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The rise of Indian hip hop: How a surprising new frontier is going mainstream

India. The land of yoga, meditation, call centres, software engineers, Bollywood, cricket, 1.3 billion people and now the most exciting new underground rap culture on the planet.

For decades, the loud, cheerful cadences of Bollywood dance music drowned out all forms of independent music in India. The country’s ancient and once very popular classical music scene became confined to a song or two in a Bollywood movie, perhaps combined with some peppy beats. Independent artists popped out of nowhere every few years only to disappear as quickly as they came.

In this Bollywood-centric music scene, hip hop in India has been heavily defined by pop culture and the film industry. Some rappers who emerged in the early ’90s — Apache Indian, Baba Sehgal and Blaaze to name a few — made their mark with what was considered at the time to be a refreshing new style of music. But most of these rappers were born and raised in Western countries, and there was nothing truly Indian about them or their music.

Eminem and American hip hop

In the early 2000s, a new wave of American rap music came to an India that was seeing an exploding urban middle class devouring Western music and movies at an exponential rate. Eminem and his angry rap saw quadruple platinum sales, people were dressing up like American rappers in the cities and hip hop nights became the hottest nightclub events. India was clearly loving hip hop and the market was ripe for locals to gain popularity in the genre.

Artists like Bohemia, Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah, Ikka and Fateh Doe broke into the Indian music scene and exploded in popularity. They looked the part, rapped over pop beats, wrote lyrics they thought people wanted to hear and released glamorous videos. Bollywood loved them.

However, while India finally had its very own hip hop scene, everything about it looked and sounded American. These artists were just men wearing gold chains, riding in fancy cars and surrounding themselves with beautiful women in bikinis while they rapped about gold chains, fancy cars and beautiful women in bikinis.

The beginnings of India’s very own rap culture

Just when it looked like the need for artists to confine to Bollywood’s demands would doom India’s rap scene to remain a soulless imitation of American rap, the city of Mumbai, the home of the film industry, started resonating to the murmurs of something new.

From the slums of Mumbai emerged India’s very own rap culture.

While pockets of rap artists began popping up all over India, Mumbai was clearly ground zero. These first-generation rappers from the slums weren’t imitating — they were creating. These artists were being themselves, writing rhymes in their own unique local vernacular about things that mattered to them. They were breakdancing, beatboxing and having rap battles, quite fittingly, around streetside tea stalls.

This was a musical revolution independent of what Bollywood likes and wants. Indian rap music was emerging as a way of expression for the downtrodden.

Rap at its roots is about telling stories, about dissent, about anger, about the strong lyrics that connect with people on a deeper level. That is precisely what this new wave of Indian rappers from Mumbai were doing. They didn’t imitate anyone else’s music but were being inspired by the core essence of rap culture and using it to create their very own style.

Around 2013, rappers from Mumbai’s slums started sharing their videos on YouTube. Despite most of them being shot, mixed and edited on phones, these videos immediately started gaining traction. By 2014, two of the front-runners in this underground music scene, Divine (Vivian Fernandez) and Naezy (Naved Shaikh), had been spotted by Sony Music — soon after, the movement’s first viral rap video was born. “Mere Gully Mein”, which has more than 16 million views on YouTube, is a political and cultural commentary about their life in the slums that made the pair the poster boys for Mumbai rap.

The underground goes mainstream

What followed the success of “Mere Gully Mein” was an organic explosion of Indian hip hop. From a handful of rappers from the slums of Mumbai came the rise of a rap culture that has surged through a country with a youth population numbering in the hundreds of millions. This rap culture has since seen the emergence of rappers the likes of Raftaar and Emiway Bantai, who have both gained massive followings on social media.

Fast forward to 2019 and there’s an anthem doing the rounds across India:

“Aasli Hip Hop se milaen Hindustan ko, Hindustan ko han ji Hindustan ko, aasli Hip Hop se milaen Hindustan ko.”

Translation: “Let us make India meet real hip hop.”

The underground rap culture has reached a tipping point and Bollywood, an entity that has paid little to no attention to the scene, is finally ready to bring it into mainstream India. Gully Boy (Street Boy), a story inspired by the journey of Divine and Naezy and the emergence of India’s very own rap culture, has been adapted as a Bollywood movie starring one of India’s biggest actors and directed by one of its most talented directors. The film hit Indian cinemas on February 14, with its trailer and soundtrack generating massive interest before its release.

The new wave of Indian rap is unique, it’s lyrical, it’s backed by a grassroots rap culture and it’s only just getting started. As they say in Mumbai, it’s “boht hard, boht hard” (very good, very good).

[Feature image: Still from ‘Gully Boy’ (Tiger Baby/Excel Entertainment)]

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