The Commodification Of Hip-Hop In India: A Discussion

Image: Prabh Deep by Nishant Jhamb

When describing Indian hip-hop, the word ‘nascent’ may as well be crumpled up and lit on fire amongst other cliched terms like: game-changing, fledgling, budding, out there, and breath of fresh air. Indian hip-hop has been around for a while; through acts like Panjabi MC, Street Academics, Raftaar, Bombay Bassment and others, the genre has been cemented, though maybe not as visibly as it is today. Over the last few years, the mainstream has taken notice of a different type of hip-hop: slowly building momentum through the streets, gaining popularity via the internet’s recycling of likes, re-tweets and shares, it snaked its way through the back alleys of major metropolis’ and has now rooted itself in corporate boardrooms.

From being turned away at clubs to being on billboards in New Delhi and Mumbai, India now boasts a kind of hip-hop that is neither nascent or new; rather, it’s a portal into the psyche of those who have always been on the fringes. The outsiders looking in. Now, they are the culture.

As Indian hip-hop is enveloped in this meteoric rise, everyone is aching for a slice. The question of whether brands are latching onto hip-hop as a fad is being whispered in the corners. Are artists stuck in a perpetual problem of money over legacy? With corporates depending on rappers to change the way they’re perceived and rappers depending on companies for cash to pay the bills, is there an ethical way to go about this?

Image: Seedhe Maut by Samrat Nagar for Homegrown

Encore of rapidly-rising New Delhi-based duo Seedhe Maut explained:“hip-hop is popping up right now. Not just [in] India, but the hip-hop/trap wave has consumed most part of the world. And the trend doesn’t seem to slow down anytime soon. It’s only natural for brands to associate themselves with trends to stay relevant.” Uday Kapur, co-founder of Azadi Records echoed this sentiment stating, “The primary reason is hype.” He went on to explain how many companies in the music scene, including Azadi, gravitated towards Indian hip-hop as it offered “something fresh” after a long time of stagnation and a focus on electronic music. The listeners also play a part for Kapur as “homegrown hip-hop has an audience that previously the industry didn’t/couldn’t speak to so it’s a completely new market for brands who have been involved with the scene for years.”

Shantanu Pujari of Mumbai-based hip-hop collective Swadesi sees the glass half-empty, “We believe an individual coming from a poor background has no one else ready to sponsor [them] but Bira or Saavn. If the artist is able to pay their bills and fulfill their responsibilities in their family then it is fair.” Smokey the Ghost, an MC, rapper and producer voiced a similar opinion, “Well, brands always ride waves and clearly hip-hop has been growing and has grown today into one of the world’s biggest genres.”

Working with brands is a two-sided coin: artists need to pay their bills, and if someone is coming from a lower socio-economic background, the money presented by large companies is an easy cash-grab. For some, like Encore, going for the money doesn’t equate to selling out: “Money is what has driven generation of rappers to create a legacy. Do you think anyone wants to hear a broke rapper giving financial advice to people? Let the audience decide what’s good enough.” And Divine, one of India’s most well-known rappers, explained how his team make decisions, “[We] have never jumped into these deals and have always taken our time with brand associations so that goes a long way. It’s great that brands are working with more artists in the genre as a lot of artists are doing quality work right now.”

Image: Divine & Raja Kumari

Despite his well-intentioned answer, Divine’s authenticity has been called into question lately. A casteist slur by collaborator Raja Kumari on their latest song, ‘Roots’, had social media in uproar. Questions of whether the duo have forgotten their roots are prominent – he’s proudly from the ‘gullies’ of Mumbai, while Raja Kumari has a degree in religious studies, with a focus on South Asia. Firmly in the grasp of corporations, the duo continue to play sold-out shows ignoring the calls for an apology. In response to whether artists’ vision is being compromised, Divine stated, “Not really, no. Working with brands sometimes also helps with being able to have the means to put out more quality music, produce better videos and more.”

Origin stories can become murky and quickly forgotten when the artist is flushed with cash, clothes and fame. Smokey the Ghost summarised this eloquently: “You see what happened with Naezy? He is clearly the dude who started this gully rap trend. Fame and money got to him so bad that he couldn’t handle it at all. Low or high income, at the end of the day it’s more about knowing where you are. I would be fine if the authenticity is lost, but what it really does is it kills the rapper and the art form. Many rappers I know who signed big money deals, don’t have the drive anymore to rap with the same heart as before.”

