It's a rap in the 'burbs

By Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

Updated: Aug 06, 2018, 08:29 IST

A recent rap open-mic event in Malad revealed how the hip-hop scene in Mumbai is expanding in the suburbs, and is no longer curtailed to Dharavi only

Aakash Singh leads a freestyle rap session. Pics /Datta Kumbhar

There is a moment at a rap open-mic event we are attending when one of the participants says to the others in Bambaiyya Hindi, "Brothers, our time isn't far now. February 2019. Gully Boy. We are all going to watch it in the theatre and then on television. Yeah!"

We are at Clap, a cultural venue inside a Malad high-rise. The expansive room has a stage built in one corner. A gathering of rappers has assembled in front of it when one of them — MC Hitler — makes the statement about the upcoming Bollywood film, based on breakthrough hip-hop artistes DIVINE and Naezy. But his exclamation of "Yeah!" doesn't generate an overtly enthusiastic reaction. No cheering, no wooting, is forthcoming from the rest. "That's surprising," we tell ourselves. But then the reason becomes clearer when we later speak to some of the others present there.

A crew from Dharavi at the open-mic event held at Clap in Malad on July 27 PICS/Datta Kumbhar

Here's the thing: Ever since hip-hop went mainstream in India around four years ago, the spotlight has been on hitherto unknown artistes from one particular locality in Mumbai — Dharavi. The crews that have consequently made it big, such as Slumgods and Dopeadelicz, have started giving back to the community that nurtured them, in the form of elementary recording studios where budding rappers can improve their production skills. It's given the youth there the confidence that they, too, can one day see their names in shining lights. And that has helped build what, in street lingo, is called a "scene".

But over time, this scene has expanded beyond just the gullies of Dharavi. The gospel of hip-hop has now reached even the far-flung northern suburbs. Yes, the nucleus of the movement remains where it started. But a trickle-down effect has led to a contingent of youngsters spitting rhymes in places like Goregaon, Powai and Kandivali.

A rising voice

Salman Patel

Twenty-two-year-old Salman Patel is one of them. He is there at the open-mic event, and performs a tight track with lines like, "Main nahin Bin Laden/ Hu main tera beradir/ Mera naam hain Salman/ Hu ek sachha Musalman." Hip-hop, the Goregaon resident says, gave him an expression to vent his feelings during a troubled phase. "My interest in the genre started after Mere Gully Mein [a seminal 2014 track about life in Dharavi]. Earlier, rappers in India pretended as if they were from the West. But after this track, and [DIVINE's] Jungli Sher, we realised that we, too, could write words that are relatable in our own country. And that helped alleviate the anguish I was feeling back then," he tells us, adding that though he hasn't performed professionally yet, people in his locality have broached the topic of him rapping at weddings and Independence Day events. "Some people here might make fun, dismissing me as, 'Arre, woh toh rapper hain.' But at least they know about me now. And they know that I have something to say. Those who don't understand hip-hop will never really understand it anyway. But the overall negative perception about the genre that uncles and aunties had is starting to disappear."

Help at hand

Siddhesh Anand Upkare echoes that sentiment. The 23-year-old, who also stays in Goregaon, feels, "When I rap in English, people don't enjoy it that much. My message reaches them much faster when I rap in Hindi. And that works for me since my main motive is to awaken people through my music."

Siddhesh Anand Upkare

For that to happen, though, he needs a platform to chisel his craft further. This is where Aakash Singh steps in. Singh is a Kandivali resident who's been organising open-mic events for the past few years, including the one we are in at Malad, with another one slated in Goregaon on August 5. The entry fee for such events is from zero to nominal, depending on whether he's been able to rope in sponsors. And he stresses that even if the numbers are still small — "I know about 10 to 15 rappers in Kandivali" — all the movement needs is a push in the right direction, though he confesses that he's still figuring out a roadmap towards that end.

But most crucially, the focus needs to shift beyond just Dharavi, he says. And that's why Singh has an issue with the movie Gully Boy. "It is based only on Naezy and DIVINE. But what about the rest of Mumbai? Don't we exist? What we need is something like Straight Outta Compton [a 2015 film that documents the rise and fall of American gangsta rap group N.W.A]. But talking about all this is like getting into a deep jungle I don't want to enter," he says, though he does reveal one more thing. The reason why MC Hitler was playing up Gully Boy is because his crew is from Dharavi, and some of them are in the film.

It's just that unfortunately for him, Malad isn't the best place to blow that trumpet.

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