Of Genres and Generations
Jennifer Ashraf Kashmi and Nameera Ahmed
Hip-hop in itself is a blend of various cultural issues. It originates as an odd mix of DJ-ing, rapping and beat boxing. Yet Hip-hop is so much more than just that. It is a bayonet for warriors who have only words, who cannot find a way to stand up against the powers that be and yet refuse to step down. Take the aptly titled song 'Bidrohi – the rebel'; one of Shree Sen, a young passionate artiste's, most well-known tracks, Bidrohi talks about society in its darkest hours and blatant disgust at the usual trend of turning a blind eye to it. Sen describes himself as – a one-man army and perhaps quite rightly so. Having started his halting career initially with the forceful struggle of introducing Bangla rap and hip-hop in the Indian music circuit, Sen is now one of the most well-known artistes of his genre and a great inspiration to the younger hopefuls as well.
When in conversation Sen, spoke freely about how despite having a career in market research, this was where his true passion lies. He was unhesitatingly eloquent about how from his perspective, the younger generations speak out against and speak up about social issues. As Sen puts it – “It's about presenting the social issues in such a way that the people will listen; will understand and act.” It is perhaps such an understanding of how these artistes believe that hip-hop will serve to help promote the idealism of youthful generations and eradicate the corruption of, social forms, cultural boundaries and state politics, that has led Sen and many other like-minded artistes to volunteer for Hip Hop Jaati-2, a promotional concert targeted mainly at forming a platform for young artistes.
Shafayet, lead singer, from TOR (Theology of Rap) and organiser of the concert speaks about how they are attempting to promote Hip Hop in the Bangladeshi music culture. He speaks about how they initially brought out a Hip-hop Jaati debut album in 2010. “When we brought out this album, the response was huge. We did it in pure Bangla to get the Bangladesh market. Our plan was to bring out the album and judging from the response it received, we would arrange a show.” With their main aim being the promotion of the Hip-hop genre, Shafayet says, “When we were Underground we never got paid; now we don't take money. We are basically doing Hip-Hop Jaati to promote it in Bangladesh; we want to take it to the highest level possible. We are the sponsors of all our shows; a lot of concerts are mainly done for business purposes but we're not trying to do any form of business here.” When asked about whether they were doing it as a career move, he says, “No we're not. I, myself, am in business and I will be finished with my studies next year. I'm currently studying at London South Bank University, and I'm here in Bangladesh now for my summer vacation”. TOR, a five-member band, is still surviving and existing as a band, but currently the members are a little scattered. “When we first formed there were only three bands – Deshi MC, StoickBliss and Uptown Lokolz.”
Compared to the size of the concert hall, however, the turnout was not as impressive. Shafayet says: “Yes, not so much this year, but we had a really big audience last year at the first concert. With our first concert we let everyone have completely free entry.” However, at this year's concert, not all of the bands seemed up to par. Speaking about how they were chosen to perform in the line-up, Shafayet states, “In our Facebook event page we invited bands to start sending in their demos, and they started doing so. We screened all the demos and made out decision impartially.” Shafayet himself has been in the Hip-hop scene for quite some time, and he has seen a lot of bands and 'crews' assemble and disband equally quickly over the years. In relation to whether this has affected him personally Shafayet says, “Hip-hop, for me, is a hobby. For all my band members as well, it's something we do for fun and we do it because we enjoy it.” So for how many bands in today's generation is hip-hop the core of their ambitions, the heart and soul of their dreams? "Hardly any," says Shafayet, "To be honest many of the performing bands today are doing it for fun. Plus they are quite young”.
Shafayet stresses on how, despite the fact that he may be leaving this industry next year, is trying to popularise hip-hop in the correct way in Bangladesh. What seems to be lacking in the hip-hop industry is commitment. “Crew are forming today, and they are breaking up tomorrow. That is why what we are attempting to create here is a platform for the future artists. Many of the bands here are caught up in trying to copy the American hip-hop style. They say things like 'I'm from the hood'. What we're trying to do is to promote it in our Bangladeshi culture. There is no 'hood' in Bangladesh. Jaati projects 'unity' amongst people. Our focus should be that we are all one generation, one country.” He also says that even though they may not be able to bring acceptance of hip-hip to the majority of the Bangladeshi population, they are happy with the fact that they can at least create a platform for the future generation.
Perhaps a major achievement for the Bangladesh hip-hop culture as a whole is the recent signing of the band “Rajotto” with RightTrack Distribution and Records, who are strategic partners of Universal Music. The three members of the band (Towfique, Faisal and Gareth) were recording their first album 'Rajotto' in a London studio, when they were discovered by Nicholas Americanos. “It was more than a dream come true for us. He liked our music and wanted to find out who we were. After that he wanted us to promote our songs in Bengali on an international level. However, we wanted to appeal to the mass international market by doing our tracks in English.” They have done two of their famous tracks in English – Bidrohi and Nagordola – which will be initially released as singles, to be followed by their album afterwards. The name of their band, which will be promoted internationally, has been changed to 'Bong Rulerz' from 'Rajotto'.
Now that Rajotto have attained this recognition, the natural question which arises is that they may be facing certain societal constraints and expectations from the younger generation who will be looking up to them as role models. “Music is our passion really' says Towfique. "We don't really feel as if there is pressure on us and we're not worried about what people really think and whether they are putting us up as their role models. We know that people will automatically get the inspiration from our music and therefore of course we have a responsibility to uphold our morals through our music. To be honest, I think in Bangladesh we have good rappers and good musicians of all kinds.” He further adds, “We're keeping our music clean. There will be only one version and it would be for everybody. There will be no explicit versions, or no special versions for our songs. The first song we have done is about world peace, it's about democracy and human rights which is the English version of the song 'Bidrohi'.”
So the question really is, does hip-hop have a future in Bangladesh, and will it even survive as a genre in itself. All the artistes interviewed have expressed a firm belief that it indeed would, as Uptown Lokolz band member Spade says, “Maybe not today but in another five to six years, we'll get there.”