR Rahman was experimenting with mixing Tamizh folk with hip-hop beats.

A music genre that emerged from the Bronx area of New York City, hip-hop was pioneered by African-Americans and Latino Americans. Its distinctive stylised rhythmic music is usually accompanied by a rhyming and rhythmic speech that’s known as rapping.

American rappers of the early 1990s such as Notorious BIG, 2Pac or Snoop Dogg didn’t make much of a mark in India. But thanks to greater exposure through MTV and the use of internet to download lyrics, a rapper such as Eminem became hugely popular here when he arrived in 1999 with Slim Shady.

It was around this time that Yogeswaran Veerasingam, more famous as Yogi B, arrived on Malaysia’s hip-hop scene to create the early sounds of Tamizh rap and hip-hop. After years of doing English hip-hop with a band called Poetic Ammo in Kuala Lumpur, in 2007 he produced and released the Tamil hip-hop album Vallavan (The champion). The track Madai Thiranthu, a remix of an Ilayaraja song from the 1980 film Nizhalgal, became viral almost overnight, captivating the Tamil diaspora everywhere from Sri Lanka and Malaysia to Canada and America.

Champion: Yogi B aka Yogeswaran Veerasingam took Tamizh rap to Malaysia’s hip-hop scene. - Yogi B

 

“YouTube was the huge giant that propelled us to the Tamil diaspora,” says Yogi on a WhatsApp call from Kuala Lumpur. “We really understood the culture. We put all our life stories into the album. The proper fusing of that with hip-hop really filled a void for the listeners.” Yogi, now 45, is a music producer who supports young artistes. He has had many stints in Tamil cinema, especially with Rahman, and will soon be out with his next album, Manthrahood.

In the wake of the ‘Yogi Wave’, as the Chennai-based music producer Rohith Abraham (aka OfRo) puts it, Chennai began buzzing with experimental bands and collectives such as Hip Hop Tamizha, MC Valluvar, Madurai Soljours and Elevated pride (who combine rap with skateboarding and graffiti painting). The internet is typically where they hit the big time — one of Hip Hop Tamizha’s videos, Takkaru Takkaru, has crossed 16 million views, while the song Vaadi pulla vaadi they wrote, composed and performed for the film Meesaya Murukku, fetched 67 million views.

Spoken words with Bharathiar

Growing up in Arakonam, 70 km from Chennai, Arivarasu Kalainesan had a strange habit of keeping a written list of things that disturbed him. The entries ranged from identity and caste discriminations to Aadhaar, NEET exams and Sterlite protests. The list expanded each time he had conversations with his grandfather, who grew up in Vellore, also near Chennai.

Arivu aka Arivarasu Kalainesan wants to voice the commoner’s story. - Arivu

 

“I once made it a point to drive my car down a street where my grandfather wasn’t allowed to set foot because of his caste,” says the 25-year-old Kalainesan. With both his parents being teachers, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s teachings were passed down to him almost as a vaccine to protect against the injustices of the outside world. His family never owned a television set or subscribed to English magazines. Devoid of modern western cultural influences, he grew up to believe that Tamil books were the gateways to different worlds. He could recite the Tamil greats Bharathiar, Thiruvalluvar and Periyar from memory. But there was always a niggling question: Where were the stories of the commoners from ancient times and what they had to endure?

In 2017, after passing out of his engineering college in Coimbatore, he auditioned for Casteless Collective, a Tamil Dalit-Ambedkarite music band, and became its lyricist. He performed too — poetry that chimed with eight-bar beats. They told him it was called ‘rap’. He found himself a shorter name — Arivu, meaning wisdom/ sense. His is a clean slate, with no hip-hop cultural influences. And that’s what makes him special, agrees Yogi B. One of Arivu’s earliest influences in rap, interestingly, were the sermons from Tamil pastors.In March 2018, music producer OfRo teamed up with Arivu to produce an album called Therukural (Thirukkural — classic Tamil couplets — from the theru or streets).

The six politically charged tracks were written and performed by Arivu. OfRo brought in his knowledge of hip-hop. Decisions such as when to rage and where to sing are crucial, OfRo says.Arivu’s ‘the anti-Indian song’, released a year ago, shows him rapping in a room lit by a red bulb and with a large Kendrick Lamar poster in the background. Arivu lets loose in a tight camera frame he shares with Lamar, and their resemblance is striking.

