Throw a random word, and he would promptly pick and rap… It is curt, intrepid, subtle in wit, persuasive and, of course, carries a beat. “I have been an underground artist, sans limelight, and I never film my performances,” he candidly utters, while introducing himself as Kamran. It was in 2019 when he, in his early teens, first rapped at a café in Srinagar, purely extemporaneous. Today, particularly resonating with the young and the bold in the Valley, rap has become a cultural phenomenon that blurs local divisions, be it ideological or religious.
A rich, expressive culture of Kashmir may find itself subdued at times, but is capable of finding its own trajectory
Historical accounts trace rap back to an African-American oral, poetic and protest tradition. A brief analysis of the lyrics of political and gangsta rappers of the late 1980s and early 1990s describes rap as an oppositional culture. Initially, when Kashmir took to hip-hop culture, it did signify protest rhetoric. With MC Kash’s rap song ‘I Protest’ back in 2010, this sub-genre was framed as an expression of open dissent.
The last few years have also seen quite a few women rappers crafting their own space in Kashmir’s patriarchal socio-cultural fabric. For 19-year-old Anum Nasir, who goes by the name Annie, rap singing is a passion and she makes videos on varied topics. Hailing from Budgam district, she faced antagonism but has always found support in family.
Undeniably, it is hard for anything in Kashmir to not be political. But there seems a shift in the notes. “Moving away from anti-government protests or a radical stance, it is life’s routine experiences that form the theme. Now, self-expression has become crucial,” believes Rishab Raino, a Pandit rapper, whose family chose not to migrate during the conflict years. Kamran and his friend Fardeen, also a rapper, nod in endorsement: “No controversy. Just play of words, fun with language and essence of any one day, it could be love or betrayal, friendship, anything.” Pathos punctuates Fardeen’s lyrics, for he insists, “It is the choice of words that needs extra care, lafzon ka khel hai.”
And what can’t be missed are the tattoos. “In my religion, permanent tattoos are considered haraam. Yet, I have them,” shares Kamran. For many rappers, tattoos serve as a reminder of harsh times or a painful memory. For some, it is a statement, and for others a rite of passage or an insignia marking them to the cult of rappers. Ask Rishab if “D-A-R-K W-O-L-F” tattooed on his fingers describes the image he hopes to portray, and he unassumingly retorts: “No, not really. It is for my own feel, not to impress the audience or make a statement.”
Another musical cult ritual that makes it to Kashmir is ‘Cypher’— an informal, almost furtive, gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and hip-hop artists. It could happen in the hall of a nondescript building in the heart of Srinagar, or an open ground in the outskirts, but the venue is kept secret till the very end. A ‘Koshur Cyphernama’ is how it popularly goes around among the rappers of the Valley, with most young ones wanting to be a part of it. “It’s a warming-up for the emerging ones and a place to search talent for the labels,” says Rishab, who has also been to one.
Nevertheless, in an era of convoluted identity politics, and within the frame of the Kashmir conundrum, the perceptions that rappers share hit home. It would be too naive, almost disparaging, to say that rap is an easy, perhaps safer, outlet for frustrations. “It is serious music if one looks beyond mumble rappers,” asserts Rishab, who produces his own videos, adding, “Kashmir’s Sufiyana mausiqui remains the inspiration, the bedrock for all and any music in Kashmir. So even rap has a touch of Sufi, be it in the chord or the lyrics. Moreover, Kashmiri rabab music is often picked as a loop and used by rappers.”
Fusing Sufi with Rock is definitely the popular music. “Foremost, it is the music that must be kept alive here in Kashmir, and we have been striving to do just that,” says Bilal Ahmed, who started the Sangeet Academy in Srinagar with his friend Irfan Nabi. The duo has been taking Kashmiri Sufi fusion to places in the country and abroad. At their academy, students are not only trained in the fundamentals of music, but are also introduced to modern styles, including rap. “They can learn to play Kashmiri rabab and santoor as well,” vouches Bilal with pride.
Indeed, Kashmir in popular imagination evokes a myriad of contesting patterns and emotions, each playing out simultaneously, each overwhelming the other. Mystique and fear, inviting and distant, serene and violent, home and not so. There are natural boundaries and mental barriers; imagined complexities and complex realities. A rich, expressive culture of Kashmir may find itself subdued at times, but is capable of finding its own trajectory.
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