June was a particularly vulnerable time for everyone due to the COVID-19 lockdown, but Neeraj Madhav decided to do something about it — he released the catchy single Panipaali. A newbie to the hip hop scene, Neeraj rapped about boredom, playing ludo, craving for someone who’d sing him to sleep. The lyrics were relatable, and the beats addictive.
In September, Sreenath Bhasi and Sekar Menon released Kozhipunk, a modern take on K Satchidanandan’s satirical poem. The poem talks about a privileged man who shares his rooster, but begins to name the parts of the rooster that he’d like to keep for himself. By the end of the poem, he wants the entire rooster. The current version has psychedelic visuals showcasing the current political scenario — Rohit Vemula’s death, Gowri Lankesh’s murder, the attack on students of Jamia Milla Islamia during the anti-CAA protests, the killing of a hungry man Madhu in Attapadi, and Dadri mob lynching.
One line from the poem goes thus: Ente kozhikomb ningal edutholin, pallu ningal edutholin, poovan mutta ningal edutholin, mulayum ningal edutholin (you can take the rooster’s comb, teeth, eggs and breasts).
The hip hop scene in Kerala has been around since the 90s. Lajjavathiye (2004) from 4 the People had traces of rap, sung and composed by Jassie Gift.
This was followed by Neela Bucket, a parody that kept up with the hiphop aesthetic— the music was borrowed from 50 Cents’ Candy Shop (2005). In 2009, RJV Ernesto, also known as Pakarcha Vyadhi formed Street Academics, the first hip hop collective in Kerala. He mooted an idea to form a hip hop group for spoken word poetry and making pause tapes, critical for the evolution of rap. The group initially rapped over beats, and after rapper Azuran joined them, they began to develop underground musical rap. The group also became more flexible with the addition of new members — currently it has six members.
Hip Hop evolved as a form of protest against oppressors who silence people in the margins, and it resonates with people. Most of the songs are extremely political, some are romantic while some rare ones resemble a casual banter.
Here are some songs you could catch up on. Unfortunately, most don’t have subtitles for Non-Malayali listeners.
Chatha Kaakka – Street Academics
Street Academics’s first EP had six songs, Chatha Kaakka being the most popular even to this day. Chatha Kaakka literally translates to a dead crow, which is a commentary on society’s treatment of people who are less privileged. The song begins with Azuran’s Njaanaaranavo? Njaanara? Chatha Kaakka! Chatha Kaakka! (Who am I? Who am I? A dead crow! A dead crow!) and an answer comes when Njaanaranano? is repeated: I am you, awake (Chatha Kaakka, Chatha Kaakka). The song is observational and experiential, but if one digs deeper, it’s also about the life of those underprivileged. The music video on youtube gives us something to chew on.
Voice of the Voiceless – Vedan
Vedan doesn’t mince words. In his first single Voice of the Voiceless, he’s truthful about the discrimination he and others have faced because of their colour and caste. Here are some lines translated by Radha Gomaty.
Neernilangalin Adimayayurodamayaar, nilangaayiram velilil thirichathaar. Thirich veyilil kulam mudichathethra peru, Muthukkooni thalakal Thaanuminiyum ethramaathram (Who the slave and who the lords of these irrigated fields? Who fenced them into thousand fragments? How many kinsfolk decimated? Spines stooping Heads hanging, How long will you survive?)
The music lifts the rage of the rap. The song showcases the anger on everyone who has influenced this discrimination towards those who are different.
Lokam Mayakathilo and Karivepppila Aakkiyo – Fejo
A native of Kochi, Fejo has been rapping since 2009. His collaboration with contemporaries Achayan and Blesslee resulted in ‘Lokam Mayakathilo’, which has more than 6 lakh views. The first few lines say Lokam mayakathilo, naam ellam urakathilo, deham nadukathilo, naam ellam paathalathilo (Is the world in a trance? Is everyone sleeping? Is the body freezing, are we all in hell?)
Kariveppila Aakkiyo is another favourite of Fejo. The title literally translates to ‘Did you make me a curry leaf?’ The music video shows Fejo’s girlfriend leaving him and going out with another man, and Fejo says — samsaram desi lekin dikhne mein angrezi, ninakku vendi njan paadam Aafat Wapas like I’m Naezy (talk like a desi, look angrezi and I act like Aafat Wapas Naezy for you) and Chanku eduthu koode nikkum njan, swabhavam kannappan swaroopam dasappan from KD & company from Thenkasi (I’d stick out my heart for you, behave like Kannappan, look like Dasappan from KD & company from Thenkasi) referring to movies, rappers and music composers such as Jassie Gift in the song.
Avastha – Thirumali
Thirumali is a 25 year old rapper from Kottayam and has been rapping since 2013. His song Avastha is an ironic take on the times we live in — moral policing, social media validation and educated fools. One of his lines says — Uyarna chindagathi, moonjiya jeevitham, ee lokam immadiri nashicha bharanam (a superior mentality, screwed up life, the world is ruled horribly). The experimental music video on YouTube also has English subtitles.
Aliya – Kaanthari
Kaanthari’s second single Aliya is a coming-of-age song about self-awareness in a flawed society. While having a discussion with friends, a man comments — Ee kudikunna pennungal ellam pezhachavala (girls who drink are of loose morals), and that flusters Aliya. She looks into herself and the society’s demeanour towards young women for their choices. The music on youtube is also produced, mixed and mastered by V3K (also a DJ/producer of Street Academics), and it gets better with repeated playing.
Jaagratha – Thakazhi
Bhayamellam illandakam, vigilantayi ini naam nilkanam, padi padiyaayi ithu nammal maattanam, karuthaayi koode und keralam (fear shouldn’t be there, we must be vigilant, we must change this step by step, Kerala’s will give strength). This is Thakazhi’s first single, released during the early days of quarantine with a message of hope and awareness about the virus.
Mazha – Rohit Matt feat Marthyan
Mazha is a romantic as well as a break-up song composed and written by Rohit Matt. He has also sung most portions. Marthyan’s lively rap is catchy and retains the romantic mood.
Ennilerinju – RZee and Sithara
‘Ennilerinju’ from Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Jacobinte Swargarajyam is composed by Shan Rahman. Sung by Rzee and Sithara, the song is refreshing and fast paced showing the troubles Jerry (Nivin Pauly) takes to pay his father’s debt.
Minni – V3K and Thirumali
V3K is an electronic music composer and collaborated with Thirumali for Minni, one of the tracks from his latest EP. He fuses three unusual genres — folk, electronic and rap with ease. It’s as if these genres find their way to each other at some point or the other.
Kalippava – 2XB
2XB is one of the rappers from Malabar Hip hop movement, which aims to promote the culture in Northern Kerala. Kalippava, his second single is about the recent custodial death of Jayaraj and Fenix in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, and many other victims of police brutality over the world. 2XB comments on the system, and also raps effortlessly in Tamil.