Yenna naan unnakku anti Indianna? (What? Are you calling me an anti-Indian?)

Varalarengum un settai

Veriyode kondrai bali aatai

Ondra iruppadhey yen aasai

Ondrathirukavey un poosai

Yennai mozhiyaal madhathaal

Inathaal Pirappal Arivaalaal Kodunkolaal…

(History is full of your deceit

You turned me into a sacrifice

You wish to keep us divided

Dividing us by language, religion, race, birth

Dividing us with education, with imaginary lines, with skin colour)

“We always try to oppress someone in the name of identity. We live like we accept these discriminations. We act like we have no voice. I wanted to shout it out loud,” he says.

At Madras Medai, the annual Tamil indie music festival held in Chennai, Arivu stopped his rap midway to say, “It doesn’t matter if we’re Malayalis or Tamils. We’re all humans. Humanity is the only binding force between us.” The audience thundered with applause.Snowlin is written from the point of view of the 17-year-old girl who was killed along with her sister Aasifa in the police firing that claimed 13 lives during the May 2018 public protest against the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi. Written as a letter from Snowlin, the song mourns the death of someone who spoke up for the people. Arivu compares his songwriting with making a fact-based documentary. Being a newsbuff helps too.

    In Mumbai, the Dharavi-based hip-hop band Dopeadelicz combines Marathi, Tamil, English and Hindi to talk, with equal ease, about legalising marijuana, escaping the Mumbai police and the greatness of the Tamil nationalist poet Bharathiar. When Tony Sebastian, one of the band members, got caught by Mumbai police for smoking marijuana, he began to rap his life story. So impressed were the cops with his talent that they let him off. The band’s latest track, Aai Shapat Saheb Me Navtho (Mother promise, sir, it wasn’t me), based on these experience, got 1.4 million YouTube views within a month.

    Andhra Pradesh and Telangana rappers such as Om Sripathi, MC Mike, Sunny and Uneek got together in 2016 to create Jimpak Chipak, a Telugu-English rap song about Hyderabadi lingo and culture. It became the city’s anthem overnight, thanks to the video’s signature dance steps inspired by the local ‘marfaa’ and ‘teen-maar’ dance moves (capturing 32 million-plus views on YouTube). Roll Rida’s Hyerabadi rap Patangfollows a kite through the gullies of the old city, garnering over 24 million online views. In Karnataka, Brodha V found fame for his remixes of popular shlokas such as Aigiri Nandini in rap mode.

    In Kerala, Kochi-based Febin Joseph (aka Fejo) started out by creating Malayalam remixes of popular English and Hindi hip-hop numbers such as Honey Singh’s Desi Kalakaar and Post Malone’s Rockstar. His family and listeners routinely castigated him for not aspiring to become “at least someone like [playback singer] Yesudas”. He recently rapped about the Kerala floods and climate change. Kannur-based Rameez Mustafa raps about the political murders in the district that have claimed many young lives.

    In the West, and even in the film Gully Boy set in Mumbai, rap is largely projected as an art form originating from ghettos and slums, inflected by the ruggedness of growing up on these mean streets. This is not always the case in South Indian rap. Many of the artistes belong to middle and upper classes, rapping not only about daily struggles, poverty or strife but also culture, identity and personal dreams. “There is such a thing as privileged hip-hop. But one can’t say it’s not authentic if it’s not from the ghettos,” says the Chennai-based OfRo, pointing out that all kinds of life stories deserve representation.

     

    Girls just wanna hip-hop

    Kalaivani Nagaraj goes by the name Lady Kash. Earlier shuttling between Thanjavur and Singapore, she has been rapping in Tamil-English for over a decade. “It still feels like a lonely place for a female rapper, to be very honest. You’re going to need to have that deep passion and love for what you do, as a female in this game,” she says in an email interview to BLink.

    Woman power: Lady Kash aka Kalaivani Nagaraj is one of the few female rappers on the scene. - Akashik

     

    Recalling the times she walked into studios only to be met with derisive chuckles and remarks, she’s proud that she’s come a long way since. Her first single, I told you so, was based on these true experiences. Her second single, Villupaattu, produced a year ago by her music label AKASHIK, is an ode to the indigenous musical storytelling form in Tamil Nadu which, Kash believes, is the “Indian root to modern-day rap”.

