Mumbai rappers Naezy (left) and DIVINE. Photo: Bira 91
Mumbai rappers Naezy (left) and DIVINE. Photo: Bira 91

The voice of the Gully

  • Meet Naezy and DIVINE, the ambitious young rappers whose lives and music have inspired the hotly anticipated Ranveer Singh-starrer ‘Gully Boy'
  • The ‘gully rappers’ from Mumbai are at the forefront of a hip-hop revolution that appears to be taking over India’s entertainment industry

The going rate for breaking someone’s arms is 5,000, and you can get 10,000 if you break someone’s legs."

Naved Shaikh took a long drag of his cigarette as he gave me a crash course on the economics of street violence in Mumbai’s Kurla West chawl, where he grew up. It was a sunny autumn afternoon in 2014, and Shaikh—better known by his rap pseudonym Naezy the Baa—was riding high off the surprise success of his debut single Aafat!, a Hindi/Urdu rap song that racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and helped put the spotlight on Mumbai’s underground rap scene.

All of 21 at the time, the young rapper was both excited and a little flustered at the sudden attention he was getting from the press and music industry. His eyes constantly scanned the street for familiar faces as we chatted at a tea stall near the Achanak Nagar slum, so called because it has a habit of being demolished and then being resurrected without warning. Some of the people in the neighbourhood weren’t very welcoming of outsiders, he explained, and his tentative success as rapper had led to conflict with the more conservative Muslim residents, who believe rap music is haraam (forbidden). His parents too pressured him to quit music and take up a job in Dubai, where his father lives and works. “But no matter what, I’m never going to leave rap," he declared with the easy conviction of youth. “I want people to know who I am, I want to make society better through my music, and I don’t want to waste my talent. I want to be the torchbearer for hip hop in India."

Shaikh has been good as his word. A little over four-and-a-half years later, he and fellow Mumbai rapper Vivian Fernandes—who uses the moniker DIVINE—are at the forefront of a hip hop revolution that appears to be taking over India’s entertainment industry. “Gully rap", the genre that the duo pioneered with their 2015 street anthem Mere Gully Mein, is the fastest growing independent music scene since Indipop, having become a mainstay on music streaming charts, festival lineups and Bollywood film soundtracks.

Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, which releases on 14 February and stars Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, draws inspiration from Shaikh’s and Fernandes’ lives. One of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2019, the film tracks the life of Murad (played by Singh), the 22-year-old son of a driver, who is torn between his dream of becoming a rapper and his parents’ desire for him to get a safe white-collar job. The narrative borrows heavily from the experiences of the real-life rappers, whose association with the film has given it the sort of on-ground credibility that you can’t buy.

Also read: Ranveer Singh, master of ceremonies

“It drew from the experience of gully rap," says Akhtar, who was introduced to Naezy’s music when a film editor showed her the music video for Aafat! . “I wanted to make a film about this kid, someone who is from a disenfranchised space. And art—how art can transcend class, break barriers.... Thematically, that is what this film is to me. Nobody else is speaking about these experiences, this life, nobody else is showing a mirror to society the way they experience it."

And if there were still any doubts about the ascendancy of these home-grown hip hop heroes, they were wiped away at the Gully Boy album launch gig in Byculla in January. At an event featuring Bollywood stars—Singh, Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin and Kubra Sait—nobody got a larger crowd reaction than Shaikh and Fernandes. As over 3,000 music fans chanted their names at the top of their voices, I found myself wondering if Akhtar and her co-writer Reema Kagti would really be able to do justice to one of the most unlikely success stories in Indian music.

THE URDU POET

“I was always up to some mischief ever since I was a little kid," remembers Shaikh, now 25, when we meet at a Starbucks café in the Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai. Dressed in acid-washed jeans and a grey checked T-shirt, he slowly stirs his cappuccino as he talks about bunking school to ride trains all over the city. With his father moving to Dubai to work in the government's infrastructure department when he was still a toddler, Shaikh was raised by his mother and aunts, who found it hard to keep him out of trouble. He would regularly prank his fellow students and teachers, get into fights, and cut class to go smoke cigarettes at a railway station nearby. Once, he got caught smoking in his school uniform by a policeman,who slapped him and tried to take him to the local police station. As the two waited at a railway crossing, the 13-year-old kneed the policeman in the groin and jumped on to the passing train.