Artists are clearly opinionated about being exploited; there’s a layer of scepticism about co-ownership, so how do brands fix this? For Uday Kapur, it’s “a responsibility on their shoulders once they cross a certain threshold. Which I don’t think they realise. I think as long as the artists are actually treated as equals and are allowed to be a part of the ideation process these partnerships always tend to work out better.” When Kapur and Mo Joshi founded Azadi Records, their intent was true to this and they set out to do things differently, “The first thing is we’ve never done a deal where we’ve compromised on content – it’s always important for an artist to have creative control. Secondly, it has to make sense of the artist’s identity and general vision – the compatibility has to be there from the outset.” And it seems Bira 91, who Azadi and their artists have worked closely with, seem to also be on board.

Rohit Pillai, the Associate Director of Events and Partnerships at Bira 91, said, “I think the fear of one’s art not being relevant (in other words a passing trend), is par for the course. Bira 91 is working with fewer artists, over longer terms.” This investment in the future, is a good indicator that companies are in it for the long haul. For Pillai, he sees Bira 91’s role as a facilitator. “Our aim is to provide the artists with the resources to produce and a platform to distribute content. Authenticity is in the hands of the artists and the team helping produce content and manage image (labels, managers etc).”

Image: Seedhe Maut by  Zacherie Rabehi

Saavn declined to comment while PUMA’s Marketing Head, Debosmita Majumder, answered: “Collaborations between hip-hop artists and sportswear brands go back as far as the eighties so we don’t really see this as just a passing trend. PUMA has iconic shoes like the PUMA Suede, which has been a cultural street and hip-hop symbol over the decades. With hip-hop just starting to gain momentum in India now we see this only growing.”

Comments that double as thinly-veiled product placement can only further add to the conversation that corporations are treating Indian hip-hop as a cash cow. When pressed on how they’re ensuring the authenticity of the artist isn’t lost with these collaborations, Majumder said, “Each artist is unique and when we work with them, we partner with them in a manner where they can unapologetically be themselves.” They went on to state how the “suede gully video was shot in cool gullies” glossing over the fact that the company had to apologise for spray-painting a historic wall in Old Delhi – a fact that was brought to their attention only after the video’s launch.

The company have also been forthright about ‘Suede Gully’ being a music video that doubled as a commercial for their brand of shoes. Officially submitting it to Cannes Lions 2018 – the international award for advertising – the company haven’t been one to shy away from their transparency. Whether they have the artists at the forefront of their ideals or treat them as mere mere tools for PUMA’s personal gain remains to be seen.

Image: Prabh Deep by Abhishek Shukla

Azadi, meanwhile, has been a stout advocate of ensuring they get the best deal for their artists. They haven’t been afraid to fight the status quo to establish themselves either. And they’re very careful about who they work with, “We’re happy for their support, but it’s important to note that Bira 91 came to us and treated Prabh like an equal – they heard what our vision was and gave us the freedom to explore that and see where we could fit the brand in.” Kapur went on to express how Bira 91 allowed Azadi and Prabh to develop ideas themselves, making the partnership a viable one. When they worked with PUMA, things were a bit different, “The PUMA deal was the opposite though – we were given a brief and with ‘Class-Sikh’ dropping around that time – it made sense for Prabh to get that visibility through an apparel brand. I would say the downside of that deal was we surrendered our social media too easily and that’s something we’re careful about these days.”

This wave of hip-hop-and-corporate partnership will reach its zenith soon. The intertwining of corporations with hip-hop in India is very much present, as demonstrated by the ‘Suede Gully’ music video created by PUMA; or how Bira 91 have created an entire platform – and festival – dedicated to Indian hip-hop; and Saavn, the major streaming platform, are ensuring that they too, are on the cutting edge with their heavy promotion of artists.

Whether PUMA or Saavn have a long-term aim with hip-hop remains to be seen. But what companies like Bira 91 are showing us is that there can be an equilibrium when it comes to working with artists and promoting their brand.

written by Dhruva Balram

NEWS - 12. November 2018  

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