Underground cyphers are helping young Kashmiris reclaim their voices

Underground cyphers are helping young Kashmiris reclaim their voices
Set against a backdrop of conflict and crackdowns, rappers in Srinagar are speaking truth to power in secretly organised freestyles.

Spaces Between the Beats is a series spotlighting music and cultural communities around the world, exploring their stories as they build resilience and find meaning and hope in connection.

Against the backdrop of a dilapidated silk factory in Srinagar, a group of young people assemble on abandoned ground on the outskirts of the city. The speakers blast old-school hip-hop while the event organiser helps people navigate their way to the location via Instagram. The stage is now set for another cypher in the capital of conflict-ridden Kashmir.

Standing near a rusted car body, 18-year-old Iqra Nisar – the youngest rapper in the group, who goes by the name Yung Illa – takes the spotlight and spits about her experience of coming of age in rural north Kashmir. Her mother watches in awe. Young kids play cricket in the distance, and a few nearby shepherds occasionally glance over towards the hubbub while tending to their sheep.

“I love hip-hop. It's the only thing I want to do with my life, and my family supports me,” Yung Illa tells me, adding that she’d take up music professionally. “In Kashmir, talking about human rights brings trouble and being a girl is even more difficult.”

From a hardline government at the helm in Kashmir to a conservative society, young rappers face a legacy of free speech crackdowns. The government sees Kashmir’s hip-hop movement as a threat to their authority, as artists often use the genre as a vehicle for addressing human rights abuses by the Indian state. Rappers have been harassed, intimidated, and had their studios raided by the government agencies.

Organising a cipher is even more difficult since India revoked the region’s limited autonomy in August 2019 and clamped down on civil liberties. However, in the middle of an over-three- decade-long armed conflict, young people in Kashmir continue to find their voice through hip-hop.

Top to bottom: Fahad Idrees aka K2 rapping in a cypher. Children watching a cypher held on the outskirts of Srinagar. Iqra Nisar aka Young Illa performing in a cypher.
Looming Threat

Amid intimidation and the constant threat of being arrested for criticising the government, young hip-hop artists come together whenever they can, with the aim of preserving the Kashmiri experience, the region’s history and, more importantly, to express their frustrations with the status quo.

To organise a cypher, the community remains in touch on social media and meets at least once a month without disclosing the location until the last moment.

Wearing a denim jacket with a map of Kashmir embroidered on its back, 28-year-old Fahad Idrees, also known as K2, didn’t cut any slack as he highlighted the human rights violations that the Himalayan region has witnessed over the years.

“I’m the coffin of freedom covered on the martyr / And writer of the truth cause the truth speaks louder / I’m the sword of the faith ’n prayers are my armour / Flail in my hands will bleed every monster / Curfew in my city, scariness everywhere / Arresting lil kids, won’t lead you anywhere / Cause I’m gonna bomb your regime / And Martyrs will hear your scream.”

“I'm sorry, but I can’t rap about peace and love when I don’t see it around me. It is injustice to this art. It is dirt on justice,” Idrees tells me. “Rap is not to abuse, promote drugs, or caricature a woman as a sex-symbol. Rap is an art of speaking truth to power, which was the purpose it was born for.”

“I can’t rap about peace and love when I don’t see it around me.”

Fahad Idrees aka K2

Idrees got into hip-hop when the genre took the valley for a spin in the 2010s. In the midst of a civilian uprising, in which over 120 people were killed in street protests, Kashmir heard “I Protest”. Shared widely via Bluetooth, the song immediately became an anthem of the people and shot the artist, Roushan Ilahi, popularly known as MC Kash, to fame.

Since then, Kashmir's rap scene has seen several upheavals. Artists have faced state intimidation, gone underground, or peeled off to pursue careers in other fields and earn a stable income. For Illahi's part, he continued to rap about the civilian disappearances, mass graves and the struggle in Kashmir until 2016, when state intimidation became so bad that he, too, called it quits.

Scared of getting arrested, Idress also left the scene. “I'm a rebellious rapper. I rap about the bloodshed in Kashmir. I have written 125 songs and all of them talk about Kashmir politics, suppression and human rights violations,” he tells me. “One has to be honest to his art.”

