Ambedkarite Rap: Dalit student in Delhi injects anger and anxiety against the caste system in his lyrics. With his rap renditions, he turns a new page in a long tradition of musical activism.
I ain’t no Eminem, no T-Pain,
I’m a young Dalit guy using his brain,
To speak of his people,
Who are made to work in your sewers…
Let me tell you they are real human beings
Who are made to go through your stinking pit.
Caste struggle and rap music may seem like an odd combination to the quintessential rap lover. But for Sumeet Samos, a 23-year old post-graduate student in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), rap was a natural progression from writing about the atrocities on his Dalit community. “I used to keep writing about manual scavenging, suicides of Dalit students, etc. until one day when I noticed that there was a rhyme to my writings and I began composing rap.”
Mobilisation through music is not new to the Dalit movement. Over generations, a host of Dalit musicians have sought to challenge caste oppression through songs, ballads and paeans. More recently, existing folk traditions are being blended with Western and international forms to attract new age listeners on social media. An entire generation of Dalit singers, who wear their caste identities on their sleeves, is conjuring up Dalit pride through music which seeks to challenge and annihilate oppressive practices.
Samos is part of this new protest culture, and his fight against the 2500-year-old caste system has adopted a style of resistance that was born in West Africa, and traveled to African American neighborhoods.
“Speeches (on caste) can be long and dry…Sometimes people don’t even listen. With rap, I can sum up our message crisply and powerfully,” says Samos, whose parents had converted to Christianity in the false hope of eluding caste oppression, he added.
Samos¸ who is the first person in his family to go to college, grew up singing and creating music about caste and corporate brutality in his basti in Koraput, Orissa. However, it was only three months ago that he began posting videos of his compositions on Facebook.
Greeshma Rai, a Chennai-based lawyer, calls it “Ambedkarite rap”, and says that rap has been an “unoccupied space” in caste struggle. “I hope his music is mainstreamed to an extent that Ambedkarite rap becomes a genre in itself.”
In the social media universe cluttered with pictures of exotic foods and vain selfies, Samos’ rap videos have rudely disrupted people’s carefully constructed lives and drawn their attention to the question of caste. But he is not promoting his work by sending his songs to media portals. “You know, going to someone and asking for something is difficult for me, since we’ve been doing this forever,” Samos, who has dabbled in poetry, photography, and hip-hop dance, said.
The experience of segregation between “us” and “them” is unmissable in his vocabulary. In his music too, Samos uses a generic “you” to project his anger.
“Back in the day, even when someone wouldn’t talk to me because they were busy, I would attribute their behaviour to a caste bias… I would think all upper-castes are the same,” he said.
Samos’ life is replete with incidents of atrocities and discrimination. “As a child, I would question why I had to be born in this family. Caste was so internalised in my mind that I believed we even smell differently,” he said, speaking of the crisis of identity that beleaguers the lives of scores of Dalit children and adolescents across the country. Their anxieties are evident in Samos’ lyrics.
Look what you’ve done
The pain has still not gone.
You made me question my parents, my birth, my human existence,
My appearance, my food, my clothes, my smell , etiquette, mannerism.
With an increasing number of children from marginalised communities pursuing primary and higher education, government institutions continue to tick boxes of diversity within the classroom. But Samos speaks of how harrowing the lived realities of such statistical progress can be. “In school, upper caste boys would tie my hands to the fan and leave me there for hours, with oil smothered on my face”. When he shifted to Bhubaneswar for high school, he recalls, the harassment became worse – as opposed to what commonplace understanding of cast dynamic in cities would have us believe.
But Samos, whose music, is assertive, subversive and unapologetic, had had enough. When the discrimination became “too much”, he got rid of the internalisation of his inferiority, and began to question. “I even threw a notebook at a casteist teacher once”.
But JNU was no different. Samos speaks of the “invisibilised forms of discrimination” in JNU as well – a space he otherwise loves. Ostensibly “progressive professors” in the university are no paragons of equality in reality, he claims. “In viva tests, we (Dalit students) are invariably marked low…Even though we perform well in written exams.” Clearly, after what has been a lifetime of oppression for him and his family, Samos has a sharp eye for veiled forms of discrimination.
Tirna Chatterjee, a student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, says Samos’ music is interesting, because he is seeking to alienate not just the Right, but also the elite Left through his compositions. Samos says he is not actively seeking to forge unity with either the Left or the Right. To promote Ambedkar’s message is his only motivation, he says.
There is also perhaps disillusionment with established norms in general. Fiery and subversive, his music has little patience with critical sensibility – deliberately so. In an impromptu composition for ThePrint, he raps:
When I rap, I don’t subscribe
To your critical merit
and musical understanding
To express my people’s view is my only longing
Because you’ve stripped us of our human belonging.
– Sanya Dhingra is a Reporter with ThePrint. You can follow her on Twitter @DhingraSanya