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MTV Hustle’s EPR Iyer, Bengali rapper who sang on Udaipur beheading, is no Hindutva hero

EPR became a hero overnight when he performed Religious Extremism on MTV Hustle 2.0 with fans asking Amit Shah to provide him security. But he's no icon of the Hindu Right.

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New Delhi: A rapper from Kolkata is being hailed as the great ‘Hindu voice’ of the nation for his song that condemns the beheading of Kanhaiya Lal, a Hindu tailor in Udaipur, by two Muslim assailants. Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer, or EPR, became a ‘hero’ overnight when he performed his latest song Religious Extremism on the show MTV Hustle 2.0 — before rapper Badshah as the judge — earlier this week.

But going by his past songs, he’s no Hindutva messiah. EPR Iyer calls himself “newspaper rapper” because he’s simply someone who cares about what’s going on in the country. In the best of rap traditions from around the world, he delves into contemporary issues from the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh to the pandemic and the 2019 Lok Sabha election. For EPR Iyer, the history of rap is intrinsically linked to protests and speaking out against social injustices and holds much importance.

“I started learning about the culture and its roots. KRS-One’s verse ‘Rappers spit rhymes that are mostly illegal. Emcees spit rhymes to uplift their people’ made me want to create awareness and consciousness through rap,” he told The Telegraph.

But it is his views against religious extremism that have made the 30-year-old a part of conversations even among a generation not familiar with either him or MTV Hustle 2.0. With Religious Extremism, he’s got a new legion of fans — and detractors. “Calling a spade a spade. This is not just rap, this is the voice of Hindus,” tweeted a fan.

“Please insure security of this rapper… @AmitShahOffice,” tweeted Anurag Saxena, journalist at Amar Ujala. Ever since the song went viral, he has received brickbats and bouquets. “Full of commie venom,” said a Twitter user.

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Making politics evident

EPR’s lyrics are sharp and to the point, undercut by the ferocity of his delivery. His tone in Religious Extremism is aggressive but also beseeching. “Save my country from religious fundamentalism,” he says.

In the song, he raps in detail about the events leading up to Kanhaiya Lal’s beheading after he supported former Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s comments against Prophet Muhammad. He calls out the police for inaction but then dives into the larger narrative of communal violence. He expounds on the ecosystem of hate further provoked by social media. He condemns violence against minority groups: “Brainwashed people/Got no conscience/Thoughts of revenge on one community/Lynchings hote common/hate crimes bhi normal tabhi.”

But that alone does not define EPR’s politics. In his first appearance on MTV Hustle 1.0 in 2019, he rapped about the murder of Gauri Lankesh.

His debut album was titled Protest Poetry and came out in 2020. On Instagram, he calls himself an ‘artivist’. His song Ekla Cholo Re is a paean to farmers who were protesting the Narendra Modi government’s 2020 farm laws. “My way is to speak up for people’s rights through rap,” he told BBC Culture.

MTV Hustle is a reality show that gives a platform to aspiring rappers from all over India to release original tracks and become the ‘biggest hip-hop star’ in the country. In the latest season, he has returned as one of the five ‘score-bosses’ or a mentor to the contestants and sang Religious Extremism.

M-Zee Bella, winner of MTV Hustle 1.0, ended his run on the show with: “Bahut Waqt Se Mein Khush Nahi Khud Se,” a deeply personal track about loneliness.

Tamil rapper Arivu also came into the public eye during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act with rap song Sanda Seivom and catapulted into fame with Enjoy Enjaami, his song with singer Dhee that has over 400 million views on YouTube. Raftaar, another judge on MTV Hustle who also has collaborated with Honey Singh and writes songs for Bollywood, spoke out during the protests.

For this new generation of rappers, current events provide rich fodder. There is a universe of history and culture to draw from, and they have taken the first pivotal steps.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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