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The rise of gully rap

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rap may have originated in America, but we have made it our own, says Ronita Torcato, who relished the recent gully rap session in the city

Rap! What's that, do I hear some people say! A rap on the knuckles? Nah. The verb ‘rap’ is street slang for conversation, having entered the communications discourse of poor American blacks and Latinos in the swinging sixties. Like boxing and music which gave America's marginalised, especially blacks, the opportunity to exit the ghetto, desi rap has become a driving force propelling Mumbai's economically and socially backward youngsters into self-sufficiency. Correction. Not just the poor. Rap, desi rap has evolved into a stellar attraction for middle-class youth as well.

Attending a Gully Rap program organised by the Godrej Culture Lab in the company's sprawling and beautiful Vikhroli premises, I saw a large number of oldie goldies and middle-aged manoos tapping their feet, clapping their hands and generally having as good a time as the youthful community that practises this form of... music? Not quite. For the purist, speech isn't music. For, rap is declaimed to the background of instrumental music, whose cinematic lineage can be seen in the film, Dr Dolittle where the actor Rex Harrison in the titular role recites “If I could talk to the animals”. What could well be rap's lofty precursor though is Gregorian chant comprising Scriptural texts intoned (much like the Indian tanpura) on a monotone which then deviates, at just the right point, into another note or two. Or three. 

Philosophically though, rap couldn't be more different from the Roman Catholic liturgy which resounded in the medieval monasteries of Europe: where Scripture glorifies God, Western rap extolled drugs, alcohol, misogyny... sheeesh. Mercifully, rap also rages against poverty, politics, racism, gender, sexuality, and even technology.

Closer home, rap is location-specific in addressing corruption, crime, social justice and sheer survival in the urban jungle. But poverty has not succeeded in grinding the joie de vivre out of India's underdogs, age no bar, as anyone who has witnessed an Indian festival, knows.

For techno-savvy youth, the electronic media and the Internet disseminated knowledge about the latest trends in music and more. The underclass would embrace the ‘Rhythm and Poetry’ of rap with the alacrity of its creators in the backstreets of America. Originating in the seventies, rap took its own time getting here (like the Beatles and Hollywood movies) This correspondent has had the privilege of meeting with (and listening to the music of) Harjeet Singh Sehgal aka Baba Sehgal who introduced rap in India. Today, rap is a global  phenomenon popularised by producer-rappers like Kanye West (Kim Kardashian's better half) Jay Z (the beautiful Beyonce's Significant Other), Dr Drake, Kendrick Lamar, the foul-mouthed Eminem and the late Tupac Shakur who is better known for his angst-ridden lyrics about inner cities.

Nirmika Singh, Bhanuj Kappal, Karan Amin and Naman Saraiya discuss Gully Rap post the screening of Kya Bolta Bantai

Rap is the progeny of the hip-hop cultural family which, according to Professor Google, consists of: deejaying, or “turntabling”; rapping or  “MCing” or “rhyming”; graffiti writing, also known as “graf”; and “B-boying,” which incorporates dance, style and attitude. A scholarly fifth element, “knowledge” is added in my chit-chat at the Godrej audi with hip-hop/rap artiste Deepa Dee MC (birth surname Unnikrishnan) She is a lithe, curly-haired, bespectacled and very pretty girl who attracts hordes of  selfie-seeking fans. She is not a gully gal, she is articulate and foreign travelled, a far cry from the subaltern image evoked by the word ‘gully’.

"I was exposed to hip hop and rap at a very early age because I had access to the Internet, unlike others," she says. After having grown up as a tomboy, she is also, she tells me, a trained Bharata Natyam dancer. Shabaash! And she has the sweetest of boyfriends, fellow rapper Poetik Justis aka Vineet Nair.

