If you can only think of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj when you think of rap, you need to know about these Indian female rappers, who are carving a niche for themselves with their swag and struggle in the male-dominant industry.
The existing literature on the Indian hip-hop movement will offer you a bleak and fragmented view of its history; one that excludes women out of its ambit. So, if you Google about the history of hip-hop in India, the search is likely to throw up names of non-resident Indian male artistes, like Apache Indian, Bohemia and Baba Sehgal. The first mention of an Indian woman in the hip-hop industry comes with Taran Kaur Dhillon aka Hard Kaur, who came to the fore with her wildly popular single Ek Glassy in 2007 and which went onto top the UK charts for that year.
For many, Hard Kaur is the OG trailblazer, and as she tells us herself, “The first one to do it.” But when compared to contemporary female rappers in India – who have used their art to address burning issues around colour-prejudice and women’s rights – Hard Kaur’s music pales. For all it does is encourage you to drink, do bhangra or “Move Your Body.”
That is not to say that Hard Kaur has not played an essential role. The playback singer, actress and rapper shares, “When I started, I was the only female hip-hop artiste, and it was much harder for me. Women always get treated as second class citizens. We are intelligent and talented, but the reason why we aren’t given opportunities is because if we are, we’ll kick everyone’s a#$.” So, in a way, artistes like her, Baba Sehgal, Apache Indian, Raftaar and Badshah – however banal and reminiscent of American hip-hop artistes of the ’90s and 2000s, who ruled MTV with their songs about riches and babes – paved the way for Indian hip-hop artistes by creating interest in Hindi-English hip-hop.
A change in the scene
Then, came Divine and Naezy, two of the most famous rappers in the current Indian hip-hop scene, who – with their hard-hitting, vernacular lyrics and gully rap – helped shift focus to Desi Hip Hop, with the “scene” being further propelled when director Zoya Akhtar decided to make a Bollywood film on gully rappers who rose to fame from Mumbai’s slums.
Deepa Unnikrishnan, a Mumbai based indie female rapper, better known as Dee MC, who has garnered a lot of support in the industry and has featured briefly in the Ranveer Singh-and Alia Bhatt-starrer film, reveals that despite being well-known in the underground hip-hop movement in Mumbai, things only began looking up for her, after Gully Boy. “I am considered one of the front runners of underground hip-hop in India, and yet, I haven’t been approached by a label to date,” Dee MC laments.
Dee MC recently released her new album, Dee=MC², and has used social reform as a subject in her songs, such as with Rang, for the video for which she tied up with online make-up retail brand, Nykaa. The bilingual number, with Hindi and English lyrics, addresses dark-skin prejudice in India, pulls no punches and goes like: Tan ko mere kuch aisa dikhaya/ Kaali hoon main iska ehsaas dilaya/ Karti bhi kya umar bas thi panch/ Rangeen thi duniya par main lagti daag.
Similarly, Mahima Dayal Mathur, a trained Hindustani classical vocalist, who goes by the moniker Bawari Basanti, isn’t an out-an-out hip-hop artiste, but sings about contemporary women in India. “I feel like there is a lot of resentment inside me from the deep-seated patriarchy that exists in our country. That is something that no movie will put a disclaimer for, no man will sing about, and no woman should ignore,” she says, adding that most of her new work will be about the idea of independence and protest.”
Like Mathur, Dee MC began classical training as a Bharatnatyam dancer at the age of five. She forayed into hip-hop culture through dance, until she, “Gradually began paying attention to the lyrics.” As someone who wrote poetry in school and danced, she says, “Rhythm came naturally to her, but struggled to find female artistes that weren’t mainstream.”
The road to discovery
Discovery, despite the undeniably growing intrigue in homegrown hip-hop artistes, continues to be an issue for female rappers in India. Trained in Carnatic, Bengaluru-based rapper Siri Narayan, or Siri (no, not Apple’s intelligent virtual assistant) sings in Kannada and English. Siri garnered renown after collaborating with TVF for the web-series Girlyapa’s anthem, Tu Bas Naach and also featured in a song called Shuffle with Varun Dhawan. Highlighting the issues of discovery and representation vis-à-vis hip-hop in India and women, Siri says that many of the issues in this regard are the same as it would be in any field that is predominated by men. But particularly, “The problem with hip-hop in India is that most of the consumers are male, too. And even when I am performing, it's mostly men.”
Siri believes that being a feminist rapper isn’t simply about having feminist content or lyrics. “For me, it’s not necessary to put feminist themes directly in my music. I also like working with women in the industry and co-creating a product by having female professionals behind the scenes, or behind the camera,” she shares. This comes through in Siri’s first video for the song, Live It, which showcases a bunch of girls having fun. “It doesn’t always have to mean something,” she asserts.
Mummy, main Gully Girl
Despite all odds, however, both mainstream Indian female rappers like Hard Kaur and Rajakumari and indie artistes like Dee MC, Siri and Mc Manmeet Kaur have managed to carve a niche (and an audience) for themselves. But this success was not without initial pushback from the family.
“They all understand it now, but sometimes my mom’s like, ‘Okay, what’s happening?’ And then, at other times, she’s curious about my projects and proud. So, she takes turns, because I think it's a cognitive dissonance for her and my career choice confuses her. My dad however is very supportive," Siri shares.
For Dee MC, too, things kicked off on a shaky note. “I was a chartered accountant (CA) and once I discovered the hip-hop community in Mumbai, it became very clear to me that I cannot sit in a cubicle or do a 9-to-5. So, the most difficult bit was breaking the news about me quitting CA to my parents . But me doing hip-hop is something that happened naturally and gradually until I was suddenly going for international tours to the UK and Canada. I feel that they couldn’t envision the future that we saw. Five years ago, no one understood why a bunch of people were going crazy about taking hip-hop forward in India, but now, they do.”
Yes, they do. Atta girls!