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The series ‘Many Worlds of the Deccan’ explores cultural histories and changing social relations in the Deccan region. It challenges north-centric, monolithic ways of understanding India. The series is curated by The Khidki collective, a group of scholars committed to building public dialogue on history, politics and culture.
The Deccan is a place of unlikely arrivals and departures – cultural practices from every possible region of the world have found home here and gotten reinterpreted and gifted back to other regions. One such recent arrival is hip hop from Black and Hispanic communities in New York among urban working classes in the Deccan.
Rap music is closely associated with hip-hop culture. It evolved from the Bronx streets of New York City in the 1970s. While hip-hop is said to be the cultural movement of the Bronx, rap music is one of the more popular forms of expression of this culture. Hip-hop first entered India in the 1990s and gained popularity among the youth. By the 2000s, desi hip-hop developed and artists like Yo Yo Honey Singh and Badshah successfully adapted the genre of rap into the Indian context, gaining commercial success.
However, desi hip-hop artists, until recently, unlike their American counterparts, were not from marginalised communities. Indian hip-hop was mostly undertaken by mainstream artists who had gained wide acceptance in Bollywood. This mainstream form of hip-hop is also often characterised by generic themes of love, heartbreak and desire, and barely ever represented the margins. Over time, hip-hop has been taken over by Indian youth from various regions who created their own versions. Deccani hip-hop is one of them.
Unlike mainstream hip-hop groups of the earlier generation, Deccani and Hyderabadi hip-hop artists make music with a different focus. Their songs are mostly crafted around the city and their place within the city. One of the first significant forays by local youth into the Hyderabad hip-hop scene was the group DeathRap in 2016, who released “Hyderabadi Kiraak Gaana” and “Hyderabad Meri Jaan”. In these songs, DeathRap highlights the pride of Dakhni and love of Hyderabadi culture.
Deccani hip-hop artists also highlight the differences that animate the divided city of Hyderabad. Decades of urban development has prioritised the “New City” and castigated the historic “Old City” as conservative and backward. Disrespectful expressions such as “Miya Bhai” and “Urdu mafia” are repurposed to create powerful music. The subversive lyrics in Deccani hip-hop empower those who are marginalised in the city and prompt a process of regaining a sense of pride and confidence in self and to reclaim the city as their own.
“My accent desi as f*** coz I don’t fake homie
Know your inner self before you try and
Spew your hatred on me”
∼ From Hyderabad Cypher, Nawab Gang
Rap reflecting language of the people
What also makes Decani hip-hop celebrated in the region is its strong sense of connection to the local language and urban space. The viral song “Miya Bhai”that had over 500 million views on YouTube was by Ruhaan Arshad with music composed by Adil Bakhtawar. Part of the lyrics go:
Nawabo Ki Basti Sehro Ka Hai Naka
Kutbulapur Mera Hai Elaka
Malakpet Hoya Tarnaka
Har Taraf Hai Miya Bhai Ka Dhaka
(It’s the basti (area) of the nawabs
Qutubullapur is my elaka (area)
Either Malakpet or Tarnaka
Every direction is miya bhais own)
In this, Ruhaan Arshad (who has since retired from the music scene) celebrates the everyday, ordinary Muslim brother – Miya Bhai – and references the rich historic Deccani culture in Hyderabad. “Har taraf hai Miya Bhai”, whether Malakapet or Tarnaka (areas in Old City) is Miya Bhai’s own turf. The song was hugely popular because it was also sung in Dakhni. Arshad, in an interview in 2021, acknowledged it when he said that the song “would not have reached its heights if not for the language”.
Roll Rida and Kamran’s hugely successful music video “Patang”, boasting over 34 million views at present, too celebrates aspects of the vibrant basti life where Hindu and Muslim communities live together closely. In Patang, Roll Rida raps in Hyderabadi Telugu with words and phrases heavily borrowed from local languages like Dakhni and Urdu. Again, such locally spoken languages convey a familiarity, a sense of belonging to the Deccani region, to its audience. Instead of an elite life, it presents the mundane life in informal neighbourhoods and of communities, an aspect that allows its listeners to find joy in identifying their lives in lyrics.
Following the widely popular movie Gully Boy, other hip-hop artists in Hyderabad have also sprung up talking about subaltern life on the streets. In “Motabari”, HERO (Kayden Sharma) rolls smoothly in strong accented Dakhni about his streets and gullies, which although a rough place is a place he is very proud to belong to. A more light-hearted track that shot to viral fame was “Nai Sunte”, written by Kayden Sharma and performed by Dhanraj Singh. This was a song written about the everyday Hyderabadi boy on his heartbreaks with a girl. What made the song relatable was that it was fully grounded within the strong “Pakka Hyderabadi” lingo and spaces.
Tension nakko leo ji pura apna ich maidan hai
Pure hyderabad me apne dhanraj bhai ki paichan hai.
(Don’t worry, the entire area is our field
In all of Hyderabad, everyone knows Dhanraj bhai)
Rap as commentary on social and political issues
Decanni rap has offered social and political commentaries since its beginnings in the early 2000s. This popular art form seems to have taken root here in communities similar to the ones where it originated – black youth in urban America. In both communities it seems to have retained its original charge of commenting on society and challenging hegemonic norms.
In 2019, India was abuzz with protests across the nation. The Union government had passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 in December that year, which raised concerns for many Indian citizens. The legislation had created some remarkable sites of protest such as Shaheen Bagh, and hitherto invisibilised communities had come out to the streets in protest. One such protest was the “Million March” in which over one lakh people congregated on January 4, 2020, in Dharna Chowk, Hyderabad to voice their displeasure against the legislation, and to call for a secular, multicultural India. It was reported on many news websites that Indians of all religions and ethnicities in Hyderabad took to the streets to protest against this bill.
It was at this time that rappers in Hyderabad – Thugs Unit, Mo Boucher and Irish Boi – came together to collaborate on the rap song Atishbazi. In this song, they expressed their frustrations over the current state of affairs in India, about the divisive policies instilled within communities. “Atishbazi” (fireworks) is synonymous with playing with fire; and also a revolution written by the pen.
Haq ki awaaz me hu hyderabadi atishbazi
Kabhi na dekhi hogi alfazo ki gola bari
(I am the voice of rights, the display of Hyderabadi fireworks
cannonballs of words, the likes of which you would never have seen)
∼ Atishbazi by Thugs Unit, Mo Boucher, Irish Boi
Rap in the wider Deccan region
The composite culture of the Deccan is a kaleidoscope of Persian, Muslim and local South Indian elements, that continues to resonate deeply with people to this very day. The popularity of Deccani hip-hop is a testament to this amalgamation of culture. Deccani hip-hop unsettles the politeness of domination by breaking the norms of drawing rooms and tapping into invisible sources of resistance on the street. In this, hip-hop or more accurately rap may have found its home in the cities where Deccani is still the currency of everyday life.
Amy Phua is a doctoral student and her research interests look at various forms of urban life and history in Hyderabad.