Rap in Kashmir: to protest or not?

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It’s a weekday but the streets are deserted in Srinagar, the capital of Indian administered Kashmir. Shutters are down on shops and vehicular movement is restricted. Hundreds of police and military personnel are patrolling the “curfew-like” situation.

The unofficial curfew imposed since Monday follows a general strike declared by separatist groups in the valley after a 250-year-old Sufi shrine was gutted by fire. The situation grew tense when angry protesters clashed with police officials blaming them of ill-preparedness to tackle the blaze which burned down the holy site.

Non-political
Expectedly, it has meant bad news for business. And among other casualties is Kashmir’s first rap contest, Rap Impact, which was scheduled to take place on Tuesday.

While the venue and dates for the event are about to change, there’s one condition that will remain unaltered – all rap performed will be non-political. DJ Aki, the first DJ in Kashmir, is organising the event. While he welcomes every culture and every religion to participate, he adds that he advocates music, not politics.

“I have strictly forbidden any kind of protest rap at the event because I don’t want people to get violent. We are here to showcase talent and not talk about politics. We are musicians, not politicians,” DJ Aki says.

Protest music
That’s an irony because rap in the valley caught everyone’s attention precisely because of its political nature. In the summer of 2010, when angry Kashmiri youth took on the Indian police and army, rapper MC Kash’s I Protest became a sort of an anthem. He rapped, “My paradise is burnin’ with troops left loose with ammo, who murder and rape, then hide behind a political shadow.”

Many protest rappers in the valley have raised a voice against authorities in Indian administered Kashmir, where separatist sentiments are high. Twenty three-year-old Haze Kay, the first rapper from Kashmir, says his political views define his music.

“I make my music for a cause, not for money. And Kashmir is the cause for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about azaadi (freedom) from India. I’m just talking about the human rights abuses. About a law like the AFSPA,” Haze Kay says.

Facing hurdles
The AFSPA (or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) has been active in Kashmir since 1990, when the valley faced threat from insurgency. The AFSPA allows any army personnel to detain or kill anybody in Kashmir on grounds of suspicion. Human rights groups have criticised the law for giving impunity to the Indian Armed Forces which have been accused of human rights violations.

Qasim Hyder, who goes by the stage name MC Youngblood, is a budding rapper in Srinagar. He says over the years, it has been difficult for him to get studios for recording because he produces protest music.

“I heard that studios are getting regularly raided by the police and I feared that the same would happen to me. If I am arrested, I will be slapped with a PSA (Public Safety Act) and my life is gone,” Hyder says. Other protest rappers share his apprehensions.

A different trend
While protest rappers in the valley are finding a way to keep their voices afloat, Kashmir is also witnessing a breed of non-political rappers like the Arshad brothers Hamza and Habib. Twelve-year-old Habib learned rapping from his brother Hamza and is today the youngest rapper in Kashmir.

“I am interested in Punjabi rap – I simply love it. I like the language, its simplicity. I don’t hold any political views on Kashmir and so don’t do protest rap,” the sixth-grader says confidently, perhaps subtly hinting that political or not, his rap is no less than anyone else’s.