10 Activist Musicians From India Giving Voice To Important Social Issues - Homegrown

10 Activist Musicians From India Giving Voice To Important Social Issues

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“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

― Howard Zinn

A glance back at the last two years alone should suffice in throwing up dozens of protests that have taken place in our country - a mass revolting for rights that should have been accorded to citizens in the first place; whether it’s been women’s safety, fighting against the criminalisation of Section 377 or the price of onions - it’s never been more important to voice our concerns in the society that we live in and it’s time to get creative about it too. Art and protest have a long, torrid history with censorship always just kept at bay. An anomaly, you would think, in a democratic state.
Just a few weeks ago, Sofia Ashraf’s rap protesting Unilever’s involvement in a toxic pollution case amassed millions of eyeballs for a cause that had begun to lose steam, proving that music has carved its own niche in this game of cat and mouse. From adapting tribal songs, to bass-heavy remixes of old Bollywood tracks, to singing at rallies, and so much more - the call of protest music is possibly the noblest craft. We take a look at ten artists who are trying to make a difference in the most non-violent, wonderful way possible. Scroll down and get inspired to start making your own (musical) noise about the issues that affect you.

I. The Ska Vengers 

...who pioneered the genre ‘Ska’ and performed it for Tihar Jail’s inmates

The Ska Vengers have carved a niche for themselves in the independent scene not just for pioneering ‘ska’ as a genre in the country, but also for consistently exhibiting a refreshing social awareness through their highly dance-friendly music. Blending ska with elements of dub, punk, jazz and rap with Cuban and Latin influences thrown in for good measure, this 8-piece collective is pure energy on stage and have had fans and critics alike, hooked since their conception in 2009.
Socially relevant songs in the past have included ‘Badda,’ which laments the censorship of our media that is so rampant today, and talks about the manipulation of the Indian news media to suit personal interests. They didn’t mince any words with the animated video titled “A message to you, Modi” in 2014 either, when - in a cover of The Specials’ 60’s tune ‘A Message to you, Rudy’ - they blasted Narendra Modi, then political frontrunner for the national elections, for his oppressive views on journalistic and artistic freedom, women’s safety and the rights of the LGBT community and other minority groups - and most of all, his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, highlighting that all of these should be issues of concern for everyone in the country, including BJP supporters.

The band’s lead singer, Delhi Sultanate, said, “In 2002, we had terrible riots in the state of Gujarat, some people have described it as a pogrom in which more than 2,000 Muslims had been killed. Many people are convinced that he played a direct role in these riots.And this man has a huge, very well-funded PR campaign.”
The Ska Vengers also held the largest rock concert to be held in a prison, playing for 2, 000 inmates inside South Asia’s largest jail, Tihar, in 2012. After wading into crime, media, rights and politics, they most recently released a new song and video, ‘Frank Brazil’ on July 31 to commemorate the 75th death anniversary of Indian freedom fighter Shaheed Udham Singh, who had several aliases like this one, just in time for Independence Day too. He was branded a terrorist and executed for the assassination of Michael O’Dwyer, the British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on April 13, 1919, in which 1, 000 people were killed within 10 minutes of firing.
“I’ve wanted to make a song about Udham Singh ever since I learnt of him and have been researching him over the years. The idea came up again at a jam session earlier this year,” says Taru Dalmia, who performs as Delhi Sultanate, whose organisation ‘Word Sound Power’ has also done some incredible socio-political work. “Part of what drove me to write the song is that upon first learning of Singh I could not believe that I had never heard of him. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The song is our attempt to pay tribute to one of our national heroes.”
The animated video created by Kunal Sen and Tisha Deb Pillai, follows the 21 years of Singh’s life after the massacre to the point of his assassination of Michael O’Dwyer, and his consequent execution in Pentonville Prison. You can watch the video below:

