The Politics of The Indian Listener
It’s no surprise that the unique global circumstances that we have all collectively slipped hind-first into have brought their fair share of challenges and limitations. I’m not just talking about the COVID-shaped elephant in the room - although I won’t be surprised if 2020 births that god-awful beast into existence. The unique global circumstances I’m referring to are the worldwide shifts in public outcry with regard to racial injustice, institutional oppression, impending climate devastation and systematic violence. The direction that social mobilisation is facing in recent times seems to indicate a collective truth that we’ve kept away, gathering dust at the bottom shelf: nobody can shut us up. Whether this truth is shot out of molotov cocktails aimed at courthouses or sent to Members of Parliament in 140 characters or less - the fact remains that our voices are louder now than ever before. What remains to be uncovered, is that while we’ve dialled the volumes of the unheard and the unseen to the absolute max, where have we been resting our ears? What has the angered Indian been listening to, while witnessing the revolution be televised?
To answer this question, we have to take a look at the general musical path that young India was walking towards around early 2019. Recovering from the newfound popularity of artists like Nucleya and Dualist Inquiry, that provided energetic techno ballads to party-craving metropolitans, Indian student culture began to reflect a mix-bag of genres and tastes. There was something for everyone; the dreamy, progressive-rock style of Parvaaz's October release 'Kun' satisfied the Hindi classic rockers, while The F16s 'WKND FRNDS' captured a laid-back summer scape with an album dedicated entirely to dissecting the meaning of chill. With such a diverse range of music entering the lives of young Indians, there was a simultaneous influx of information and awareness on the political front as well. Even your casual "I don't like to talk about politics, bro" friends were opening their eyes and ears to issues that were beginning to affect them.
Bros were, in fact, talking about politics.
At home, in class, at the chai stall on the corner of the street while sharing Marlboro Reds – class awareness and structural flaws were beginning to be uncovered. Simultaneously in between exam prep and lazing in dorm rooms protected by thick, reinforced layers of privilege, Indian Bluetooth speakers were just beginning to tread into the realms of independent Indian music, albeit with reluctance. University festivals inviting the likes of When Chai Met Toast or The Yellow Diaries were measuring their artistic success by how many roommates went back and added “Firefly” to their playlists. Early 2019 also managed to railroad “Gully Rap” into mainstream success with Zoya Akhtar’s depiction of the Hip-Hop scene in Mumbai. In subsequent and gradual waves, the graphs of both local/national political awareness and the interest in “indie” music were at a consistent and nearly parallel incline.
The zenith of this parallel incline manifested in the early weeks of February, when numerous attacks in premier educational institutions of our country were carried out. Taking inspiration from anti-establishment cultural movements such as Flower Power in the 60s and the Nav Nirman movement of the 70s, it only took days for country-wide protests to emerge against the silencing of public intellectuals and against the violence inflicted on students. Thousands of angered young Indians assembled across the nation, from Azad Maidan in Mumbai, IIM in Ahmedabad, Dorina Crossing in Kolkata and most importantly: Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. The magnitude of support coupled with the inherent non-violent nature of these demonstrations resulted in a single factor that managed to unite and channel this frustration – the emergence of resistance art.
Painters, musicians, street buskers, freestylers and performers of all kind found their moment to shine.
While citizens of all age, race, gender, sexuality, religion and caste were assembling to join hands with the residents of Shaheen Bagh, several artists joined as well to lend their voices and their music during this time of conflict. Suryakant Sawhney of Lifafa and frontman of Peter Cat Recording Co. was seen doing acoustic renditions of “Kya Farak Padega” alongside his jazz/nu-age disco bandmates for days at a stretch. Ankur Tewari, member of The Ghalat Family accompanied this semi-impromptu gig with his folk-inspired ballads of hope and power. Several relatively unknown artists managed to use this democratically open platform to emerge as rising stars in these few months, a personal favourite of which included independent rapper and visual artist Sumit Roy from The Rolls Roys. His track, “Poorna Swaraj” was rapidly proliferated on Instagram and became an anthem that not only satirized the concept of Indian freedom, but firmly spoke to oppose the silencing of our country’s voices.
Among all the genres that melted into this cauldron of political resistance, none achieved more notoriety than Hip-Hop. Leaning into the already mobile traction that the emergence of Mumbai-based rapper Divine and his “Gully Gang” ensemble was gaining, Indian hip-hop witnessed an unprecedented rise in popularity during the early months of 2020. Sticking true to its anti-police and anti-establishment roots, Indian hip-hop found its own unique sound that blended 80s Bollywood inspired melodies with modern 808s and Def-Jam type beats. It’s impossible to acknowledge the gargantuan talent that emerged from Delhi-based rap label, Azadi Records that not only found its name from this modern-day fight for freedom, but based its entire identity around this theme.
"Viraaj mein joh likhta hai bars // Garage mera full of napalm // Bawas, tere khaas luke warm // Ram ram, ye hai bhagwaan ka kaam Toh pranaam kar!" -
Elaan by Ahmer ft. Prabh Deep
Its roster includes Kashmiri power player Ahmer, who to this day never minces his words about the militarization of his hometown. Azadi Records also gave unlimited creative freedom to its star producer Sez on The Beat, allowing him collaborations with talents like Punjabi rapper, Prabh Deep and Delhi-based duo Seedhe Maut that cemented this group of creatives as one of, if not the most, prolific rap label in India. Their popularity lies undoubtedly in their music, but their importance lies in their lyrical subject matter. Caste oppression, police violence, surveillance states and the saffronisation of the Indian youth are among the many topics that these artists are writing their verses on.
This still begs the question, however, is the angered Indian still listening to these musicians? During a time when the momentum for resistance against the government is either halting or unpredictable, the question of the popularity of artists that deal with subject matter that is political in nature is important for two reasons. Firstly, because this phenomenon has given independent artists more bargaining chips to play with, resulting in widespread talent now becoming more and more available for the average listener. Secondly, because no subject is truly detached from politics, if you ask me. With every new day comes irresponsible public health management, at the behest of those least privileged. When Indian independent music has shown its exponential power in uniting the masses towards a single goal, it’s hard for those of us that seem to be perpetually angry to not gravitate towards our own. If the road till now has looked bleak, we’ll be needing new-age songs of resistance to help coast us through what lies ahead.