Beats and bandanas: Hip hop survives underground in Kashmir

A tucked away hall fumes with electric energy as powerful beats and bars dropped by local rappers gathered for a Cypher on an autumn noon reverb the sand on the unfurnished floor.

The hall bustles with confident performers wearing large hoodies, chains and colourful headgear, waiting to stun the audience with their powerful rapping.

Passionate hip hop fans organised the event in Srinagar on the 31st of October to bring together the hip hop community of the valley.

Like silhouettes in front of the enigmatic ‘Cyphernama’ graffiti, the artists rap in Kashmiri, English and Urdu.

Some use flair to express hidden anguish and unspoken trauma, others rap about nerve-shattering social issues.

An artist performing at the Kashmiri Hip Hop event ‘cyphernama’. [FPK Photo/Hasnain Riza]

Ikram Qazi, pompous host of the cypher makes sure that the hall stays buzzed with high energy at all times.

Soon, everyone including the staff, performers and viewers, amass in a circle and groove to every rapper, and to the rhythm and the beat. What unites them all is hip hop culture.

Keshur Cypher, 2021 is the ‘first ever’ gathering of its kind in Kashmir.

“Such events help artists to connect with others of similar interests and enhance their art,” says Sabia Shah, one of the organisers.

“Since hip hop started as a form of resistance, I think that no other place can produce it the way Kashmir can,” she adds.

Each artist showcases their talent of rapping one after the other. [FPK Photo/Hasnain Riza]

Hip hop music traces its origins to the United States of America. In the recent times, it has made it’s way to this ravaged territory when Kashmir’s first hip hop star MC Kash emerged from the ashes of a public uprising.

Roshan Illahi, who goes by the name MC Kash, became popular with his rap “I protest”, which followed the 2010-11 protests triggered by the killing of teenager Tufail Mattoo.

Not long after that, budding rappers continued to produce songs, but the pressure from the Indian government, financial constraints, and lack of opportunity took a toll. As a result, most of the artists killed their art to earn livelihood in other fields.

For Cyphernama too, the venue of the event had been kept a mystery until the very end.

‘Cyphernama’ graffiti drawn on the wall at the venue. [FPK Photo/Hasnain Riza]

“We were hesitant to reveal the venue of the event. We were scared to even inform people over texts because of the sensitive political situation,” says Sabia.

Despite all the struggles and stigmas that kept the Kashmiri rappers from following their ambitions, many have given up everything just to pursue their passion.

Ehan Syed, a 20-year-old song writer, vocalist and rapper left school in grade 7 to pursue his dream of taking Kashmiri hip hop to an international level. He believes that hip hop is an expressive artform and is ‘all about rhythm and poetry’.

“Hip hop in Kashmir gives the youth opportunities to show their scars to the world. It is important that the community stays knitted together and we encourage each other to pursue our passion. My struggle might become someone else’s motivation to do what they love to do,” he says.

An organiser walks past the graffiti. [FPK Photo/Hasnain Riza]

The cypher also gave Anam Nassir, one among the female rappers of Kashmir, a stage to enthral everyone with her first ever performance outside school.

Anam, who goes by the stage name Rapper Annie, started rapping in grade 8. Her father, Nassir Hussain Banka was present at the event too.

Speaking proudly of his daughter’s choices he says, “we always believed in our daughter and supported her to turn her dream into a reality. I wish we stand as an inspiration for other parents to let their daughters pursue their passion too.”

Mir Syed Kaus, a college student attended the cypher simply out of his love for hip hop. He believes that events like these help people to understand the art form and it’s various genres better.

“The hip hop community of Kashmir really needs such gatherings to take place. It gives the artists a boost and also motivates more youngsters to follow their desire to rap,” he smiles.

A jovial aura filled the atmosphere even as the event came to an end after 2 and a half hours.

“The event was truly in the spirit of hip hop in Kashmir. If we don’t even have gatherings like these then how will we channelize our pain and trauma caused due to the ongoing uncertainties?” asks Janees, an organiser.

She strongly believes that small happenings like these are the “only way we can cope with the harsh realities of the world outside”.

“We are living two alternate realities simultaneously. None of us have forgotten what is happening outside this space,” she adds, adjusting her red and white bandana.


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