That was his first brush with the Mumbai police, but it wouldn’t be his last. The Kurla of his youth was no longer the site of regular turf wars between rival gangs, but its streets still offered an easy pathway to the world of organized crime. If peer pressure didn't get you, the lure of easy cash did. “We had all the desires and ambitions, but being lower middle class we didn’t have the money to fulfil them," he says. “So I was always looking for ways to hustle."

Also read Zoya Akhtar: ‘We wanted to be on the inside, looking out’

His parents tried everything to keep him on the straight and narrow path, even sending him to a Patna boarding school. But Shaikh was back in Mumbai within two months, having gotten himself expelled with a series of pranks, including one where he emptied the school’s fish tank into the swimming pool. There were a few visits to the police station—for petty theft and fighting—but his friends would pay off the policemen and get him out, ensuring that word didn’t get back to his parents.

Then a friend landed him in more serious trouble. One day, Shaikh was accompanying his friend on what he thought was just a stroll. What he didn’t know was that his friend had been stalking a girl in the neighbourhood. What the friend, in turn, didn’t know was that the girl had complained to her parents, who called the police. Shaikh and his friend were picked up and taken to the local police station, where the latter—whose father was a policeman—was quickly released. Shaikh wasn’t so lucky. He was kept in the lockup overnight and claims to have been beaten up. When his mother found out about the arrest, she fainted. Eventually, an uncle bailed him out.

“That was the point where they decided that they had to move me out of the chawl," Shaikh says. The family shifted to a nearby lower income group (LIG) colony, hoping that removing him from the chawl environment would help. The experience made Shaikh take a long, hard look at the path he was heading down. There were other warning signs too. In 2012, one of his friends was arrested and charged with murder after he ended an argument by hitting a boy over the head with a bamboo pole. The boy died on the spot. “I knew that if I continued like this, I would never make it out of Kurla," he says. “But I didn’t really know what else I could do that would give my life purpose."

That purpose came to him in the form of hip hop. The first rap song Shaikh had heard was Sean Paul’s party anthem Temperature, which would often play at neighbourhood parties. Drawn in by the song’s risque lyrics, he would perform it during school recess in an attempt to impress girls. But by the time he enrolled for a BSc course in Matunga’s Guru Nanak Khalsa College, he had moved on from commercial party rap to 1990s’ conscious and gangsta rap. Listening to music by Nas, 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Big L, he connected to their experience as members of a marginalized community. “They were driven by the passion to give a voice to their community, and I had that same passion," says Shaikh. “There were a lot of emotions and experiences that I would suppress and keep to myself. But when I heard these guys be so daring, talking about everything they went through, it really inspired me."

Shaikh found a small group of like-minded rap fans at college, and would often bunk class to jam with them at a nearby paan shop. Like every other Indian rapper of their generation, he started off rapping in English, trying to imitate the accents of his American rap idols. But by late 2013, he had started writing songs in Hindi and Urdu, while also incorporating a generous dose of Mumbaiyya street slang. His lyrics often focused on social and political issues, such as the unreleased early cut Tera Papa Paapi Hai (“your father is a sinner"), aimed at the sons of corrupt policemen and politicians.

Shaikh credits his grandfathers with awakening his interest in politics and social issues at an early age. His paternal grandfather, Sheikh Hamza, would sit with him every morning and make him read the Free Press Journal and an Urdu newspaper, The Inquilab. Well respected within the neighbourhood, Sheikh Hamza was the first port of call for people in the community who needed help in dealing with the local authorities. His maternal grandfather left for Dubai soon after the 1993 Mumbai riots, during which many of the family’s neighbours and friends were killed. But Shaikh grew up listening to stories of his grandfather’s efforts to organize the community to stand up to the local “mafia", who would harass the residents for protection money.

Towards the end of 2013, Shaikh was increasingly frustrated by the rumours floating around the neighbourhood about how he had left Islam, as well as by his parents’ perennial disappointment. One night, he poured all of that into a new song which he recorded using the iPad his father had gifted him. Over the next couple of days, he and a friend travelled all over Mumbai, shooting a DIY music video for the track. Shaikh put the track, titled Aafat!, up on YouTube on 2 January 2014, hoping it would get 500-1,000 views, a big number for the rap scene at the time. Within a month, the song had crossed over 100,000 views and Shaikh had unwittingly landed himself a rap career.