II. Kabir Kala Manch 

...whose socially-aware sound resonates even from behind bars

Kabir Kala Manch, translating into Kabir Arts Forum, is a 13-year-old cultural troupe of about ten musicians based out of Pune whose songs and plays often critique the state, with collaborators coming from socially or financially marginalised backgrounds. This is a collective that has truly seen the dark side of questioning and critiquing state policies with three musicians from the collective - Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe - being arrested in April 2015, and several of their shows being cancelled or interrupted by those who consider their work to be ‘anti-nationalist’. If anything, the reactions to their material just make us question the state of democracy in the country in itself, and this is not a conversation the authorities are going to be able to shut down, regardless of how many concerts they do.
“Since December 2014 and even earlier, there have been assaults on the freedom of expression — a constitutional guarantee — of writers and singers like me,”

said Sarath Naliganti, a young Dalit political activist, who also sang at Horata, a cultural resistance festival that the media and arts collective Maraa organised in October and November, 2014, in Bangalore. “But the Indian government is hardly curbing the rising frequency of such unacceptable actions.”
Sambhaji Bhagat, who collaborates with Kabir Kala Manch often, has been singing at various protests against the ridiculous indifference of society towards the socio-economically marginalised, highlighting the violence faced by Dalits, the excesses and the corruption in the government and the fallacy of a system in which a few enjoy extreme privileges at the cost of the majority.

“We are cultural politicians,” Bhagat said. “Our role is to counter injustice with justice and healing, war with peace, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. The medium and methods used to convey the message are important as they could determine if the communication is correct and complete.”
A symbol of peaceful, non-violent resistance, Kabir Kala Manch performs quite frequently in universities, theatres and slums across the country, and they have been creating meaningful songs and plays to make the listener think for themselves and question government policies, especially though that perpetuate India’s socio-economic divide.
Various members of the Kabir Kala Manch have been imprisoned since 2011 under the draconian 1967 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act on exaggerated charges of political extremism, but the artists - none of whom have received any professional training in the performing arts - persist in their efforts and only intend to intensify their campaigns in the future.

III. JJI Exile Brothers

...bringing India the melodies of traditional Tibetan instruments

Formed in 1998, this Tibetan rock band gives voice to the first generation of Tibetans like themselves, who have been born and brought up in exile in India. Based in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, the band consists of Jigme Tenzing along with his brothers, Tenzin Jamyang, a traditional thangka painter, and Tenzin Ingsel, whose music is infused with a blend of blues-rock as well as traditional Tibetan instruments like the Tibetan guitar, Tibetan flute and the yungching (a stringed bow instrument). Unsurprisingly, their music has caught on famously amongst the Tibetan youth.
“Politics has always been a part of our lives, especially with my generation,” says Tenzing Jigme, guitarist of JJI Exile Brothers, a Tibetan rock band. “The struggle for Tibetan independence is what brings all Tibetans together, and that is the driving force behind us. Freedom is in our blood.”
This generation has also witnessed the shift in political governance that occurred in March 2011, when the Dalai Lama relinquished his formal political authority, sending ripples through the Tibetan community all over the world. Harvard Law School graduate Mr. Lobsang Sangay was elected to the position of Sikyong (formerly the Kalon Tripa) in a tangible move to gain representative governance, and it is this paradigm shift that the generation exists in that the band tries to capture.

Image Credit: Sami Siva/The Caravan
Image Credit: Sami Siva/The Caravan

JJI Exile Brothers staunchly remain amongst those persisting in taking the Tibetan struggle forward, with their music, and their self-titled debut album, released in 2002, features songs centring on the longing and angst of Tibetans dreaming of their return to their country.
“I was a big fan of Rock Machine (now Indus Creed) growing up, and we performed with Parikrama in New Delhi in support of a Free Tibet a few years ago. My dream artist to collaborate with would be Indian Ocean,” he told Homegrown in an exclusive interview.
Since their debut, the band has recorded close to 70 songs and will be releasing their next album entitled ‘Dokhi’ soon. Jigme explained that Dokhi is a Tibetan nomad dog, known for being extremely spirited and loyal to its owner.

