“Rescuing the identity”: The return of Kashmiri hip-hop

MC Kash's absence visibly dented Kashmir's hip-hop scene -- but that wasn’t the end. 

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The anxiety in Kashmir had troubled Ahmer Javed in New Delhi. His debut album had just dropped when the valley reeled under a clampdown in August 2019; with that thought clung to his mind, he went on the stage, held a mic close to his lips, and toured India.

He was scared and thought he would be bashed for his lyrics. During his tour, in a show in New Delhi, Javed lit a rap in Urdu to a crowd, mostly non-Kashmiris. It left the crowd charged up as he said, “Drop Kasheer, bro.” He took a step back; the beat dropped and he started throwing verses in Kashmiri — bringing the story of Kashmir into their cultural discourse.

The crowd stood blank-faced. 

“Poz ha wano ti bane Pakistanik
Yeti kath na karan kah awaamich
… Kith kani hekj asith yi ja’iz?
Prichhu panin’is paan’as, Kith kani heki asith yi ja’iz?”

(If we speak against the unjust, they call us Pakistanis,
Why don’t they even talk about the people of Kashmir?
… How can this be morally right?
Ask yourself, how can this be morally right?)

There were no subtitles — and, perhaps, the crowd didn’t understand Javed’s lyrics. But it didn’t matter to him; “they connect with me,” he said. 

“It has come to a point where you feel that you will lose your identity at any time,” Javed told The Kashmir Walla. “[Now] it is more of rescuing your identity rather than representing it.”

In the August clampdown, New Delhi revoked the erstwhile state’s decades-old limited-autonomy and bifurcated it into two federally-governed territories. Since then, it has introduced a number of laws — including on domicile status, land holdings and dealing — that are widely believed to be an assault on the identity and culture of Kashmir. 

This had led to a sense of urgency among the new crop of artists doing conscious hip-hop in Kashmir, said Javed. “We all feel that we are losing that grip that we have on our culture,” he added. “Slowly, this place is turning into something where we aren’t sure what’s coming.”

The rise, the fall, and the rise

Kashmir has had a history of politically conscious hip-hop. The uprising of 2010, wherein more than 120 youth were killed by the government forces, found the voice of Roushan Ilahi, aka MC Kash. His single “I Protest” — a commemoration of the uprising — brought an alien culture in Kashmir under highlight: hip-hop.

He went on to produce several singles and an album wherein he spoke about the civilian killings, disappearances, mass graves, and of the life and struggle in Kashmir.

Others followed his shadow. In absence of quality production houses, many artists, including Ilahi, released sharp lyrics on amateur music, mostly on copyright-free freestyle beats from YouTube.

Many artists, including EssXaar, Kingg UTB, and Shayan Nabi, came to the fore. Ilahi made his name in political hip-hop, but he sang in English; a universal language, he would argue. Artists started innovating and the genres were further diversified.

The raids and attempts of censorship followed. However, the scene rose in the following years before “eventually individualism took over”, multiple artists told The Kashmir Walla in a series of interviews, and the scene rushed down a slope. 

Kashmir hip hop, kashmir resistance music, Kashmir music, SOS, SOS Kashmir, Ahmer Javed, MC Kash
Photograph courtesy: Ahmer Javed

“Back then, all were trying to figure out things on their own,” said Javed. “Everyone tried to show they can do it on their own. A lot of musicians took different journeys.”

Then Ilahi vanished in 2016; Javed went to New Delhi in search of a career in music. When their sound was largely muted in Kashmir, the void of hip-hop was filled by a rise in gangsta rap style — largely focused on misogynistic, sexist ideas with expletive lyrics.

Ilahi’s absence visibly dented the scene — but that wasn’t the end. 

Fast forward to 2020, 26-year-old Javed sat on Jehlum’s bund, with other young artists surrounding him, as Ilahi watched over them “like a mentor”. “There is a sense of synergy,” Javed noted.

When the lives halted during the COVID-19 lockdown that forced billions into their homes, the situation brought all the artists under the same roof, in Kashmir. Unlike the last decade, now when they jam together, “it feels like a community.” And more young voices are joining them, most notably Qafilah, and a young duo, Straight Outta Srinagar (SOS).

“We hang out together, we work together … we can relate to each other,” added Javed. “It feels like a community now. It feels like a scene, unlike when we started out.”

A resurrection

Syed Arsalan was in a boarding school in Punjab’s Pathankot when his classmates would call him “Aatanki (terrorist)”; he would often engage in discussions over news from Kashmir. “I’d try and tell them the truth,” Arsalan told The Kashmir Walla. “And they will tease me by naming Aatanki or Pakistani.”

