“On April 14th, in the year 1891, in the house of Mahars (Dalits) a revolutionary was born whose name was Dr B R Ambedkar,” raps Mahi Ghane. She goes on: “despite others making him sit outside the class he never deflected from his path of education and struggled to provide constitutional rights to the Dalits in India.”
These are the lyrics of a recently released song by Mahi Ghane, a Dalit hip-hop artist based in Maharashtra, India. In her song, she is paying tribute to Dr Ambedkar, who is a source of inspiration for her as he fought for the rights of the Dalit community, who are at the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system.
Mahi is one among the many Dalit rappers who are using hip-hop music to express their anger toward the existing caste structure in Indian society.
“I have heard that hip-hop began as a way of expressing your opposition towards oppressive structures which you are bound in, and that is what fascinated me about the medium,” she told TRT World.
She further adds that since hip-hop music today is famous among youngsters, it becomes imperative to talk about their issues in a language that they are comfortable and familiar with.
“Through my rap, I wish to raise awareness and fight for those who are being discriminated against, and this is the primary reason behind me choosing the hip-hop genre,” she says.
Along the same lines as Mahi Ghane, another artist who has been using hip-hop to reflect the everyday struggles of the community is Rekoil Chafe.
Chafe, who identifies himself as an Ambedkarite Buddhist, believes that it is necessary to reject the “lower” caste identity mark forcefully put on him by society. In 1956, Ambedkar, an anti-caste activist and the writer of India’s constitution, converted to Buddhism along with six million Dalits. Dalits today often refer to themselves as Ambedkarite Buddhists.
“I feel that an important way of moving ahead is by rejecting the ‘lower’ caste identity which has been thrust upon you, and by embracing positive identities which also empower you,” he told TRT World.
Chafe, a well-known lyricist and music producer, especially among Mumbai’s underground hip-hop scene, believes that it is wrong to categorise the artist and even their music along caste lines.
“Why do people feel the need to stick my identity onto me every time? Why can I not simply be a rapper? Why do I need to be called an anti-caste rapper? Do we call white rappers Christian rappers? They are simply called hip-hop artists. Why is it that people from my community are put in a box and then shoved away after some time?” he asks.
That is why he is of the opinion that his music should be looked at only as hip-hop, which by its very nature is protest music.
Staking a universal claim
The above-mentioned life stories of Mahi Ghane and Rekoil Chafe narrate the use of rap music to reflect their ideas and politics. However, it also becomes important to look at the origins of rap music in India, and why it is a significant part of the current cultural milieu.
The early 1990s saw India embark on rapid economic progress on the back of liberal market reforms. This was also accompanied by exposure to cultures from across the world, when people like Mahi and Rekoil were introduced to hip-hop.
The genesis of Indian hip-hop lies in the efforts of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), who were influenced by Western hip-hop and gave their music an Indian touch. It eventually expanded to the clubs, where it took the form of ‘Indipop’, making the likes of Jay Sean, Rishi Rich, Panjabi MC, Bohemia, and Bombay Rockers household names in the Indian and South Asian diaspora.
As it began to appeal to the younger generation, rap music was originally taken over by the glamour world and market forces. However, two decades later as the political scenario started changing in India with a right-wing government coming into power, it was picked up by underground artists to explore political and social matters that lay at its heart.
“Historically, the method of assessing music in India, which is also deemed as 'classical music’, is ragas. And within that, there are numerous variations,” Dr Santosh Sadanandan, an art historian and cultural theorist at Ambedkar University Delhi, told TRT World. “But in the music being created by the subaltern class, the rhythm tends to dominate more.”
He believes that this is the main reason behind rap music appealing more to the sensibilities of the younger generation where bodies also become central to such performative practices.
He further adds that hip-hop music helps the Dalit community stake a claim in the cultural milieu that upper castes have otherwise dominated.
“For the Dalit community at large, it is also important since they can now stake claim to having a place within the larger discourse of whom cultural capital belongs to, as well. Dalits have historically been producing art and music but have never been recognised for it, but this can mark an important and significant break away from such traditions. This is thus, a cultural and political assertion on their part,” Sadanandan said.
On the question of why hip-hop and genres like reggae attract people from subaltern and marginalised backgrounds, Sadanandan sees it presenting them with a medium through which they can claim the universal without the mediation of the nation.
“The nation has never allowed them any kind of universality since the nation is steeped in certain kinds of Brahmanical values. Identifying with marginalised communities across the globe is a way for them to transcend the nation and claim a certain universality,” he argues.
Whether it’s the work of rappers like Sumeet Samos whose writings are a reflection of caste-based discrimination in educational institutions, Arivu who comments on human rights violations and the indigenous culture of south India, Dule Rocker who talks about life and labour conditions in rural Odisha, or even organisations like The Casteless Collective and Swadesi, it is important to pay attention to a new generation fearlessly challenging existing caste and class structures in Indian society.