In India, Dalit rappers use hip hop to fight caste oppression

The hip hop artist Arivu on stage during a performance in Chennai, India, December 30, 2022. Karthik Raja Karuppusamy/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

The hip hop artist Arivu on stage during a performance in Chennai, India, December 30, 2022. Karthik Raja Karuppusamy/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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New generation of Dalit musicians use song and social media to challenge thousands of years of injustice

  • Artists voice 'collective anger' on social media
  • Soundtrack of Black resistance tackles caste system
  • Musicians turn BJP's anti-Indian slur on its head

NEW DELHI - The hip-hop artist Arivu was in his final year of engineering college when it hit home that he was a Dalit — one of the "untouchables" in India’s deeply entrenched caste system.

He had led a relatively sheltered childhood, born and raised in a small Dalit-majority town called Arakonam, 70 km from Chennai, the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

His parents - first-generation literates, teachers and literacy evangelists - were determined not to replay their painful upbringing as the offspring of poor farm labourers.

"My parents did not tell me about the oppression they faced growing up, but there was a lot of instructions given to me on how to avoid trouble," Arivu said, "'Don't say you eat beef, don't say you worship this god, don't go inside that person's house, don’t say what caste you are' … it's only later I realised how unfree I was, that I had to hide my identity."

Yet, he fit in - a high-energy, fun-loving young man who liked to rap in Tamil, itself a novelty. Arivu was popular, and even found himself fronting a band with college friends.

He had grown up listening to folk artists singing in praise of Dr B R Ambedkar, a Dalit icon and the primary author of India's Constitution, under the Ambedkar statue in Arakonam.

His parents wrote lyrics and sang him songs about education, its value, or social ills and their potential remedies.

But it was only in college, as his world opened up, that Arivu grasped the true breadth and brutality of the caste system that had shaped India for thousands of years.

"Caste touched everything, it was everywhere."

The hip hop artist Arivu on stage during a performance in Chennai, India, December 30, 2022. Karthik Raja Karuppusamy/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

The hip hop artist Arivu on stage during a performance in Chennai, India, December 30, 2022. Karthik Raja Karuppusamy/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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So he wrote songs about it.

And took those songs to his best friends, his bandmates.

Who refused to play them - or pay him any respect.

"They said, 'we gave you too much importance, we should have kept you in your place'," Arivu recalled. "And hearing those words, I realised what it was, the thing that had bothered me all my life.

"Somehow, I was different, a lesser person, and everyone knew about it - as if by magic."

So Arivu cut himself off from friends, changed his phone number, gave up music, finished college and decided to spend a couple of years prepping for India's civil services.

But the anger festered on - then found its voice in song.

He would ride his bike down highways, singing, composing, framing lyrics — "a little studio inside my helmet".

Then, in 2017, came a pivotal moment: an audition for a new band formed to showcase Dalit music, which pulled the starter gun on his career and ended all thoughts of a civil service job.

Within two years, Arivu had cut a solo album called Therukural - Street Verses - a play on the Tamil literary classic Tirukkural, or Sacred Verses.

An atmospheric, sleekly produced collection of songs, it let Arivu pour his years of pain into expertly crafted poetry.

The album made waves, helping propel a nascent hip hop movement for Dalit rights into the forefront.

Its opening track, Anti-Indian, acquired a life of its own at a time when 'anti-Indian' was a red flag in the news.

"The song is subversive in the deepest sense," said Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University. "If citizens protest on the basis of rights, they are called "anti-Indian" (by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government)."

Arivu countered the BJP's take on the phrase with his lyrics.

"What? Are you calling me Anti Indian?

I’m only human, like you

My hopes and dreams destroyed by you

Close your eyes, hear my story

You ravaged my land

Burnt my house

Brought war into my forest

History is full of your deceit

And you call me the traitor?"

If the translation fails to capture the cadence and word play, its explosive message comes over loud and clear.

"The longer you suppress your identity, the more furiously it will come out, like a volcano," Arivu said. "That's how it came out in my art. My anger is not just my anger, it is a collective anger."

Anti-caste

Arivu is at the crest of a new anti-caste musical wave - using hip hop, social media and platforms like YouTube and Spotify to do what centuries of anti-caste folk music and poetry failed to achieve: break into the mainstream.