IV. MC Kash 

...whose rap is the voice of local Kashmiris

Roushan Illahi, AKA MC Kash  is a 24-year-old Kashmiri man who was ‘seduced by the sincerity’ of lyrical hip-hop, and went on to employ the form in the most authentic way possible: to voice his angst and sheer frustration of living in an occupied territory. Pop references that are ubiquitous in Western hip hop are replaced by references to local martyrs, the Qur’an, historical events, the perennial violence and instability to weave together a powerful narrative in a feat that is nothing short of artistry.
‘I Protest’ was the first track that brought MC Kash into the spotlight, a track about the demonstrations in 2010, following widespread violence in the Valley, which left over a 100 dead. Opening with news clips about the violence, the lyrics are undeniably graphic, and the song concludes with him listing all the names of the people who had died. Referring to the control of the authorities in India-administered Kashmir as a ‘murderous regime’, he elaborates on the ‘endless occupation’ and freedom of speech’ being ‘subjected to strangulation’.

Like many in the conflict-plagued area, Roushan too has lost loved ones in the crossfire and one of the people he mentions, Inayat Khan, was a friend of his. “I still remember walking up to his funeral among wails and tears. I still remember the scars all over his body. I still remember shouldering his coffin,” MC Kash told the BBC.
His self-produced debut album ‘Rebel RepubliK,’ a small effort to pay respect to a noble soul of Kashmir, similarly sticks to the streets and his chosen narrative goes a long way in conveying the otherwise difficult to describe, adding a gravity to his work that strikes a chord with the discerning listener. Having discovered hip hop growing up in the valley thanks to the world wide web, rappers like Tupac presented no less than an epiphany in how he could adapt the genre to give voice to the turbulence and loss in his life. And while he borrows from artists like Immortal Technique, he never once compromises on the authenticity of his own work.

”English is a universal language,” he explained. “Kashmiris know how they have suffered. So if I went on to rap about it in Kashmiri, that would be useless.”
Roushan’s studio has been raided by the Indian police several times in a bid to figure out who is backing him, but they have failed to find anything. MC Kash said in an interview that he is independent: “Nobody is paying me. Nobody told me to go sing about Kashmir.”
Despite being labelled ‘anti-India’ and ‘anti-nationalist’ often, he has succeeded in propelling a movement of rappers in the region who, inspired by him, have turned to the medium to express their frustrations of being subjected to years of unmitigated power struggles and violence, similarly.

V. Engine-Earz & Shiva Soundsystem

...singing loud for women and the respect they deserve

The horrific 2012 Delhi gang rape case that is today known as ‘Nirbhaya’ was nothing short of a national wake up call to the atrocities that women in India had been suffering for years, with outraged protests taking place across the country spanning demographics. It was out of this incident that the internationally-acclaimed play ‘Nirbhaya’ was directed and staged by Yael Farber, a South African playwright and director, who felt a huge sense of complicitness upon hearing about the rape; who felt that although she wasn’t perpetuating the violence, she was perpetuating the silence. “Her story was a tipping point, not only for people in India but outside, too,” she said of the play that is named after the pseudonym for Jyoti Singh Pandey, ‘Nirbhaya’, meaning ‘the fearless one’. “Sometimes a story just cuts through like a scalpel and says: I need to be heard.”
The play uses elements of Pandey’s rape to contextualize true stories of the cast, which includes Sapna Bhavnani, Sneha Jawale, Poorna Jagannathan, Rukhsar Kabir, Japjit Kaur, Ankur Vikal and Priyanka Bose. It was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival against this backdrop of profound concern and shock, and the few lines that it opened with prompted Nerm, London-based DJ and broadcaster to release the track ‘Chalte Chalte’ remixed by Engine-Earz to draw attention to the campaign, and to raise funds through a Kickstarter campaign to bring the play to India, where it needed to be staged the most.

