The song Mere Gully Mein, from the film Gully Boy, is set as the ringtone on Duleshwar Tandi’s phone. When he takes the call, the rapper sounds distracted; he is recording a new song at home. “One never knows when the power will go off and I need to finish this song now,” says the 27-year-old, who lives in Borda village in Odisha’s Kalahandi district. Tandi, who goes by the moniker Rapper Dule Rocker, shot to prominence on 4 July when the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) Network posted a video of his song. It caught the eye of music director Vishal Dadlani and artist Divine, who tweeted praise for him.
Tandi, who has been posting rap videos on his YouTube channel in the Sambalpuri language, also known as Kosli, and Hindi for a year, is part of a growing number of rappers raising social concerns in Indian languages. Confirming the trend, a YouTube India spokesperson cites the example of The Dharavi Dream Project, which doesn’t just talk about pressing issues but also runs rap, hip hop and beat boxing classes at its school in the Mumbai slum, one of Asia’s largest.
Dharavi rappers MC Altaf, 7Bantaiz and Dopeadelicz even released a song in Hindi, Marathi and Tamil about the growing number of covid-19 cases in the slum, with a plea to maintain personal hygiene and follow social distancing protocols. “Regional rap music is growing. There is Underground Tribe in the Tamil hip hop scene, Team Evolution India in Dehradun and Ahmer Javed from Kashmir, among countless localized examples of artists who express themselves in their own languages and raise social issues,” says the YouTube spokesperson.
These rappers have a huge following in their states. When they sing in Bodo, Kosli, Khandeshi, or any other local dialect, they speak not just to youngsters in towns and cities but to those in the remotest of villages. To the youth, they represent a local hero who understands their context and speaks to them in a musical form they look up to and in a language that they understand.
The story of each rapper is as interesting as the lyrics they pen. Take Tandi, with his kohl-rimmed eyes and raw energy, who has a huge following among Odisha’s youth. He took to rap during college and started performing at events. A BSc graduate from a government college in Bhawanipatna, he belongs to the Dom community. Tandi lost his father, a paddy farmer, three years ago and his mother is ailing. “Bohot zimmedari hai mujh pe (I have a lot of responsibility),” he says. Tandi had to mortgage their his land in 2014 and moved to Raipur, in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, to work at a restaurant. But he never stopped rapping.
He had to take up sundry jobs in the city but would visit local producers with his work. “They didn’t want to hear anything new,” he rues. Last year, his mother’s condition forced him to return to the village, where he teaches the children and performs at events. Tandi also started recording rap videos on his cellphone and uploading them on his YouTube channel. His songs about migrant labour in Kosli or the plight of farmers in Hindi have captured the imagination, with his videos, 15 of them so far, getting an average of 120,000 likes. The lyrics of one song go something like this: Main aam janta, bohot kuch jaanta, jai jai nahi karta (I am the common man, I know everything, but I don’t shower praises on you).
Today, Tandi gets a lot of calls from music producers, but they all ask for film-style rap. “Why should I sing songs that demean women? I want to send a positive message to the youth of Odisha, who have become a little directionless due to lack of opportunities,” he says.
Like several others, Mumbai-based artist Joi Barua believes artists like Tandi are returning to the roots of rap, for it is “rooted in the neighbourhood, local issues and literature”. He cites the example of young rapper Hemanta Dutta, or Rhainex Bubu, from Pathsala in Assam’s Barpeta district. Barua was so impressed with his video Voice Of Pathsala 2, written in the local dialect, during the lockdown that he posted about it on Facebook. What struck him, besides the musicality, sense of rhyming and tempo, was the optimism underlying the lyrics. “Assam is going through such dark times with the floods, Baghjan gas leak and covid-19. If you are adding to an already dark climate, then what’s the point?” asks Barua. “Rhainex Bubu talks about the struggles of the people but also insists that one must not give up.”
Though many tend to ape Western accents and limit their range, rap is all about good writing and a unique voice. “You need to be committed to what’s happening and internalize it over time,” says Barua. Like Maan Borah, or the Island Warrior, from Majuli.
Borah first heard rap during his school days in 2005-06, when his brother gave him an MP3 disc of hip hop songs. At the time, not many on the river island had heard Hindi or English songs. And when Borah started writing lyrics, he gravitated towards the social concerns that the media was not highlighting.
Of late, the 27-year-old has written songs in Assamese about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve issue. He is a regular at state college festivals and was a guest performer at the MTV Hustle last year. The rapper is now handled by Startist Management based in Mumbai.
Since his songs are meant for all ages, he steers clear of slang or abuse. “For me, it is more important to put a message across. For instance, Moi Dehing Patkai is not just about mining or a gas leak but about our deteriorating relationship with nature. Today we are wearing masks, but there will come a time when we will have to buy oxygen and carry cylinders wherever we go,” he says.
It doesn’t take Borah long to produce a video—usually, a song, shot by his friends and management, is ready in 12 hours. Others, however, prefer to collaborate with local producers. So Pune-based Ajit Shelke, or Rapboss, has worked with producer Chetan Garud for his videos. His Marathi rap last year about farmers in distress went viral on social media. “The situation that he talked about was so real, and the lyrics were so powerful, that people got attracted to it. We didn’t even have to market the song. His new song, Shikshanacha Bazaar, has already crossed 2.5 lakh views,” says Garud, who has more than a decade’s experience with music channels and has started a production company to provide a platform to talented artists who sing in dialects like Khandeshi or Ahirani, and don’t always have the funds to take this forward.
Rapboss, 25, has just completed mechanical engineering from the local college in Barshi village. He was always interested in writing poetry and wanted to be a singer—but didn’t have the money for classical music classes. He came across Eminem’s songs, “jo samajh mein nahi aata tha but acche lagte thay (I couldn’t understand them but I liked them),” he says. “Four years ago, I put some money together and bought a laptop. I started learning music on YouTube. I was inclined towards rap as it could be performed by a self-taught artist.”
Like Tandi, he didn’t want to do film-style rap about “parties, alcohol and girls”. He did try his hands at a peppy dance number but simply didn’t feel comfortable doing it. “I am from a farmer’s family. So I thought why not write about issues that I know about and which should be highlighted,” says Rapboss. In his new song, the artist highlights the commercial trappings of the education system: Band Kara Shikshanacha Bazaar Ata Band Kara/ Shikshanacha Navakhaali Paisa Khaan Band Kara (Stop selling education/ Stop eating money in the name of education). “Every taluka in Maharashtra has at least two-three engineering colleges, which charge at least ₹1-2 lakh as fee. Every village has an engineer—I am the third in my family—but where are the jobs? Everyone wants to send kids to English-medium schools, because of which Marathi schools are shutting down. But are those English schools giving quality education?” he asks.
With their critical questions, these rappers from the grass roots are not just forging a path for themselves on the rap scene but taking it by storm.