    “The world is a really small place where all our lives interconnect, and cultures are melting into one another. We’ve got to be confident of our identities, our roots and be unapologetic in showcasing that in all we do,” she says. After having worked with AR Rahman nine years ago on the theme song SemMozhi for the World Classical Tamil Conference, Kash moved to Chennai recently, as she finds the local rap scene is “picking up heat”.

    Bengaluru’s Siri Narayan — who raps in Kannada, English, Hindi and Telugu — is a bit tired of being called a female rapper. She wishes the world would move on and allow her the space to do art about things other than women’s empowerment. “I’d like to believe we’re empowered already,” she says. One of her first original singles, Live it! says:

    Yaare yene helidaru, nambike idu ninnalle (No matter what people say, believe in yourself).

      Just saying: Siri Narayan raps in Kannada, English, Hindi and Telugu, and wants to avoid the gender identity trap. - Siri Narayan

       

      Bootstrapping their way

      Fejo jokes that music producers take his lyrics too literally. In Avasaram Tharu(Give me a chance), one of his original singles he uploaded on YouTube last year, he raps about wanting to be given a chance to make it big. A year later he was given just that — a chance to rap the song Aparaada Panka (partners in crime) for the film Maradona. It, however, came with an unwritten clause: No payment. His work for Ranam’s film Ayudhamedudaand Athiran’s Ee Thazhavaraagain involved no pay.

      “My next song should be ‘give me money’ (not just a chance),” he jokes. On a serious note, however, he says one cannot afford to be a full-time rapper until a label signs you on. This means that a lot of the rappers in India find themselves juggling odd jobs while waiting for a break into stardom.

      OfRo blames it on the absence of a platform for emerging artistes — like you have in the West — where corporates and the music industry bankroll music festivals and events as a means to discover new stars. Until then, all they can harness are the powers of YouTube and social media to gain listeners.

      A BTech degree holder, Fejo works at a small local TV channel as a programme producer. All his videos — uploaded on his YouTube channel with over 70,000 subscribers — are made with the help of friends who are video editors and camerapersons. “We’re just a bunch of passionate people making a dream possible,” he says.

      Hailing from Arakonam, a town near Chennai, Arivu’s rap packs in everything from student suicides to language politics, neglect of slums, plight of manual scavengers, fight over Cauvery river, the note ban and adulterated food at ration shops.

      One of the reasons Arivu has garnered a devoted fan base is his use of classical Tamil to speak about modern-day oppressions.

      “Classical literature never registered the lives of oppressed common people. I want to use the same language to correct this and speak up for them,” says Arivu.

       

                                                                  Thus spake Yogi

      On the Indian rap scene

      Rappers need to educate themselves on the ideology, culture and the discography of hip-hop. This art form is rooted in the storytelling of original life experiences of the songwriter.

      Like it happens with all new genres of music we get exposed to, we initially tend to mimic without understanding. What you’ve really got to do is fuse hip-hop seamlessly into your own culture, identity and story until it becomes the soundtrack of your life. The term “representation” is key to hip-hop culture. It means to represent yourself, who you are and where you belong, through your music.

      Mentoring young rappers in South India

      South Indian hip-hop is maturing very fast. You can’t fool the scene now like before. Pop-ish, cheesy flamboyance from anyone who says they do hip-hop gets trolled virally on social media. The best is yet to come from the very talented few who are constantly striving to navigate through the cinematic music maze in search of an outlet for their music. I am super-excited to be a part of this surging future.

      Business advice for budding rap artistes in India

      Of the two paths of business and personal indulgence, they must choose one. The business path is the journey of supplying to market demand and the value creation for it.

      This path is absolutely a commercial venture, so they must either become an entrepreneur, or partner with someone who is willing to invest in their art. Artistes in India have to understand what the business of music is. Don’t just complain that the market is not buying your art. When you have an expectation that your product won’t sell, there’s a fundamental flaw. You have to make a product that people want to buy. I have learned this lesson from several past mistakes.The personal indulgence path is very easy as the goal is to simply satisfy the heart’s desires with musical engagement. Whenever this decision to choose one of these two paths is not made with conviction and clarity, their music venture will be sailing aimlessly.

      Published on June 21, 2019

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