“When I saw it in London before the cast headed to Edinburgh I was rocked to my core - it’s one of the most poignant pieces of art I’ve ever seen,” Nerm shared. “The play opened with lines from ‘Chalte Chalte’ and profoundly changed the way I now listen to the song. The emotions I felt are very well expressed by the Engine-Earz “Unheard Directors Cut” remix, which is why I insisted we release that version alongside the highly sought after cinematic version.” 
Along with the two versions of ‘Chalte Chalte’ by Engine-Earz, Nerm and D-Code, the other half of Shiva Soundsystem, included their remix of ‘Phool Ka Taron Ka’, also made for the soundtrack to ‘Everywhere and Nowhere’ and a bonus version that’s never been heard before.
Even as the whole country united to take the first few steps towards according women the respect they have always deserved, it is heartening to see Indians from all over the world paying rapt attention to this movement in the country that is so crucial, and going ahead to do their bit to affect social change in the ways that they can.

VI. Imphal Talkies

...whose name itself challenges social orthodoxy

Formed in the summer of 2008 by Akhu and Sachidananda, Imphal Talkies & The Howlers is a folk rock band that is now based in Delhi. Their name is cheekily taken from a cinema theatre back home that used to screen only ‘A’ rated movies, a shocker for a conservative society like the one in the small town of Imphal. Suffice to say, these guys were well ahead of their time.
The band has been performing at protest events in and around Delhi, playing songs with contemporary lyrics that speak out against the insurgency in Manipur and the Indian Army’s handling of it, which ranges from insensitive to downright brutal. Their debut album ‘Tiddim Road’ features the track ‘Lullaby’ that elaborates on this situation and the repression by the army through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, and atrocities towards minorities are two elements that the band stands staunchly against and the band, which performs both in English and Manipuri, has been touted ‘the voice of the North East’ for their work. Life in a conflict-ridden area is an important theme defining their material, and there is a profound anger, pathos and frustration that comes through from the tales of people being kidnapped, killed and raped, all of which is delivered with a healthy dose of satire.

“Back in Manipur, people are so caught between the police and politicians that they have no voice,” says Keith Wallang, founder of Springboard Surprises, a Shillong-based company managing musicians from the North East. “It is perhaps because he was away in Delhi that Akhu could be objective about the situation here.” He also mentioned that nobody was doing something so blatantly political.
One of the band’s earlier songs is called ‘AFSPA (Toilet session with Netbook and 50RS condenser mike)’ while another, ‘Qutub Minar’, narrates the lifting of the 12th-century monument from Delhi and carting it off in the Assam-Avadh Express to Imphal, to place it next to the Samu Makhong sculpture there. Other tracks of theirs include ‘India, I see Blood on your Hands,’ which discusses issues ranging from Kashmir and Narendra Modi to Binayak Sen and the salwa judum.

VII. Swarathama

...where groovy, folk rock music plays for a cause

“We react to what we see around us,” Jishnu Dasgupta, bass guitarist of the band shared. “We are aware and keep track of what’s happening around us.  Some incidents make us proud, some sad, while others outrage us. However, as musicians it is important for us to be affected by it all. We cannot bring about a change, but we can assist someone to take to his course by lighting the spark in him through our songs.”
Light the spark they did, and how. This Bangalore-based folk rock’s debut song, ‘Ee Bhoomi’, set the tone from the get-go regarding their activist inclinations, and over the years, Swarathama has truly become one of the torchbearers for Indian protest music. Bangalore folk rock act Swarathma recently released a video for their track ‘Pyaasi’, a collaboration with songstress Shubha Mudgal, in association with Gibson and the Global Water Challenge, addressing the issue of the water crisis and lack of access to sanitation. Their 2012 album Topiwalleh features songs such as ‘Yeshu Allah aur Krishna, a song that exposes religious hypocrisy, to ‘Aaj ki Taaza Fikar,’ the band wishes to strike a chord in people’s hearts so that it makes them think even as they groove to their tunes.