Idress first rose to prominence in 2013 when a human rights organisation asked him to perform in one of their events, which was arranged in tandem with a government-sponsored concert in Kashmir featuring the renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. In front of a banner displaying photos of young people killed during the 2010 protests, accompanied by the words ‘Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir’ (Reality of Kashmir) in big bold letters, Idress performed his powerful song “Resistance is a Choice,” which talks about fighting against the oppression and brutalities of the Indian state:

“When rules are so obnoxious you have to become an outlaw / What will you do when your throat is being slit with a sharp saw / You are left with a choice to hold, drive and fight / So tell me why won't you fight for they have snatched your birth right / They kill you, they maim you, they murder you, they torture you / So just go and fight brother there is no one to assist you.”

Inspired by the British rapper and activist Lowkey, aka Karim Dennis, Idress believes that rap is the voice of the voiceless. That's why he chose K2 as his stage name – in hope that his voice can reach the same scale as the second-highest mountain on Earth. “[Lowkey] doesn’t rap nonsense. He talks about the plights of Palestine. Intifada. Killings. Same thing I want to do for my people,” Idress says.

Top to bottom: Ahmer Javed performing in Srinagar.
Koshur Nizam (Kashmiri Culture)

A week before the event near the silk factory, Koshur Nizam – a prominent hip-hop collective home to some of the most innovative and best-selling artists, like Ahmer Javed – organised a gig in Srinagar. Dusk fell as eerie silence engulfed the venue, a large flock of birds flew overhead, and Javed took to the stage. The crowd rushed forward to get a close glimpse of the newest hip-hop sensation in Kashmir.

In his 45 minute performance, Javed sang many of his hits. The young crowd waved their hands in the air and nodded their heads in sync with a rapper who was rapping back-to-back to keep the momentum going till he finished his set with “Rov” – a song featuring the poet, musician and filmmaker Faheem Abdullah, which starts with a woman singing softly about a garden of flowers where everyone is invited to laugh and play together. Then the beat drops in, and Javed starts rapping: “They took my beloved / And my bones become ash / I lost my beloved away from this world / He made me helpless / Who is this thief in my house…"

Talking with Huck after the performance, Javed says that Kashmiri hip-hop draws its inspiration from the same sense of social injustice that birthed the genre in the US. “When Black people were treated like second-class citizens by whites and nobody was listening to their grievances, they came up with rap to tell their stories. Similar is the case with us (Kashmiri),” he says, adding that the scene in Kashmir is still very much “underground.”

“We live in the most volatile area in the city, and we have seen so much turmoil right from our childhood. This music gives us a chance to listen to our own feelings.”

Arsalan (age 18) and Dawood (age19)

Javed came into the limelight in 2019 – a time when the Government of India had unilaterally abolished the special status of Kashmir and there was a widespread crackdown on free speech in the Himalayan region. His debut album Little Kid, Big Dreams, was an instant hit, but back home things were getting worse. After releasing his album in New Delhi, Javed came home and saw people restricted in their houses.

“There wasn’t much to do during the curfew days. So, I used to go near the Jhelum River for leisure, where I found other rap artists looking for a platform to exhibit their talent,” he says. There, they came together to form a hip-hop community called “Kashur Nizam (Kashmiri Culture).”

Comparing their motivation to Rage Against the Machine, whose unapologetic rock targets everything from American corporations and warmongering to racial discrimination and police brutality. Like them, Javed says, Kashmiri hip-hop also refuses to shy away from reality.

“We (rappers) are not political people. We just rap about what we see and observe,” he explains. ”And if our circumstances led us to rap about the atrocities that are happening around us, it is not our fault. It is conscious music.”

Hip-hop first made its way to Kashmir in early 2000s when the valley was introduced to rappers like Eminem, 50 Cent and Tupac. The lyrical themes of oppression, poverty and racism resonated with young people, who saw mirrors of their own experiences.

Thirteen years since Illahi's popularity threw a light on Kashmiri hip-hop, the scene is small but passionate. There are around 40 rappers in Kashmir today spitting about politics, human rights violations, militarisation and speaking truth to power. In doing so, they are inspiring generations to come.

Among the crowd to watch Javed are two young boys from downtown Srinagar nodding their heads to beats. Arsalan (18) and Dawood (19) have been friends since childhood and listening to hip-hop for eight years now. For them, Kashmiri hip-hop reflects what young people like them go through in their day-to-day lives.

“It’s like someone is singing our story,” they say. “We live in the most volatile area in the city, and we have seen so much turmoil right from our childhood. This music gives us a chance to listen to our own feelings.”

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