At one point during the soundcheck for Gully Fest, which was held at the Famous Studios on a Saturday, DIVINE aka Vivian Fernandes got off the stage and went and stood in the audience zone. Even as his punk-rock backing band Gully Gang, tight and brilliant, that provided much firepower for the rapper's headlining set later that night, practised some more, he decided he will not further strain his voice. He was wearing a black hoodie, trousers, a pair of striking yellow shoes, and, of course, his hat. With his arms folded and his right foot tapping to the beats of "One Side," a two-member camera crew capturing his every move, his hype-man and best friend 'JD' on his side, he looked at the whole set-up from a distance: the stage with LED lights, the musicians, and a giant screen at the centre displaying motion art-work custom-made for the 27-year-old rapper's life story — visuals of slums juxtaposed against the high-rises, money flying, a street urchin crossing the road. From back where I was watching, he cut the image of a perfect silhouette against this dazzling backdrop, and a telling one too, as if more interested in the bigger picture than worrying about just getting it right on stage.
It's the first edition of Gully Fest, a one-day hip-hop festival, conceptualised and curated by DIVINE. It seems like a natural thing to do and it also makes business sense, given the dramatic entry of underground hip-hop in the mainstream. It was time, he said, that the scene got a scaled-up, well-produced festival of its own. The line-up included established but niche acts such as Delhi Sultanate featuring Begum X that fuses reggae and Ska; Dee MC — the only woman rapper in the show — who put on an inspired performance; or such young rappers as the MC Altaf and Gravity, both 18-year-olds, who were performing on such a big stage for the first time in their lives. 1200 people turned up. Gully Fest had kept its entry free based on the online registrations because its primary audience — the teenage hip-hop enthusiast — can't afford to buy a ticket to such an event. The makeshift Red Bull bars that sold overpriced alcohol in big plastic glasses, refused to serve underage audience members anything else other than beer.
Even though DIVINE performed for only about 40 minutes in an event that ran for roughly 5 hours, he was omnipresent. Whether it was clips from Red Bull's documentary about him (which features, among other things, celebrity endorsements and visuals of the rapper sending large crowds into a tizzy at his concerts) playing at regular intervals, or the banner of the event which has an illustration of his side-profile — it was as much a celebration of desi hip-hop as it was of DIVINE's journey from his hardscrabble life in the slums of JB Nagar to making it big enough to inspire a Bollywood film (Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy starring Ranveer Singh is based on him and fellow rapper Naezy).
"These young boys also need to get on the stage to understand how it feels… Releasing music… we can do it anytime. But the show part of it is very different," he said during our brief chat shortly after the soundcheck, around lunchtime. The room was busy with crew members who wore black T-shirts with Gully Gang written on the back. When one of the crew members took out a sandwich — those Mumbai-special cheese-chutney sandwiches — from a big bag that's kept for everyone, he asked him to throw him one. He said he takes pride that with the rise of underground rap movement "Mumbai finally has a sound of its own." Indian hip-hop has otherwise been dominated by Delhi and Punjab, broadly of the Honey Singh and Baadshah variety, who talk bling, as opposed to the gritty, street-level stuff of gully rap.
According to him, diss tracks make sense, if at all, when the musicians have a history… and that he won't engage with them, firstly, because he doesn't know them personally, and secondly, simply because they aren't in his league. Few hours later, around midnight, he was spitting poison on the mic, getting back at them…
The topic of the diss track aimed at him by three Kolkata rappers (and there have been other diss tracks by other rappers as well) came up: "There's a lot of hate, but it's cool…," he said. According to him, diss tracks make sense, if at all, when the musicians have a history (like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., Eminem and Mariah Carey). He said he won't engage with them, firstly, because he doesn't know them personally, and secondly, simply because they aren't in his league: "They should concentrate on their own music…" he said, adding, "Plus…I am a bigger man, man." Few hours later, around midnight, he was spitting poison on the mic: 'Yeh diss kar raha hai, woh diss kar raha hai.. Kyun apun one side khel rele hai kya? Woh bhi haq se khela hai, mehnat ka kya? (This person is dissing, that person is dissing… Am I playing a one-one-sided game or what? That too one which I have achieved with my own hard work) as he slipped into the hook line of one of his songs. I thought it would've been more effective if, in the tradition of true rap rivalries, instead of speaking them he'd had spun those words into a rap verse. But the crowd, which comprised large number of hip-hop enthusiast teenagers who might have never been to a gig of this sort, went nuts.
There was more in store for them: Ranveer Singh, who had been chilling with his good friend before he took the stage, would dive into the crowd. The actor joined DIVINE for a rendition for "Mere Gully Mein," a song that is considered to have set the ball rolling for the scene, and a song that the rapper introduced in the language of the streets: 'Ek gaana main karoon? Jiski wajah se poori scene ki maa behen ek ho gayi.' He had kicked off his set with the electrifying "Paintra," composed by Nucleya, from Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz, snarled on to "Jungli Sher," one of whose lines go 'Tairna sikha khaai mein, Isiliye shabdon mein gehraai hai…' (I learnt to swim in the ditch, that's why there is depth in my words). He sang "Farak," which begins with the sound of church bells that alludes to his memories of going to the church with his grandmother when he was a child, and in which he talks about his mother, one of his great themes. It was a charged atmosphere; the crowd head-banged, completed the hook-lines. While thanking sponsors and supporters, he expressed his gratefulness to his label, Sony Music, adding that badmouthing music labels is a case of sour grapes for those who don't get a deal; it was a sly on the diss track that call him "Sony ka chaprasi" (a servant of Sony). From a voice in the margins to seeming all-powerful and invincible, how the tables have turned.
On the night before the event, I had met a bunch of boys in Bandra station who live in the nearby slum. I had heard them using the phrase, 'Kaam 25', in their conversation; it's a slang for saying "job done', and is the name of an original song that DIVINE had composed for the Netflix series Sacred Games. I had asked them what they think of him. One of them had said he likes him, but 'thoda overacting karta hai.' Others seemed to agree. They also said that this kind of music is fine when they are hanging with friends. But at the end of the day, when they are with family, it's the Honey Singhs and the Baadshahs they like to go back to. Which 'gang' do they belong to?