Time was when some popular music channels on TV would regularly blare hip-hop, thus exposing the millennial Indian crowd to names like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and the like. I remember some of my friends who were engaged in the sub-culture trying to emulate these icons by covering their songs.
They wanted to be able to rap fast, as speed and accuracy of the spoken word needed paramount attention, and one could see their genuine interest in the genre, which was initiated in the late 1980s in the US. Fast forward to 2016, the genre has witnessed some sort of acceptability in the mainstream with Bollywood films incorporating certain traits, while giving it a “desi” touch.
But whatever happened to the genre in its traditional avatar? Is there still scope for it to establish a firm footing in India’s music scene outside Bollywood?
Mumbai-based rapper Vivian Fernandes, better known to his followers as Divine, has emerged at a time when most modern followers of the hip-hop culture would look up to obvious names like Yo Yo Honey Singh or Badshah.
His story is also worth paying attention to, as it somewhat reveberates the ethos of hip-hop’s emergence from the streets of America. Divine emerged from the slums of Mumbai, narrating tales of the people that he has grown up observing since childhood and paying homage to the characteristics of the city.
Opening up about his early days as a young hip-hop enthusiast, Divine said there was “no scene” when he began.
“There was no scene back then. There were a few rappers all around India who used to battle it out on the internet… Then there was a friend who started making audios. Then everybody started doing that. They were making recordings on phones and headphones. We had an idea and we had a push,” Divine told IANS.
“I wanted to record something. I first started recording on a headphone. I was so into hip hop and the culture that I learnt my hip hop history and read where it came from… It came from the streets, it started to unite people. Rappers in the West used to talk about what they used to do in their day-to-day life,” he added.
He had a somewhat lonely childhood too, and that’s what prompted him to express his ideas in the form of music.
“My mother was working abroad. My elder brother had to go out after his 10th grade. My dad was never there with us. All these things stuck with me. I was very blessed to have been living alone and practise when nobody was watching me. I used to express whatever I felt, whether it was happiness or anger,” reminisced Divine.
Now, Divine has not only paved the way for independent artistes in the country to take up hip hop but has also made the international music scene take note of him. He was named the Best New Artist 2015 by iTunes and Apple Music in India, Sony Music Entertainment signed him and he even performed at the prestigious BBC Asian Network’s live event in Britain.
He gained a following online with his hit single “Jungli sher”, the video of which was shot entirely using an iPhone 6s in 43 locales in Mumbai.
Now, the young artiste is optimistic about the future of hip hop in the country and believes that the genre is “growing up” and “a few people are doing it right”.
“This generation will do it properly. Guys like me who are doing well will help the coming generation. I didn’t have guys to look up and understand that I should write like this,” he said.
As any hardcore hip hop enthusiast would assert, Divine also stresses the importance of “good influences” and learning about the roots of the genre.
“Good influences are very important. When I researched about hip hop, I found out that it is not just done on the mic. I learned there are so many elements to it. There is b-boying. People need to understand that you don’t need to be just a rapper. You could be a grafitti artist or a b-boy and still be a hip-hop artiste,” he said.
Hip hop has always been known for being an uncompromising genre, where artistes often channel an array of emotions and reflect various themes — right from politics, to social issues — and Divine certainly wants to follow the same ideals.
“Lyrically, I will never compromise. I don’t even think I should call myself lyrical. I put in everything that comes in my heart, what I feel,” he said.
“Everything that comes to my head, I am going to talk about it in songs, whether it is politics or whatever. ‘Jungli sher’ is just one song. I have so much to say. I am working on songs that I can’t speak about right now, but it would be something that you would have never heard before,” Divine added.
With the rise of this young artiste in the country, there is certainly an element of hope that hip hop in its original form is still not dead. As 2Pac once famously said: “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.”
(Ankit Sinha can be contacted at email@example.com)