His songs get millions of views on YouTube - one has notched up 450 million - feature on the soundtracks of big movies, and are go-to tracks at musical, cultural and literary events.

Just as hip hop gave voice to many Black Americans, Arivu hoped it would speak for Dalit Indians combatting caste, too.

"In the U.S., hip hop addressed their biggest social evil, which is racism. In India the biggest social evil is caste, and it’s only natural that we are talking about that."

An estimated 240 million Dalits are confined to the bottom of India's rigidly hierarchical society, a system that persists in the face of repeated reform efforts.

In 2018, the Global Slavery Index estimated that nearly 8 million people lived under conditions of modern slavery in India, largely facilitated by "discrimination against Scheduled Castes, Dalits and Scheduled Tribes."

According to India’s National Crime Record Bureau, 65.9% of prison inmates are low caste, even though they form only about 18% of India’s population.

The data also shows that Dalit women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence.

Yet experts say crimes against Dalits often go unpunished.

Rappers turn to social media

Faced with such entrenched discrimination, rap artists have found new outlets to vent their anger.

Take Sumeet Samos, who always felt silenced by his community - a caste-segregated village in the eastern state of Odisha - as his songs recount the many atrocities foisted on his caste.

"I am calling out names, naming the massacres, there are no metaphors in my song, so it's hard for people to take it."

So Samos made a megaphone out of social media.

"It really widened our reach," he said. "No mainstream platform would allow me to list the massacres, the slurs, the oppression, the years of painful history, so I wanted to put out my songs independently,.

A scholarship took Samos to university in New Delhi then he went on to graduate from Britain's prestigious University of Oxford, all of which helped him make sense of his old life.

He began to understand why his father, a teacher, and his mother, a community health worker, were barred from the homes of their upper-caste colleagues.

Or why, at a wedding, his family had to eat on the floor outside the festivities.

"We were looked down upon, insulted with impunity, and I grew up knowing that as normal … I think my parents thought of it as normal as well … everyone knows their place," Samos said.

Many of his fellow musicians - fans of traditional Dalit instruments and song styles rejected by the mainstream as crude - have experienced the same iniquities.

Funeral drummer, Mumbai rapper

Gautham, 30, who plays percussion for Arivu, grew up next to a graveyard and mastered funeral drums as a child. For many years, playing at homes touched by death was his main income.

"In an upper-caste house, if I got tired of playing and ask for water, they refuse, or give me an unwashed cup," he said.

"I raise my hands and say 'thank you' and walk away," he said. "I don't want violence and I don't want to be without work. Later, I cry, I ask myself, 'was I born to be abused?'"

Aklesh Sutar, aka MC Mawali, is a 26-year-old Mumbai-based rapper, whose crew Swadesi - "Of the Nation" - is known for its urgent political songs and environmental protests.

One song rails against a government plan to build a train shed in a forest near Mumbai, displacing its tribal inhabitants.

The song has nearly 5 million views on YouTube: "Why should we step aside/how long will you trample our pride?"

It has become a rallying anthem for the protest movement.

"Mainstream hip-hop in Indian languages, as well as politically conscious music, is growing in a way that's never happened before," said MC Mawali, long and lean with waist-length dreadlocks.

"That's because we can put everything online...We are doing what a virus does,” he laughed, explaining how quickly their message spreads.

The anti-caste rappers are equally at home with Dalit folk music and poetry, performing at conferences and festivals.

Mawali recalled the audience reaction at a party last year.

"The massive crowd responded so hard to our songs that we had to escape the stage," Mawali said. "They could identify with what we were saying, our language, our dialect."

His producer Tushar Adhav - aka MC Bamboy, who speaks as rapidly as he raps - said his story as a Dalit mirrored the experience of many repressed Black Americans.

"It's all mixed up, caste, class, racism, they are one and the same thing," Bamboy said. "I know that wherever I go, people take one look at me and they put me into a category - poor, low-class. Is it the way I look? They fix in their head where I belong and where I don’t belong."

Rapper Arivu, a self-described "product of 2,000 years of pain and loss", wants to move away from the outrage and fury that has powered his music and use his voice to foster greater understanding.

"I got angry and I wrote a song, but did that get me justice?" he said. “"No.”

"Now I find that I have a mic, I have a stage, I have the privilege of walking from one room to another, and I want to make the oppressor listen, to make him understand.”

(Reporting by Rudraneil Sengupta; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)


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