Here was a sound that could not have come from anywhere but the gullies of Mumbai, which boasted a culture as vibrant, edgy and unique as that of Compton or the Bronx. Underneath the song’s tongue-twisting rhymes and clever Urdu/Mumbaiyya wordplay was an undercurrent of simmering rage—at his peers’ ignorance and ready embrace of a life of petty criminality, at a society that didn’t offer any opportunities other than those grabbed by force or guile, and at a government that was corrupt and incompetent. It was an incandescent outpouring of raw emotion that captured the imagination of millions of Indian rap fans.

Shaikh released a handful of DIY singles through 2014, and even did his first Bollywood song, rapping a verse on the Mika Singh and Udit Narayan track Birju from Ajay Chandhok’s film Hey Bro. He was slowly becoming a regular on the indie gig circuit and attracting the attention of A&R reps from the mainstream music industry. Then he got a call from Fernandes, another Mumbai rapper who had been making waves with his innovative Hindi street rap. Fernandes asked if he would like to jump on a track called Mere Gully Mein, saying he thought the collaboration would help the duo “take things to the next level".

Ranveer Singh trading bars with Naezy at the music album launch. Photo: Bira 91
Ranveer Singh trading bars with Naezy at the music album launch. Photo: Bira 91

BOY FROM THE ‘NAKA’

There are uncanny similarities between Fernandes and Shaikh’s early lives, including the fact that both were born in Kurla, and that the former’s mother also left to work in West Asia (Qatar, in this case) when he was 3. Fernandes and his elder brother spent their early years living with their father—an abusive alcoholic with a gambling problem—in a chawl in Mumbai’s Sahar suburb bought with their mother’s earnings. But when he was 12, his father sold off the house and abandoned the family, dropping his sons off at their grandmother’s house at JB Nagar in Andheri East, along with half the proceeds from the sale.

“As if he had bought the house," the 28-year-old Fernandes remarks wryly. “With neither of my parents really around, I was brought up by my grandmother, my brother and my friends."

I meet Fernandes outside the popular Amar Juice Centre in JB Nagar, the neighbourhood he has lived in since his father left. Within seconds, he’s mobbed by a group of local teenagers asking for selfies and autographs, proof—if any was needed—of his status as the reigning king of underground hip hop in the country. He is patient, posing for a series of photographs before politely making his excuses and slipping inside for a chat over a couple of fresh lime sodas. In between sips of his drink, he reminisces about nights spent listening to Konkani music with his grandmother on the family boombox, which made up much of his early music listening in the absence of either internet or cable TV.

“I would go buy liquor for her every day and she would get a little tipsy and tell me stories about her life," says Fernandes. “As I got older, I started playing her my music. So she would jam to my music and I would jam to hers."

When his brother—seven years older—also left to work in the Gulf, Fernandes was largely left to his own devices. He quickly made friends with some of the “bad boys" from the area, who became part of an informal support system that also included friends from Sahar, Kurla and his school in Marol. He would tag along with the elder boys to the area’s many bars and ride on top of Mumbai’s local trains, getting cheap thrills by dodging the lethal electrical cables. “We used to run little hustles here and there," says Fernandes, careful not to mention exactly what he means by “hustles".

Some of his friends dealt drugs for a living, and he says he quickly realized the perils of that particular life choice. “One day my friends would be struggling to pay bills, and then the next day they were riding around in a new car," he says. “That lifestyle is very volatile and deadly. I also lost a couple of friends to drugs, and saw others struggling with addiction and mental health. Which is why I never promote drugs in my songs."

In 2004, Fernandes discovered hip hop via a friend’s 50 Cent T-shirt. Intrigued by the Queens rapper’s tough-as-nails aesthetic, he asked his friend for an MP3 CD which had a few dozen rap songs. He spent the next few months feverishly researching hip hop history at local cyber cafés, eventually stumbling on seminal underground artists like Big Pun, Big L, Rakim and KRS-One. “They weren’t necessarily in the Top 40 or even Top 100, but I could relate to their rhymes," he says. “Not the guns and the killings, but I related to how they spoke of their families, of growing up alone and finding support and community in their friends and neighbourhood."

