Battling a male-dominated Kashmiri hip-hop scene and rigid social expectations, a growing number of Kashmiri female MCs are finding their voice and pushing the limits of what’s possible.

When the beat dropped, Rapper Annie knew it was her moment. Circled by an audience of a dozen men and boys, she fumbled and fiddled with her hijab but still held onto the mic. Soon, the crowd began cheering for her. That’s when she let go of her fear and began rapping.

“Haiwano ki wajah se milti ladkiyo ko sazah yahi, Galati sirf teri nahi galati hai hum sab ki, Bolne se tu darti rahi, Baat yuhi dabti rahi (Girls are punished because of these beasts, it is not just their mistake it is ours too, you are too scared to talk, that’s how the crime goes unnoticed)”.

The crowd swayed to her beats as 18-year-old Anam Nasir, who goes by the stage name Rapper Annie, continued rapping in the cypher, a freestyle session of rappers and beatboxers coming together in a circle for jamming, organised by a group of five Kashmiri rap music enthusiasts who call themselves Cyphernama.

While Kashmiri women in the India-administered part of Kashmir aren't new to traditional forms of music, rap is relatively new and there are few who perform in the genre. Rapper Annie is the first female rapper to perform in public, a space suppressed by years of violence and dominated by men.

Local rap music emerged in a politically charged environment in Kashmir, during the months-long protest in 2010, triggered by the killing of a 17-year-old boy, Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, by Indian forces.

As dozens of civilians fell to the forces' bullets, Roshan Illahi, who goes by the stage name MC Kash, released his first song “I Protest”. The song became the anthem for the unrest of Kashmiri netizens and drew more youngsters to the music genre.

'Cypher gave me courage'

Rapper Annie uploaded her first lyrical video, “Last Ride”, on her YouTube channel in August last year. It was dedicated to her friend who lost his life in a bike accident. The founders of Cyphernama came to know about her through the video and invited her to the cypher.

When Rapper Annie received the call to perform, she immediately rushed to her father who constantly kept asking if it was safe for her to perform publicly.

“He told me that society would judge me and he asked if I was ready to take that,” said Rapper Annie. Unlike other genres, rap is misunderstood in Kashmir, commonly thought to be obscene owing to artists inspired by rappers like Yo Yo Honey Singh, whose content often promotes sexism, misogyny and glorifies the use of drugs and alcohol.

Two days later, she reached the location with her father where rappers of all age groups — and all males except for Anam — had already started to gather. Her father has joined her at every performance, whether a recording or an interview, to show support for his daughter.

18-year-old Anam Nasir, who goes by the stage name Rapper Annie, got noticed thanks to her first video, “Last Ride”, which was posted on her YouTube channel last August.
18-year-old Anam Nasir, who goes by the stage name Rapper Annie, got noticed thanks to her first video, “Last Ride”, which was posted on her YouTube channel last August. (Yawar Kabli / TRTWorld)

Anam started rapping when she was 14-year-old. She listened to famous rappers like Eminem and Kashmiri rappers who had mostly been writing about the ongoing political situation of the region. “It would give me goosebumps,” she told TRT World. “I wanted to be able to perform like them one day.”

She then took online classes to learn about the technicalities of rapping, something that she said she couldn't have learnt from anyone in Kashmir. “I learnt about bars, verses, studio concepts and all other technical stuff,” she said.

When the organisers uploaded Rapper Annie’s video on their Instagram account, she said that she received a lot of threats and abusive messages on her Instagram, after which she disabled the messages on her social media completely.

“It is really difficult for many people to accept that a girl is doing something that only men have been doing till now,” she said. “I have learnt to ignore them.”

After the cypher, Rapper Annie’s revealed her face in her next rap song on YouTube. “Cypher gave me the courage to do that,” she said, adding that she wants to inspire other girls “to do whatever they want to without being scared.”

Setting the trend

Iqra Nisar, who goes by the stage name MC Illa, a 15-year-old rapper from Kashmir, saw a woman perform publicly in Kashmir for the first time after Rapper Annie's video was uploaded on Instagram. Iqra immediately got in touch with Anam who later suggested she perform in the next cypher.