As in music writer-turned cinematographer Naman Saraiya's documentary, Kya Bolta Bantai which had a solitary (little known to me at least) woman rapper, Deepa was the only girl rapping away with multi-lingual Dharavi youngsters, 7Bantaiz which had the crowd clamouring for more. Saraiya made the film for Voot (Viacom 18's video on demand online platform) to showcase desi rap through interviews with the likes of MC DIVINE (real name Vivian Fernandes, traumatised offspring of an addict) Naezy (birth name Naved Shaikh, who became a petty criminal with role models like violence-prone gangs and drug-dealers in his neighbourhood) Dopeadelicz from Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, spoof rappers Gari-B, Swadesi and the comedy collective, Tadpatri Talkies, among others.

In Saraiya's film, jealousy rears its ugly head. Someone—I didn't get his name— resents comedians doing rap. The talk in general veers to the gali-ridden lyrics (we are not amused) and life and living in Mumbai. We are not specifying the gullies, because, like Deepa Dee, not all of them are street kids. Dopeadelicz's Tony Sebastian, who features in Saraiya's film, is an alumnus of Our Lady Of Lourdes school run by Carmelite priests at Sion. Tony has long plaits that a scanty-haired aunty or uncle would envy, and, he tells me, "they're real".

The screening of Kya Bolta Bantai was followed by a panel discussion featuring the film-maker Saraiya, music journalist Bhanuj Kappal, and hip-hop/rap artiste manager Karan Amin. Music journalist Nirmika Singh moderated the discussion. A highlight of the program was an exhibition of photographs by Saraiya. 7Bantaiz, which has featured in movies and on radio brought the evening to a close with a crowd-pleasing showcase of hip hop and rap in Hindi and Marathi. Yo! Rap may have originated in Amrika but we’ve made it our very own (just like we adopted chillies, tomatoes and potatoes which the Portuguese brought to India! What would Indian cuisine be without this trinity?) We, Indians are assimilators par excellence, are we not?

That's not all. Rappers sporting baggy pants and baseball caps are also declaiming in Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu and Bengali. And going places in va va voom, Bollywood! Not only has rap and hip hop embellished Bollywood and regional film soundtracks but some of the "crews" (as they are pegged, instead of "band" or "group") have also acted in films, major and minor. For example, Dharavi United consisting of four different rap crews Enimiez, 7Bantaiz, 5Dogz and Dopeadelicz (comprising Tony Sebastian, Rajesh Radhakrishnan, Abhishek Kurme and Akhilesh Sutar) got a big break in superstar Rajinikanth’s flick, Kaala.

To cite another instance: MC DIVINE who grew up in an Andheri slum, is with Naezy, the inspiration for filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s new biopic Gully Boy starring Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin and Parmeet Sethi, among others.

Saraiya's film shows how resourceful rappers wield mikes and speakers on the streets or on building terraces to reach the economically-deprived audience. DIVINE filmed his first music video on a mobile phone, which was uploaded on to YouTube, only to go viral. His repertory includes an agonised cry for the tragic Nirbhaya. In 2016, DIVINE performed at Asian Network Live in the UK where he was lauded by BBC as one of the top artistes to watch.

At the Godrej hall, the panel is bouyant about prospects outside commercial and regional cinema. Bhanuj Kappal notes: "Single tracks are great but where are the albums?"  With some rappers having signed deals with indie labels and big guns like Sony, Karan Amin sees "a great future for rap and hip hop in Indian films but we will have to work for it."

Mumbai's top rappers perform at the Godrej India Culture Lab's Kya Bolta Bantai event

Acknowledging the experimentation with techniques, sound and style, the panel's consensus was: "Find your sonic identity. Don't trust sponsors who provide very little support. Tell them to eff off. Create music. Create albums."

We say yeah. After all, it's the golden age of desi hip hop and gully rap.

Short takes

  • With gully rap and desi hip-hop, we have made an American sub-culture our very own
  • Rap addresses poverty, politics, racism, gender, sexuality and, even technology
  • Rap could propel talented underprivileged youth from rags to riches
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