Independent music artists strive to probe and comprehend society around them through their music
Every rap song that A-list sings has a story behind it, sometimes social and sometimes personal. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, he wrote a song named ‘Pain’, for Soni Sori, he wrote a song called ‘The story of Naxalbari’ and for the indefatigable Irom Sharmila, he wrote ‘Iron Lady’. A-list is the stage name for Ashwini Mishra, an artist who performs in Mumbai. When asked about how it all began, he says, “I didn’t start out being political, but I started out being conscious.”
A-list, who was one of the earliest rappers in Kolkata before moving to Mumbai, is one of the few artists who writes and sings songs about socio-political issues and does not shy away from expressing his personal take on them. Everything that he finds too perplexing or wrong with society such as corruption, military occupations of questionable legality, unchecked corporatisation, provides him with lyrical fodder for his music.
Talking passionately about hip-hop, Ashwini starts off explaining the four elements of hip-hop: Emcee, Deejay, Graffiti and B-boy. Emceeing is what he does best; it involves rapping in a free-flowing manner, with crisp and witty lyrics, largely improvised, something that is supposed to get a crowd moving.
Hip-hop has always been political so it’s no surprise then that this particular genre is used to express resistance towards the ills and excesses of society. The parents of the famous hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur were both members of New York’s Black Panther Party (BPP), a black revolutionary socialistic organisation. On BPP’s website one can clearly see their vision of serving the needs of the oppressed people. It is not hard, therefore, to imagine Tupac’s songs talking about the voices of change in society. His songs were a true example of how the personal became political.
A girl from Chandigarh, Manmeet Kaur, the first Indian female rapper in the city, is another such artist. She blends her lyrics with her personal life and the hardships she had to face being the first female rapper in Chandigarh. In her own words, she’s a young girl whose family is not fully supportive of her choice of profession, but who continues to rap “to make society a better place to live in.” Talking about performing, she says she still can’t do shows sometimes due to her family.
Both these artists, A-list and Manmeet, seem to have begun their journey through poetry. Doubtless, it is the lyrics that play an important role in the hip-hop songs, creating a space for people to be as explicit as they want. Other than hip-hop, resistance through other forms of music hasn’t been as pronounced. “We are activating the souls of people, and that is the first step towards bringing about change, isn’t it?” says Manmeet to all those who tell her that music can be of no use.
Even in areas of conflict, people have used music as a medium of voicing their opinion. One such artist is Akhu Chingangbam from the Manipuri band Imphal Talkies. His songs mostly talk about how Manipur has become a toy in the hands of the Indian army. His style of singing is inclined towards a folksy style, reminiscent of Bob Dylan. Blending the sounds of the harmonica and guitar with his voice, he sings this song making anyone who listens to it reflect on what is wrong with our country. The lyrics of his famous song, ‘India, I see blood on your hands’ make us realise what is happening to our country:
India, have you ever crawled down enough to smell the soil of Kashmir?
India, have you ever heard of a lady named Sharmila?
India, can you explain to me what happened in the land of Gandhi, in Gujarat?
India, what are the charges against Dr Binayak Sen?
India, I see blood in your hands
India, I see blood in your flag.
In the current generation, singers are writing and talking about issues that have rarely been vocalised before. Though the movement towards socio-politically conscious music is building up slowly, it still seems like a change worth striving for. “The truth around you is enough to inspire you,” is what Manmeet had to say when asked about her inspirations.
Figub Brazlevic, a music producer based in Germany, says, “I think the internet provides a lot of possibilities for lending visibility to such artists. I’m living in Berlin, Germany and I know MC Manmeet! If you need a platform you’ll find it!” It is due to the advent of the digital era that these artists are getting a chance to showcase their work to the masses. Websites like SoundCloud and ReverbNation give independent artists space to upload their songs.
These artists have independent labels or they produce their songs themselves. Manmeet was introduced to her current producers via Facebook. Bigg Tajj, one of the producers, is from Glasgow, United Kingdom. He says that in order to reach the masses at large, one has to be witty. He adds one has to make the music commercially viable, yet not to lose the message in the music.
Recently Imphal Talkies performed at the Blue Frog club in Mumbai. The programming team at Blue Frog decides the performers based on their style (and of course, quality) of music. For younger and newer artists the venue serves as an early springboard, a veritable launching pad in some cases. As a corollary, the audience for such new kinds of music is limited only to the people who witness them perform on stage at such venues or on their computers.
Unavailability of spaces results in their work getting little visibility. What happens ultimately is that it is merely limited to the same niche of audiences. For these artists to have a wider reach they need many more spaces to perform. But Ashwini is unfazed at this lack of space. He says, “The beauty of it lies in the struggle. At the end even if you get just four people to listen to your song, it is simply beautiful.”
These artists have successfully carried forward the feminist ideology of the personal being the political. When the music is personal, one empathises with the artist. In this regard, all the three artists have something in common. A-list, who usually raps on political issues, rapped about his own life as a part of the ‘One Billion Rising’ campaign. Even Manmeet raps about the hardships faced by her as a girl rapper in Chandigarh. And the songs of Imphal Talkies are, almost always, about what they witness around them.
Mumbai has a very vibrant music scene, but how many artists utilise their art, and more importantly, the spaces lent by the city for its expression to talk about social issues plaguing the nation and the world? Art has the potential to be strongly political and take the form of resistance. How many people try to do something different from the mainstream? Such voices that are trying to make one politically aware should be appreciated and encouraged, something sorely lacking in the present era of pop and rock and the consumerist culture it panders to. It is only through these voices that such issues can reach the masses in a creative and engaging manner.
Manmeet Kaur, Ashwini Kumar and Akhu Chingangbam are artists who are trying to make some conscious noise in a city that survives almost entirely on a diet of Bollywood music. The fact that this kind of politically charged music is getting importance and attention that it so deserves shows that people of the current generation are starting to care. Still, there are a few people who would say that at the end of the day, they are merely singing about it which will not change anything. As rebuttal, I would like to answer that by stating something that A-list mentioned, “The audience might not read Ramachandra Guha’s 6000 word paper, but if you sing a two minute song about it, people will listen.”
Photos: Kulajit Maisnam & Manmeet Kaur
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