On a rainy day, MC Illa managed to reach the location of the next cypher two hours before it began. She did not want to miss the opportunity to perform and see others performing too.

For MC Illa, a rapper based in north Kashmir's Baramulla, rapping has been challenging — initially due to the lack of support from her father, and later due to the criticism from her relatives and neighbours.

"My father would say that rapping is for men and women shouldn’t do it. Then I recorded a rap song and made him listen to it," said MC Illa. "Finally he said yes to it."

MC Illa released her first rap song about sexual harassment in 2021 after a similar personal experience. This was her way of sending out a message to society. "I felt liberated after releasing that song," she told TRT World.

Over the years, MC Illa said that she has constantly been told by people to stop rapping and "focus on following religion". "But this is my dream. How can I leave it?" she questioned.

Through these cyphers, MC Illa believes that Kashmiri female rappers are getting the acceptance they deserve. "Now I am able to tell my parents that I want to continue rapping and they are okay with it," she said. "Because many women are rapping now."

15-year-old Iqra Nisar, known as MC Illa, was inspired by Rapper Annie. MC Illa released a song about sexual harassment in 2021.
15-year-old Iqra Nisar, known as MC Illa, was inspired by Rapper Annie. MC Illa released a song about sexual harassment in 2021. (Yawar Kabli / TRTWorld)

Coming together

Their love for rap and Koshur hip-hop (the local term for Kashmiri hip-hop) was what brought the group together and led to the creation of Cyphernama, said Janees, a 27-year-old student of anthropology and one of the founders of Cyphernama.

Janees and four of her friends realised that there was no commonplace for artists and audiences to come together and interact, so they decided to create their own space.

While the purpose of Cyphernama was to keep it inclusive for all genders and age groups, they were still doubtful whether female rappers and even the female audience would show up on the day of the cypher.

"We were surprised when Rapper Annie said yes and she asked if she could bring her father," Janees told TRT World. "That was something no one could have imagined."

In every cypher organised till now, one female rapper has performed and many females have even joined as audience members, something that gives hope to Janees about the future of Cyphernama.

"I will say that the ratio is 20 men to 1 woman but the thing that you cannot ignore is that there is at least some representation," she said. "It is the beginning."

Janees said that Cyphernama witnessed a mixed response from people for its initiative toward inclusivity. But the response of the male rappers toward their female counterparts has kept the group going till now. "They cheer for them and they respect what the female rappers have to say," she said. "We are seeing inclusion day by day and we want to keep that spirit alive."

Cyphernama has been trying to bring more female rappers to their cyphers in order to form a collective, said Janees. "We just want these female rappers to be able to meet each other and to feel supported and cheered for by audiences."

Since Rapper Annie's performance, the founders have been receiving queries from female rappers across Kashmir, yet only a few have been actually showing up till now. "I think they are still skeptical about coming in since there is an obvious male dominance. We are working on that," said Janees.

"Cyphernama is evolving day by day."

18-year-old Mehvish, aka MC Hella, started rapping during the pandemic, focusing on rising youth suicide rates in Kashmir.
18-year-old Mehvish, aka MC Hella, started rapping during the pandemic, focusing on rising youth suicide rates in Kashmir. (Yawar Kabli / TRTWorld)

Mehvish, who goes by the stage name MC Hella, another 18-year-old female rapper from Kashmir started rapping during the Covid-19 lockdown. For months, she had been looking for an opportunity to perform the songs she had prepared over the past two years.

Her performance at the cypher, which tackled the increased suicide cases amongst the Kashmiri youth, was followed by appreciation and loud cheers from all the beatboxers and rappers present at the third cypher this February, organised along the Jhelum river in Srinagar.

MC Hella knew she could receive criticism or even threats, but she said that she was prepared as participating in the cypher would make her feel that she wasn't alone.

"I am really not looking for fame,'' said MC Hella. "I am just looking for acceptance."

Source: TRT World