BY Sumeet Samos in Music , Opinion | 22 MAR 21
Featured in
Issue 217

Dalit Rap Is India’s New Musical Vanguard

Musician Sumeet Samos on how Dalit music has helped mobilize against caste violence and institutional discrimination

BY Sumeet Samos in Music , Opinion | 22 MAR 21

‘Unlike our ancestors, we won’t remain calm!’ declare Chennai-based hip-hop group The Casteless Collective in their hit single ‘Quota’ (2018). The song went viral thanks to its sharp criticism of India’s caste system, which is often used to humiliate and harass lower-caste Dalits. That same year, I wrote and released the track ‘Ladai Seekh Le’ (Keep Resisting), which names the infamous ‘honour’ massacres of Dalits by higher-caste Hindus – Bathani Tola (1996), Karamchedu (1985), Laxmanpur Bathe (1997) and Tsunduru (1991) – as well as those Dalit university students who took their own lives after being bullied by their higher-caste peers. The opening lines of ‘Ladai Seekh Le’ are: ‘From the time I was born, you stamped me with the tag of a criminal. Provoked by this, I asked you why there have been thousands of castes for centuries, why there are these highs and lows among humans. You have the answers, but you remain silent because you are the culprits. The worth of my existence can be heard in your caste abuses while your midnight freedoms turn our caste neighbourhoods to ashes.’ 

The Casteless Collective
Portrait of The Casteless Collective. Courtesy: The Castless Collective

Ours is an anti-caste rap. It is steeped in the history of large-scale Dalit mobilizations against caste violence, institutional discrimination and anti-Dalit policy. It commemorates crucial events in Dalit history. Paying tribute to anti-caste personalities, it addresses social stereotypes while also demanding equality and respect. Recently, two significant shifts occurred in the Indian rap scene. The first was the move from underground to mainstream around 2016, largely driven by the speed at which independently produced music videos could be distributed. The second was an increase in the genre’s popularity beyond a few major metropolitan areas. Outside of Bombay, for instance, gully rap became popularized by the release of the 2019 Bollywood movie Gully Boy, as well as by the launch of new record labels like Azadi Records, Gully Gang, IncInk and Kalamkaar. ‘Hip-Hop Homeland’ (2016–ongoing), a web docuseries on 101 India, has further expanded the genre’s reach across digital media. Brands such as Budweiser, Pepsi and Red Bull have begun to capitalize on the music’s popularity by incorporating rappers into their ads, some of whom now have more than a million followers on social media. In 2019, MTV launched India’s first rap reality-television show, MTV Hustle

Popularity is not the only metric of success, of course. When these musicians claim to speak hard-hitting truths, how often do they address the issues that are most relevant to Dalit people? True anti-caste rappers – such as Arivu (a founding member of The Casteless Collective), Harish Kamble, Rap Toli and myself, who have voiced our opinions about caste in our lyrics – have experienced the system’s numbing effects first-hand. Despite the rise in popularity of the genre, there are still striking differences between the crowds that anti-caste rap and mainstream commercial rap cater to and the venues in which they are performed. The former is usually staged at protest sites in Dalit localities with the intention of mobilizing the crowds to collective action, while the latter mostly caters to clubs and festivals with the sole aim of entertainment.

Gully Boy, film poster
Zoya Akhtar, Gully Boy, 2019, film poster. Courtesy: the artist

Until Arivu and I started addressing these themes in the mid-2010s, the hip-hop scene in India was largely oblivious to anti-caste discourse. Since our lyrics directly criticized Indian society, mainstream platforms would rarely endorse our performances. However, two events in 2016 prompted countrywide mobilizations calling for justice against the violence and institutional discrimination suffered daily by Dalits: the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad and the flogging of several youths in Una, Gujarat. These tragedies pushed anti-caste rap to the fore and, within a short time, we acquired a substantial audience of a newly politicized Dalit youth, for whom our songs hold huge significance.

It’s still rare for mainstream rappers with a broader audience to discuss caste, however. While they may make the odd veiled allusion to casteism as one of a number of social problems, they fear the reaction of Indian society as a whole, whose socio-cultural institutions are largely governed by the higher castes. But it’s time the entire rap community began to openly address the caste system and help permanently dismantle India’s most deep-rooted and destructive social issue.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘Sound and Fury’.

Main image: Arivu, ‘Sanda Seivom’ (Let Us Fight), 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Sumeet Samos is an Indian Dalit music artist and rapper. He writes and sings in English, Hindi and Odia. He lives in Koraput and New Delhi, India.