Hardline, Hardline After Hardline: The Manifesto Of Pakistani Hip-Hop
In 2012, the Pakistan Telecom Authority blocked YouTube in response to an anti-Islamic film called Innocence of Muslims that had been posted on the video-sharing website. Since 2008, the PTA has thrice banned YouTube due to the presence of content that it considers blasphemous, only allowing YouTube to (officially) start functioning once they launched a local version of the service in January 2016. Only a fraction of Pakistan’s 199 million plus population protested.
In response to the ban, underground public-interest movements such as Bytes For All and Bolo Bhi began raising awareness about the issue and its consequences but hit a roadblock when it came to starting a public dialogue. This is when Adil Omar, one of Pakistan’s most prominent rappers, and Ali Gul Pir, a comedian and rapper, stepped in and composed a song titled #KholoBC. They went after the PTA with a vengeance. The song, which was produced by Talal Qureshi, became an anthem for the movement – garnering over a 100,000 views within a month and getting significant airplay on television.
While it failed to convince the PTA to withdraw the ban, it laid down a marker for the direction Pakistani hip-hop would take over the next three years.
Adil Omar is Pakistani hip-hop’s latest star. He’s currently touring the United States (including an appearance at SXSW 2016)with Saturday Night Killing Machine – his electro-rap project with Talal Qureshi. Having been earmarked at the age of 16 by Cypress Hill’s B-Real, the Islamabad-based artist is part of a growing collective of MCs that are using hip-hop to expose Pakistani society’s hypocrisy. Omar, who began writing as part of a text battle rap community called DRS Clan on Orkut, reached out to B-Real over the Internet and soon found himself recording alongside artists such as Xzibit in the Grammy-nominated MC’s studio in Los Angeles. He’s at the forefront of pushing left-field Pakistani hip-hop and, along with Qureshi, electronic music across the world.
Down south, Omar’s contemporary Faris Shafi is making his presence felt amongst Pakistan’s fundamentalists. Hailing from Lahore, Shafi’s lyrics are brutal in their condemnation of his society’s turn towards radical Islam and the rampant corruption present in the system.
‘Muskara’, his third single, was taken off YouTube after it angered religious extremists, and flooded Shafi’s inbox with hate mail. “My grandfather was a writer,” he says. “Every evening he used to sit with me and write. I always wanted to be like him. I consider rap music to be the best form of poetry and 2Pac inspired me to take it up seriously.” While Shafi doesn’t consider himself a political person, he’s adamant that he’ll continue writing lyrics that have a socio-political message. “The only reason I write about Pakistan is because that’s the only society I’ve lived in,” he says. “But I believe these issues resonate with people across countries.”
Following from the likes of Gulzar Alam and Hameed Akhtar (Shafi’s grandfather), who sang folk songs and wrote about the political situation in Pakistan, artists such as Omar, Shafi and Young Desi are bringing their frustrations with the status-quo to the fore and providing an alternative narrative to the ground realities in the country.
YouTube, in a country like Pakistan, is an extremely important medium for artists to market themselves. While MCs such as Omar, Shafi, Bohemia, Young Desi and others are able to get airtime on local television and radio channels due to the commercial appeal of their music, the underground hip-hop movement in Pakistan is relying on platforms like YouTube to showcase their art.
Pakistani hip-hop’s Dangal
Xpolymer Dar was born in Khobar, Saudi Arabia before moving to Raja Bazaar, a slum in the suburbs of Pakistan’s fourth-most populous city, Rawalpindi. Having experimented with poetry at an early age, Dar became engrossed with hip-hop culture after listening to ‘Illmatic’, Nas’ seminal debut album. He’s part of a crew called Rap Engineers, who have gained a strong following within Pakistan and as far as Toronto. They also run the They-See Battle League, a battle rap league that pits MCs against each other in a one-on-one face off to humiliate and take each other down solely using their lyrical skills.
His fascination with the format stems from the 90s beef between rappers LL Cool J and Canibus and the recent success of battle rap leagues such as Grind Time Now (US) and King of the Dot (Canada). “At the time, the lyricism and hunger of the rappers was operating on a level that was miles ahead of those in mainstream hip-hop,” he says. “That inspired me to start battling my fellow rappers in university, and eventually led to the formation of the They-See Battle League.”
The first They-See Battle took place in Riyadh, where MCs Blac Panther and M.Zhe were in the midst of an intense rivalry. Dar reached out to them and convinced them to settle the beef in a one-on-one battle on neutral ground. “The environment was really great,” says M.Zhe, who now runs his own label called Gawky Records. “We’d really put our hearts into creating a quality battle for all the people that showed up but a lot of the lyrics we wrote were so personal that only Panther and me could understand them.”
The battle gave Dar and his partner Aboo Dean encouragement to continue with They-See, leading them to organize Dangal, Pakistan’s first battle rap event. Dangal was held at the 2F2F Racing Club in Islamabad with 4 battles/8 artists taking part. “It was hard to find rappers that’d be able to deliver the quality we expected from them,” says Dar. “There’s a huge difference between a recording artist and a battle MC, so we were really careful with our curation.” The event gave the They-See Battle League team its first taste of success, and they also got a shoutout by battlerap.com, one of the premier sources of battle rap information in the world.
Dar is slowly laying the seeds for the birth of a South Asian battle league. He’s looking east towards India and Nepal where he hopes to tie up with battle leagues such as Battle Bars Bombay and Raw Barz, looking to build the region into an international force in the world of battle rap.
“We’re definitely open to that,” a representative from Battle Bars Bombay says. “It’ll happen sooner than you think.”
written by – Uday Kapur