In the heart of the enchanting Kashmir Valley in North India, where beauty and conflict coexist, a stirring movement has emerged echoing the indomitable spirit of the region. The realm of rap has become a powerful medium for the youth to channel their aspirations and resilience.
The words of Kashmiri rappers paint an unwavering canvas of hope amid adversity. A decade ago, verses of M.C. Kash, a young rapper, struck a chord with a generation haunted by the shadows of conflict. The winds of change brought forth a storm. Amid the tempest, a new star emerged: Mir Ghazanfar, 31, the soul-stirring rapper known as SXR whose music transcends the shackles of fear, speaking of love and hope, capturing hearts like a symphony of resilience.
“One of my friends introduced me to hip-hop at a time when a song called ‘I Protest’ by M.C. Kash had become quite famous in Kashmir,” Gazanfar said. “Fortunately, I met him one day and mentioned his song to him. I asked him how I could start rapping, and he told me that I needed to write and listen to a lot of hip-hop music. He gave me a brief idea of the hip-hop genre and provided insights into what hip-hop entails.”
“It was very tough for me; nothing comes easy. If I run a studio today and can organize events and produce many songs, we wouldn’t have even imagined such a possibility in Kashmir ten years ago. Many hurdles came my way.”
Launched into the spotlight, SXR’s captivating performance marked the dawn of a new era in Kashmir’s rap scene. With relentless determination, he embraced the world of rhythm and rhyme, captivating hearts, one verse at a time. As SXR embarked on his musical journey many others joined in, they formed a rap group called “Kashur Nizam,” or the Kashmiri system.
“I suggested that we should form a group and decided to name it ‘Koshur Nizam,’ which translates to the ‘Kashmiri System.’ All our friends believed that we could make this gig a reality. However, we encountered financial constraints initially and resorted to pooling our resources for booking a venue,” SXR said.
Rappers give voice to protest generation
The journey of Kashmiri rappers began with a desire to be heard. With each rhyme, they found solace and empowerment, creating a path for future generations to follow. The verses of Kashmiri rappers unmask the harsh realities of their homeland, shedding light on the pain and resilience of its people. Their lyrics become a mirror, reflecting the struggles and aspirations of a generation yearning for peace.
Kashmir had acceded to India at the time of India’s independence in 1947 rather than merging with a Muslim Pakistan under a constitutional provision called Article 370 that allowed a semi-autonomous rule in Kashmir. Nearly 7 million people live in the Kashmir Valley, 97% of them Muslims. About 47,000 people have been killed in conflict, mainly between Indian security forces and Kashmiri militant separatists in the last three decades, according to government figures. In the 1990s, many Kashmiri Hindus fled for their lives and settled outside Kashmir in places like Jammu and Delhi.
On Aug. 5, 2019, the Indian Parliament unilaterally revoked Article 370 ending Kashmir’s special status in the Indian Union. The region was split into two federally administered territories and brought under a direct rule of New Delhi. A communication blackout in Kashmir was simultaneously enforced by the government. The internet and phone calling was suspended which was later restored in a phased manner.
As Kashmir grapples with an altered reality, its poets and singers find the words to speak of it. Their music echoes the undying spirit of a resilient generation, reminding the world that amid the storm, hope and passion shine like stars in the night sky.
Mujtaba Riyaz, 22, an engineering student from Srinagar, uses rap as a weapon of empowerment, paving the way for a transformative shift in Kashmiri society. With each rhyme, a journey unfolds, a journey of empowerment, of breaking barriers, and of unyielding hope. Riyaz’s melodies are transcending borders. He has now entered into collaboration with a Pakistani rapper named Taimur Baig.
“Some things are often challenging to express through conventional means,” Mujtaba Riyaz said. “You can’t always convey the depth of your emotions or make others feel precisely as you wish them to. That’s why I turned to poetry; I engage in melodic and poetic rap, aiming to strike a chord with people’s hearts. Instead of focusing on material possessions and what they desire in life, I found my passion in rap. My journey into rapping began with artists like Mobb Deep, but it truly ignited when I discovered M.C. Kash and witnessed his rap contributions in Kashmir.
