After ordering himself a beer and putting his phone on silent, Vivian Fernandez, more commonly known as DIVINE, says he’s ready to answer questions about Gully Fest, a hip hop music festival being held this weekend in Mumbai. Gully Fest is not only DIVINE’s brain-child, but also a deeply personal project to him. The passion and energy that he has invested in this event seems to have already paid off because the show sold out in 17 minutes.
This craze around Gully Fest stems from the popularity that follows DIVINE, a musical artist breathing life back into Indian street hip hop. For someone who raps for a living and is in the spotlight regularly, Vivian, seems mellow, a refreshing contrast to the larger-than-life personality he portrays in his music videos. When this is communicated to him, he laughs and says, “Even my mother says my music is aggressive. She wants me to make slow songs.”
Vivian says his music career can be traced back to him listening to streets rappers from New York City like The Diplomats and D-Block who performed in the early 2000s— “the golden era of hip hop,” according to him. “No one else around me was listening to the genre of music I was listening to. I used to think I was the coolest because I caught on to the rhymes and flows very easily,” Vivian says breaking into a cheeky smile. But, catchy verses and ear worm beats are only superficial elements of his work.
Talking about viewing rap and hip hop as a holistic craft, Vivian tells me about how he’s grown up reading the lyrics and researching the lives of the rappers whose music he consumed. Getting to know these artists as individuals is important to him because he knows how much someone’s experiences and environment shape their art. “I rap about what I see around me and how I feel. I want to show this side of me because I want people to now that I’m an artist as a whole. That’s why I love hip hop— it’s relatable and communicative. You only need a pen and a mic,” Vivan says.
Even one conversation with DIVINE will make his intelligence obvious. He frankly discusses overcoming unfair circumstances, his distaste for the “poverty porn” narratives that surround Indian street hip hop, and a need to be aware of one’s roots and history. DIVINE’s songs have similar themes— a success story after living an austere life, wanting to make his mother, Nathalina, proud, and the community culture of hip hop. Maybe the reason Vivian, the individual, is soft-spoken during the interview is that his art is supremely raw and expressive and tells his story unabashedly and honestly.
Vivian surrounds himself with artists who have a similar outlook on music and life. “The artists performing at Gully Fest are people whose work I like and follow. They’re the coolest in the scene,” he says reverently. Talking about Enkore and Dee, Vivian says he’s grateful for the role they’ve played in his music career. He tells me about his optimism for Gravity’s rap journey and the respect he has for Major C who has been in the hip hop game for 25 years. “I’ve watched Proof grow from Sahar’s [Mumbai neighbourhood] little boy to where he is right now. The way he’s been promoting hip hop is just beautiful,” he says. Vivian is confident of the fresh and innovative sound that will come out of Gully Fest.
“If there’s only one thing people can get from the event, I hope they take away pride... I never thought of being able to have a stage like this where I could put other artists. I couldn’t make this noise alone. I have a whole scene with me,” he says
Vivian’s respect for fellow artists and love for the hip hop genre is incredibly pure. He talks about creating music that will inspire younger generations, treating his platform with responsibility and humility, and educating aspiring artists on the ins and outs of the music industry to prevent them from being taken advantage of. “I feel like I have to be responsible, but that doesn’t mean I cannot smoke joints in my windows,” Vivian jokes, letting his playful, carefree persona shine through.
DIVINE’s musical journey has brought him to Gully Fest which is more than a hip hop music festival; it is a signal to scores of young voices like Vivian’s that their stories matter and they should be confident and proud of their personalities. DIVINE is leaving an indelible mark on the Indian music industry by challenging the mindless, problematic nature of Bollywood Pop.
His breakout singles, like “Mere Gully Mein” with MC Naezy, musical work in feature productions like Mukaabaz, Blackmail, and Sacred Games, and now, Gully Fest, are giant milestones in a legacy that will predictably be long and illustrious; and Vivian is only just getting started.
Gully Fest is a one-day festival in Mumbai on September 22 featuring DIVINE & his band, Gully Gang, Begum X, Delhi Sultanate, and local hip-hop stars. Entry is via RSVP on Insider.in.
Feature image by: DIVINE at Bira 91 April Fools’ Fest
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