Fernandes started writing his own rhymes, but he didn’t take hip hop seriously till he met Abhishek Dhusia (Ace) and Amey Patkar (AP), founders of the city’s first rap crew Mumbai’s Finest, when he was in class XII. Dhusia introduced a young Fernandes to the small but passionate Indian rap scene, which then congregated on Orkut communities like Insignia Rap Combat, a community of aspiring rappers from South Asia who would participate in online text rap battles. In Mumbai, the multicultural sprawl of Dharavi would become the hub of this emerging subculture, though there were also plenty of budding rappers and crews from other parts of the city. “The biggest get-togethers would be in the clubs when DJ Sa and DJ Mani would play," he remembers. “We would all go there in these 5XL tees and the most baggy pants you could find. I was deeply in love with hip hop, so much that I didn’t care how people looked at me or what they said to me. People would laugh at us, but that only made me feel more deeply about hip hop culture."

Fernandes, Dhusia and Patkar would spend days at the JB Nagar chawl, discussing hip hop history and songwriting tips when they weren’t busy writing and recording songs. His mother had bought him a computer (“a shitty Sahara PC") and a microphone, and Patkar taught him how to use audio software like Mixcraft and Adobe Audition to record his own music. For most of this period, he was writing a song a day, though few of them got recorded and even fewer have seen the light of day. Having chosen not to get an undergraduate degree, Fernandes spent those three years giving himself an education in rap instead.

In 2013, he parted ways amicably with Mumbai’s Finest and set out to make a name as a solo artist. The same year, he released his first solo single, Voice Of The Streets, a somewhat laboured English rap affair which nevertheless showcased the storytelling skills that would later make Fernandes a household name. It was also the first song where he gave a shout-out to JB Nagar by referring to the area’s pin code (59)—this would go on to become a trademark feature of both his and Shaikh’s music. In 2014, he followed it up with Yeh Mera Bombay, an ode to the city that featured both Hindi and English rhymes. “I felt that I had covered my block and now I wanted to represent my city," he says. “And Bombay is the deadliest, most iconic city in the country. So I knew people would relate to it."

That song got 100,000 views in one-and-a-half months, and would win him a Radio City Freedom Award in 2015. But it was his third song—Mere Gully Mein, featuring Shaikh—that catapulted him to national fame.

Ranveer Singh performs at the ‘Gully Boy’ album launch gig in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Ranveer Singh performs at the ‘Gully Boy’ album launch gig in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

STRAIGHT TO THE TOP

The duo wrote and recorded Mere Gully Mein, produced by then up-and-coming indie beatmaker Sajeel Kapoor aka Sez, in early 2014 and began playing it at live shows soon after. It was at one such show at blueFROG that they were approached by a Sony Music executive named Shreyans Jha, who asked for a demo he could take to the company. He got a lukewarm reaction from his seniors, but pushed for the label to give them a single release deal. The duo invested their own money to record the song and make a music video, shot by Fernandes’ childhood friend and frequent collaborator Joel D’Souza. Shot on the streets of Kurla and JB Nagar, the video was a joyful celebration of Mumbai street life, a far cry from the poverty porn that characterizes most depictions of the city’s chawls and slums.

Released in the summer of 2015, the song racked up a million views in less than a month, and could be heard blaring out of exclusive nightclubs, car stereos and even smartphones on the Mumbai local. It currently has over 15 million views.

“I think the song’s success was the result of a perfect storm of factors, it rode the wave of a certain cultural moment," says Shridhar Subramaniam, president (India and Middle East), Sony Music India. “It was a combination of timing, an audience that wanted to say this is mine, and the fact that the media—whether it’s social media or YouTube—allowed you to build a community in a way that you couldn’t earlier."

Around the same time, Akhtar got in touch with the duo and told them she wanted to make a film about them. Within a year and a half, the duo’s world had been turned upside down. Fernandes scored a record deal with Sony, while Shaikh joined the roster of independent entertainment conglomerate Only Much Louder. They were suddenly touring the country, playing to huge crowds at festivals such as NH7 Weekender, Sulafest and Sunburn, and making radio appearances on the BBC and Beats 1. Fernandes, in particular, has captured the imagination of urban India, collaborating with a number of high-profile producers and artists and contributing songs to films like Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail, as well as the theme song for Netflix series Sacred Games. And now their lives are going to be represented on the silver screen, still the epitome of cultural achievement in the country.