VIII. Gaddar

...the legend that brought Telangana independence, and us, the music telling that story

Balladeer Gaddar is a legend of the Indian revolutionary movement that attained Telangana its status of an independent state. Born into a poor Dalit family, the music of Gaddar was a result of consequences and inequalities. He couldn’t finish his college education, as he had to start working to earn his livelihood. Gadar’s activism, since its very roots, has been fighting for the new Telangana state and he left his job working in a chemical factory back in 1984 to become a full-time activist, as a part of Jana Natya Mandali, and this was where he mastered the art of song, dialogue and dance - the moving form of ballad. The following year, he was forced to go into exile for five years, living underground; roaming the forests of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, and spreading the revolutionary ideology through folk arts.
His powerful songs grounded in questions of identity and motherland captured the imagination of the masses and Gaddar went on to develop a cult reputation in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

IX. Indian Ocean

...the environmentalists with electric guitars

Vocalist and guitarist of Indian Ocean Rahul Ram has a longstanding relationship with an activism for years, having been an ardent supporter of Narmada Bachao Andolan back in the early 90’s, something that he says has influenced his music immensely. Their first prominent protest song was probably “Chitu,” a tribal anthem that Ram had come across over the course of being involved in the Narmada Movement. He said, “The song “Chitu” was born in February 1993 when I found myself in jail. It’s about a man named Chitu who had lost his home to the government. Ironically, the jail I was in was Chitu’s home. It was surreal. The jail’s thanedaar (the police official in charge of the jail station) joined us as we were singing it.” Confessing that it was one of the most challenging songs for him, he explained that while the lyrics bring the aggression, the composition was a mellow one, which is why he ‘just had to reign it all in’ when he was playing. Since then, protest songs have been a given on Indian Ocean albums.

Widely recognised as the pioneer of fusion rock music in India, their song on the 1993 riots caught on famously, which was a part of the film Black Friday by Anurag Kashyap, which went on to be banned in almost no time after its release, and re-release in February, 2007.
Indian Ocean’s seventh album most recently was also jam-packed with protest anthems, such as ‘Gar Ho Sake’, with vocals by Shubha Mudgal, that Ram calls ‘a leftie anthem’.
Rahul Ram has even given a TED talk on protest music, and elaborated on the genre in an interview, “The ‘workers of the world unite’ kind of thing is no longer relevant.  The Indian farmer today does not feel like he is one with the farmer in Russia, for instance. Sab khatam hogaya. Issues relating to the environment, caste, displacement and a number of urban issues are coming to the fore today.”

X. Ashwini Mishra

...bringing critical debate to the table with hip-hop

“I like to talk about things that are not heard of or talked about in the mainstream,”

said Mishra, who boycotted the 2014 elections because they were ‘as rigged as the IPL’.
Mumbai-based rapper Mishra lets his alter ego A-List take over often as an angry, incensed personality. A-list is pretty much the poster face of hip-hop activism along with MC Kash, these days. Founded in Kolkata 2004, Mishra writes rhymes on everything that’s affecting him with his rhymes helping in processing the agitation of the today’s youth, of all things that are unequal. From ‘True Lies: Tale of Afzal Guru‘ (“I like to know someone before I execute them.”) to ‘Naxalbari‘ (“Your hero is Steve Jobs, mine is Soni Sori”) to the more recent Muck Fodi (“Corporate Friendly, come on man, drop it sunny / We know Ambani gives you pocket money / Muck Fodi, Muck Fodi.”). Through his songs he has managed to stir people into debates and ask the right type of questions, encouraging critical debate and touching upon several topics of public interest spanning Indian history and current events.
“I don’t trust anyone in power,” he said. “Though I have no agenda except expressing myself, I am glad that my music triggers debates.”

Check out his work below.

Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari

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