Today while writing, 21-year-old Aatanki — now Arsalan’s stage name — always tries to highlight the stereotyping of his identity as a Kashmiri Muslim. 

“It is about what’s happening in Kashmir,” Arsalan said. “It was about my roots.” Then he met 22-year-old Tufail Nazir on social media.

A video producer by profession, Arsalan shot small-time music-videos for artists in the valley; only till he started writing and rapping. “We clicked instantly,” Arsalan said of Nazir. “We think alike, even our playlists are the same.” Eventually, they teamed up to form SOS in 2019.

Inspired by Ilahi and Javed, the duo has dropped several singles. “Ahmer and MC Kash inspired us; they taught up about our roots and also how to hold onto them,” said Arsalan. 

Roots? “We come from a warzone,” they said, in one voice. “That’s it.”

The duo recently collaborated with Javed for the single “Dazaan” (burning), produced by Azadi Records, a Delhi label. Sporting plain black pherans, Javed drops in: “Gulaami namazoor. Aazadi!” 

Kashmir hip hop, kashmir resistance music, Kashmir music, SOS, SOS Kashmir, Ahmer Javed, MC Kash
Screengrab from YouTube.

As “the lyrics talk of the burning Kashmir”, the camera takes through the narrow lanes of downtown Srinagar to Nazir holding a placard that reads: “My Identity #Dazaan.”

This crop of artists is more strikingly highlighting the issues of their times, including human rights violations. A collaboration between Javed and Nazir, released in October 2020, titled “Tanaza” (dispute) is based on the firing and frisking incidents on government forces’ checkpoints. 

In May last year, the paramilitary personnel shot dead a civilian for allegedly “jumping checkpoint”. The song features Nazir and Javed in a car ride as they trade verses. 

“Gooel khewaan aess shaqas peth
Yimm laashay ni wothaan waen nakhas keth
… Mei yeti government rataan
Bha gham baraan, kin chaen paet mazz tulan?”

(We get killed over suspicion,
Coffins too have, shoulders can’t bear them,
… I’m telling you, the government wants me locked up,
Because I give a fuck unlike you, you are muted when they kill us.)

The verses end with a gunshot sound. A dark grove leads to: “Zindagi meri Tanaza, Yiwaan bha parith Janazah.” (My whole life is a conflict, every day is a funeral.) 

“It’ll be metaphorical”

The times are tough though. Since the clampdown, silence has taken over the Valley. And the artists are walking a thin line too. 

In the first week of February, the police summoned a 19-year-old hip-hop artist from north Kashmir, The Kashmir Walla has learned, for his rap-song on Srinagar “gunfight” in which three youth were killed on 30 December last year.

He was taken into a building in Srinagar named “Social Media”, where he was questioned for nearly four hours, he alleged. “They told me that they will delete my YouTube video. They confiscated my phone,” he said, in a phone interview. “I still don’t have permission to access my YouTube channel.”

The teenager isn’t an established artist and recently started out. “They asked me, ‘Who is behind your mind?’ I told them, these are my feelings, as a Kashmiri.” The police, he said, further accused him of “abusing India indirectly”. 

“I sang that I’m innocent and why are you killing me? This is how I feel. They said, ‘You live in India and if you want to do this, go to Pakistan,’” the artist said. “If you want to live here, don’t do this.”

The questioning frightened him, he said. “This is the first time we have committed a mistake,” he said, out of fear. “[But] they deleted my Facebook page with nearly 45,000 followers in front of me.” 

None of the police officials assaulted him physically, he said, but “tortured me with their words.” The artist has promised them to not sing “these songs” in the future, hoping he will get back his smartphone, still confiscated.

Nearly half-a-dozen Srinagar-based artists that The Kashmir Walla reached out denied any knowledge of the alleged incident. Regardless, a sense of fear is there. 

“[The future projects] will be metaphorical, it is not safe to continue like this,” Nazir noted. Though, at roots, these artists believe themselves to be “messengers, who are trying to convey something from our music, songs,” said Javed.

While last year marked the return of conscious hip-hop in Kashmir, the next year is lined up with more music. Javed has pulled up his socks for his next album with Azadi Records and the SOS is writing their first mini-album, aka EP. 

“When it comes to our hearts, I think we are keeping the soul of Kashmir alive through our songs,” Javed concluded, “showing the side of Kashmir that people find hard to locate, or the one that doesn’t end up on their radar.”

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