“Zoya ma’am spent a lot of time interviewing both of us, finding out the details of our lives, and then she started writing her script," says Shaikh, who was a consultant for the film along with Fernandes. “Her world is very different from ours, so we acted as a bridge between the two, especially in the early days."

They’re also impressed by Singh, who spent a fair bit of time with them, observing their body language and how they speak in preparation for the role. Calling him a “quick learner", Fernandes says they were really happy with Singh’s casting because they knew he was an avid hip hop fan.

Both are quick to point out that the film is not a biopic but a fictionalized drama. Their stories only form the framework around which Akhtar has woven a tale with added masala. “I did try to give my input and push back against some of the masala. Like one character steals another’s girlfriend. We haven’t even met each other’s girlfriends till date," says Shaikh, whose excitement at the movie’s impending release is tinged with anxiety, perhaps owing to online speculation that Singh’s character is based on him (it’s not). “But they told me that it’s not your biopic, it’s a fictionalized drama. What can you say to that? So I took a step back."

Shaikh’s withdrawal from the film-making process was also motivated by other factors. Early in 2017, the pressure of being the face of the Indian hip hop movement, as well as his family’s persistent demands that he leave music to take up a safe job “in sales or at the airport or something", were starting to get to Shaikh. The conflicts in his local community about whether his music was acceptable or haraam had ramped up, and the emergence of old “friends" out of the woodwork—now that he had money and fame—saw him lapse into old bad habits. “I needed to take a break so I went to Dubai, and disappeared completely from the scene," says Shaikh, who made his first appearance in over a year at the Gully Boy album launch. “It was an opportunity for self-discovery and I’ve come back with a much more mature outlook in life as well as a whole notebook of new content."

While Shaikh hopes that the attention from Gully Boy will help him return to the top of the game, Fernandes—who recently left Sony to start his own label, Gully Gang Records—is just as excited about the film’s soundtrack, which features five tracks by him, as well as contributions from a host of scene veterans and young rap upstarts. Shaikh’s disappearing act means that he’s not on the soundtrack, though it does feature a version of Mere Gully Mein, with Singh rapping his verse as a tribute. Though excited about the film, both are keen to point out that they’re not putting all their eggs in the Bollywood basket. “This movie will only really benefit us if the music gets through and makes noise," says Fernandes. “That should be our main motive. Because Ranveer will go on and do another hit. We have to make another hit also. And for that we have to concentrate on our art and what we’re good at."

“The scene is exciting, it’s becoming more credible, solid, believable and now with Gully Boy it’s going to be blown out of the park," opines Punjabi rapper Badshah, who has been a vocal Naezy fan since at least 2015. He echoes the sentiments of many who hope the film can be India’s Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 classic that introduced the rest of America to the Bronx’s new hip hop movement. “I’m proud to be in this era where people see and consume hip hop like never before."

However, not everyone on the Indian hip hop scene is excited about the movie. Apart from worries about whether it means co-option at the hands of a capricious film industry—as well as criticism of the trailer's on-the-nose similarities with Eminem’s 2002 drama film 8 Mile—Excel Entertainment has also been called out for the erasure of the chants against “brahmanvaad" and “manuvaad" from the soundtrack cut Azadi. Producer Dub Sharma’s original 2016 track sampled Kanhaiya Kumar’s famous chant from a protest at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The version on the soundtrack, which features DIVINE rapping and a recreation of the chant, removes the anti-caste references. “This version erases the political connotations which the track stood for," says anti-caste rapper Sumeet Samos. “This is not just appropriation but it invisibilizes the already uncomfortable and inconvenient questions this society doesn’t want to hear."

Fernandes shrugs when asked about this, pointing out that Kumar himself commented on his Instagram, thanking him for lending his voice to the cause.

As the two prepare to head home after our photoshoot in Bandra, I ask them if they’ve seen the movie yet. “I haven’t seen the film, but the script when I read it was mind-blowing," says Fernandes, adding that he has a lot of faith in Akhtar. He does betray just the slightest hint of trepidation—natural when you’ve handed over control of your life’s story to someone else—as he jokingly adds, “But I hope we get to see a preview, so that we know in advance if we need to go into hiding."

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