“Taimur Baig is a legendary figure in the hip-hop scene, one of the most prominent names in Pakistani hip-hop. Many listeners from Kashmir, including many of my friends, appreciate his music. Personally, it was a significant achievement for me to collaborate with him and create a song together. This project had been in the works for the past three years, with the vibe, melody, and everything coming together. After Taimur Baig joined in, it was finally ready to be shared with the audience. I’m really pleased that this collaboration happened.”
It was in the streets of Kashmir, amid the shadows of conflict, that rapping found its way. Young voices, fueled by the desire to be heard, embraced the power of rap to express their emotions and experiences. Rapping became a form of storytelling, where words became swords to inspire change. This unique art form resonated with the hearts of the youth, who saw it as a means to find their voice amidst the chaos.
Challenges and being called ‘un-Islamic’
Singing in Kashmir is not without its challenges. Artists face the constant struggle to navigate a traditional environment, where self-expression can sometimes be met with resistance. In a conservative society, where female musicians faced challenges, a decade ago three talented girls embarked on a courageous journey. They united their passion for rock music, creating the band “Pragaash,” which translates to “from darkness to light.”
Pragaash took the stage by storm, captivating audiences with their unique blend of rock melodies infused with the essence of Kashmiri culture. But despite their talent, Pragaash faced opposition. Pragaash disbanded after Kashmir’s senior cleric or the grand Mufti called them “un-Islamic.”
“In Kashmir, there is a substantial amount of criticism directed towards rap artists, whether they are pursuing it as a hobby or on a commercial level. It’s a challenge that everyone here faces,” said Mohsin, a rapper from North Kashmir’s Baramulla district.
Much has changed since then. Rapping in Kashmir transcends barriers of religion, ethnicity and language, uniting the youth under the umbrella of music.
“I became interested in rapping as early as 1999. My interest in rapping has grown over time, and as for the response, I’m currently rapping within a close circle. However, I’ve received positive feedback from family and friends,” said Farhan Khan, another rapper from Baramulla district. “Rapping is particularly challenging in Kashmir, especially in the northern region, where opportunities are scarce. There is a lack of recording studios here, so we have to handle everything independently.”
This unique cultural exchange fosters a sense of understanding and harmony. The winds of change carry the voices of courageous women of Kashmir. In the heart of the old Srinagar city, where tradition and modernity intertwine, a captivating tale of resilience unfolds in the shape of the inspiring journey of Mehak Ashraf, known by her stage name, Enimi.
The 22-year-old rap sensation defies stereotypes and challenges norms through her music. At the age of 12, a song by Eminem sparked the fire within Mehak’s heart. Drawn to the power of rap, she began her journey into the world of rhythm, exploring the works of renowned artists like Nicki Minaj, Drake, and 50 Cent. As she delved deeper into rap, Mehak found her true calling in Eminem’s music.
“I’ve been writing songs and rapping since I was just 12 years old,” Mehak said. “At the age of 12, I used to watch YouTube on my sister’s phone. The next song that played on YouTube was by the American rapper Eminem, one of the biggest rappers in the world. I was greatly influenced by him. I began delving into this genre, wondering how he rapped so fast and what he was talking about. My curiosity led me to explore the art of fast rap, and I wanted to showcase my skills to my friends, proving that I could rap swiftly as well.”
With each verse, Mehak’s music becomes a beacon of hope, inspiring those who face societal expectations and limitations. Her rap melodies instill a sense of confidence and courage, encouraging them to embrace their own uniqueness. With every beat, Mehak challenges conventions, daring to go beyond the norm.
“I believe it should be commonplace for girls to pursue their passions, even though it’s perceived as somewhat unconventional in Kashmir,” she said. “This genre is relatively rare here, and whatever exists is male-dominated. Females often face opposition from their families, friends and society. Parents may express concerns — but if your passion is strong, and you’re determined to achieve something, you should never fear anyone and should step forward. There should be platforms in Kashmir, and people should come forward to provide support.”
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged