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Business News/ Opinion / Blogs/  POLITICAL ANIMALS: Protest song
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POLITICAL ANIMALS: Protest song

Mumbai's most well known hip hop activist is an Ambedkarite and a serious fan of Tupac Shakur

Ashwini Mishra at a gigPremium
Ashwini Mishra at a gig

Ashwini Mishra, known as the rapper A-List, had me hooked with his poem Not My Revolution I accessed through a link on Twitter:

“Children of the rich

Always quote Marx

While poor kids get bullets

And choke.

Know your privilege

Check your privilege."

Part of Justice and Peace for All (JAPA), a colletive of musicians and poets in Mumbai with distinct political views in their works, Mishra performs in venues across the city—he writes about Irom Sharmila (“Look at the facts and clearly see/Fuck your national security... They ask me how long I’ll rhyme on the beat/I say till Irom Sharmila finally eats"), Afzal Guru, the Kabir Kala Manch, the Ayodhya riots. Mishra is a hip hop activist, like few others in India. Protest song does not have many new avatars, and Mishra opens up the possibility of being one in the digital age.

Mishra’s style is raw and unrefined to ears seasoned with the best traditions of hip-hop. More than a poet or an artist, he is an activist. He borrows one strand from the long, complex, hybrid tradition of hip hop—its confrontational, revolutionary stance. In 2004 in New York, P Diddy led a very successful voter-registration campaign called ‘Vote or Die’. Tupac Shakur’s revolutionary songs are the stuff of pop legend and history.

Meet Mumbai’s hip hop revolutionary Ashwini Mishra. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Ashwini, tell me a bit about your adolescence and college days. What influenced you the most? Do you come from a family of musicians/artists/activists?

My early childhood was spent in Saudi Arabia followed by a year’s stay in New Jersey, US, where we went after the first gulf war. Post that, we came back to Calcutta where I stayed right till graduation. Growing up, I was influenced very heavily by a lot of authors I read, even before I got into hip hop. I remember one of my favourite books was The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I first got into hip hop with just walking into a shop and picking up a tape of Run DMC. Once I discovered hip hop, I just fell in love with the sound, the aesthetic, and just the energy of the genre. I then started discovering other artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr and of course one of my favourite groups till day, Public Enemy.

Who are your favourite authors?

As I have grown older, I have gotten more fond of non-fiction. But in fiction some of my all-time favourites are Charles Dickens, Orson Welles, Alice Walker, Aldous Huxley and Amrita Pritam. Some of my favourite and most heavy influences in non-fiction are Alex Haley, Malcolm X, Dr. Ambedkar and Charu Mazumdar. I have especially been influenced heavily by Ambedkar’s writings in my last few years as I have rediscovered much of his work.

Do you listen to Tupac Shakur?

I was actually obsessed with Tupac’s music in college. At the time I was completely in love with how his songs sounded like he really threw everything he had inside on these records. He was a great songwriter and his songs had this Bob Dylan-ish quality of planting a seed in your mind that would keep growing long after the record stopped playing. As a matter of fact, I released my first album when I turned 21 because Tupac’s first album came out at the same age. And I still maintain he was one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century. However, much like the man himself, his music had contradictions. For every Keep Ya Head Up, there was a How do you want it. But a lot of his music is revolutionary. There are few other mainstream artists who have touched on the topics he touched on back in the 1990s. I honestly believe if he had lived on, his music would have evolved, sonically and politically. As I have grown older and more political, I have shifted to some of his work that I feel more connected to. Panther Power will always be one of my favourite rap songs of all time.

When did you start performing and how did it begin?

I first stepped on a stage to rap in February 2004. I had been writing poetry for years before but as I got deeper into hip hop, I realised I was basically writing rap lyrics. So I started rapping. The first performance was a rock band contest. I teamed up with a drummer and keyboardist and we made a demo and sent it. We got selected in the top 5 and got a gig at Swabhumi, Calcutta. I was the first rapper in Calcutta. Subsequently, I started doing gigs at clubs and played a few college fests too. It was an interesting experience, literally starting the genre in that part of the country.

What is your audience like, usually?

In the early days, my audience were the young ‘cool’ crowd who had never seen a live rap act before. Over the years, I introduced many people to hip hop. In a way it was challenging too because every performance I had was an effort to convert my audience to appreciate hip hop as a legitimate form of music. There were many who thought otherwise. However when I got back to music after my 5 year break last year, my audience has changed, largely because my music has changed. There isn’t really a hip hop audience here yet but there is a decent build-up of a hip hop scene. the scene is mostly young kids, in their teens and early 20s. As of now, most rapper’s core audience is still other rappers. Or if they can mix with Bollywood sounds, a larger general audience that vibes to pop. But I am blessed to have a lot of support from outside the scene. A lot of my audience now is activists, students, journalists, people who don’t really listen to rap but love my music because of what I am saying.

Tell me about some of your collaborators.

Since I got back to making songs, I have worked with a number of talented musicians. One of my regular producers is Shayan. Shayan is a political rapper/producer from Kashmir and he has produced two of my songs, Tale of Afzal Guru and Free Kabir Kala Manch. He is also producing my third song They called her a terrorist which I will be releasing soon. Apart from Shayan, I have also worked with indian producers from the hip hop scene like Sez, who produced Naxalbari and Earthgrime who produced Pray For Gaza. Earthgrime released an album recently where he featured Pray For Gaza. As you can see, I work with a number of producers to try and use different sounds for my music. One of my more memorable collaborations was Bhopal M.I.C, a song on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy where I worked with Rapper A-Gee and was produced by Jackson John, who is not a hip hop producer but did an amazing job with that track. Amongst other rappers I have collaborated with, there aren’t many, but I have to mention my close friends, Kav-E and Enkore who I worked with on God is an emcee and City Of Gold respectively. I also did a song with Enkore’s crew mate, D’Evil for his mix-tape called “Dirty Emcees", literally the only non-serious song I have done in the last 7 years! “City Of Gold" is especially a close project to me because it speaks on the 1982 Bombay Mill Workers Strike. I found out later through a German friend that the song is used in a German University lecture to illustrate Bombay History!

Is there a political ideology or party that you sympathize with?

I certainly do lean more to the Left. But I think I alternate between socialism and anarchism. I am also heavily influenced by the Ambedkarite ideology. As seductive as leftism is, there are specific concerns in the Indian context that I feel cannot be seen from a one size fits all European context. Also capitalism and socialism are ideologies kicked off by well-to-do white men centuries ago. I put a lot more stock in what my brown brothers and sisters have to say, to be honest. There is really no political party in India I sympathize with. There are ideologies that I do empathise with, such as the ideologies of Republican Panther movement here in Maharashtra, the anti-nuclear movement, Narmada Bachoa Andolan, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, etc. I also feel a strong solidarity with the Feminist and LGBT Rights movements in India. My politics is more agitational than parliamentary. I feel although it is important to work inside the system, there will always be a need for agitational work outside the system too. I think that is as crucial a part of any real democracy.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a few exciting projects right now. I am about to release They Call Her a Terrorist which is a song on the story of what happened to Ishrat Jahan. I am working on a song called Brown Pride which I might be making a music video for. The song I am most excited about, which I am still doing research for, is a sort of biopic in hip hop format of Dr. Ambedkar. Atleast in my audience, I feel he is not as celebrated as he should be. So I am really excited to try and tell his story using hip hop music.

Listen to A-List’s work at www.soundcloud.com/alistrap

Political Animals is a fortnightly blog on the intersection of politics and culture.

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Published: 08 Jan 2014, 04:25 PM IST
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