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  1. A different tune

A different tune

Using music as a tool to get a social message across may not be the most common practice today but it's sure catching up. Trailblazers such as Ram Sampath and the rapper Divine have not only secured a place for themselves, in the mainstream with their 'issue-based' music, they have also opened up the path for other musicians with similar dreams."

By: | Updated: February 21, 2018 3:54 PM
Bands which are coming up with issue-based music

SXonomics: Mumbai based girl band making feminism fun

Ever heard of someone saying they want to make feminism fun? Mumbai-based Ramya Pandyan and Ishmeet Nagpal aim to do just that through their cross-content band of two, SXonomics, which the two women created last year. “Most people don’t want to be lectured on inequality and equate feminism with anger,” says 27-year-old Pandyan, who aims to change the perception of people through her performances. Besides performing as a music band, they also do stand-up comedy and conduct workshops for awareness about discrimination, oppression, patriarchy, etc. A digital content publisher by profession, Pandyan, who is also a published author, first met 29-year-old Nagpal in November 2016 at a poetry open mic in Mumbai. The two bonded instantly over their mutual hatred of misogyny in the poetry circuit and elsewhere. Pandyan and Nagpal, the director of the NGO, Project Manasvi, decided to collaborate for a creative front. “We were both individually protesting against the same things… It felt like we could effectively battle misogyny by working as a team,” says Nagpal.

For the next four months, the two brainstormed over several formats for their band’s content before zeroing in on cross-genre, with comedy, satire and musical collaborations with other independent artistes. The two-member music band debuted in April 2017 at the South Asia Laadli Awards, organised by the NGO, Population First, in Mumbai. Other initial gigs included performances at the 2017 RISE Summit at the World Trade Centre in Mumbai, etc. “We want to make people comfortable with the concept of feminism without drowning them in jargon,” says Pandyan.
However, for artistes trying to touch upon topics of social relevance, it’s never an easy road. SXonomics, too, faces its set of challenges. As the duo reveal, while most audience members seem to react positively to their performances, they have also come across a certain section of the audience, which seems unable to handle the way these girls approach ‘taboo’ topics such as menstrual hygiene, consent, rape, etc, resulting in verbal attacks, hostility and indifference. Yet they labour on, believing an honest dialogue can change everything.

To reach a wider audience base, they are also open to the idea of performing in tier II cities and even rural areas. They also try to reach out to audiences through streaming sites and social media. “We want to go into people’s living rooms to bring the conversation on gender issues right to their dinner table,” says Pandyan.

Brahmean: Notes of change include pollution, corruption, economy

Brahmean, a two-member music band, was formed in 2017 when two young men grew tired of the toxic music trending in the country. “I would turn on the TV or radio and all I would hear were songs with the words ladki, daaru and party. No one was singing about anything original or worthwhile,” says 22-year-old Harshit Joshi, who writes lyrics and composes music for Brahmean. Joshi, who performs trap and hip hop, connected last year with 22-year-old DJ Mayank Sharma, the other half of Brahmean, when he came across tracks composed and posted by Sharma on Instagram. They met and decided to collaborate. The New Delhi-based musicians, who are looking to break into the music scene this year, already have a list of songs on their YouTube channel. Their only speed-breaker, they say, is homogenised content, which is being regurgitated and repackaged for mass consumption. “Only if it was easy getting people’s mind off Bollywood,” says Joshi, who quit his advertising job in Gurugram in October 2017 to start Brahmean.

But what are the notes they are trying to hit to bring about change? “We’re talking about the pollution in Delhi, corruption that is eating away our economy, the plight of soldiers on the border… things that need to be spoken about,” says Sharma, who dropped out of college at Indraprastha University in 2015. The duo—who use a storytelling format with a beginning, a middle and a climax—say each of their songs has a twist at the end to present something unexpected to listeners.

“We want to set an example. People should realise that there is another way to sustain yourself… zaruri nahi ki Vrindavan mein rehna hai to radhe-radhe kehna hai,” says Joshi. The main idea behind their work, they say, is to encourage other artistes to draw away from the complacent “commercial” formula and make meaningful music. Joshi, who is currently pursuing a course on playing the keys from the Delhi School of Music, says they aren’t afraid to dive head-first into the business of making issue-based music. “Quitting isn’t an option. We will make this work,” he says.

Willuwandi: Kochi band belting out ‘wake up’ songs

Willuwandi, a metal band comprising four people from Kochi, Kerala, boasts of a heavy history behind its musical journey. The name of the band, which roughly translates to ‘bullock cart’ in Malayalam, takes its inspiration from Dalit social reformer Mahatma Ayyankali, who rode through the streets in Travancore on a bullock cart to protest against discrimination and injustice against Dalits in 1893. The founder of the band and a BSc final-year student at Kochi’s Maharaja’s College, Sethu (who goes by one name only) considers his band the ideological descendant of Ayyankali. “Our songs are ‘wake-up songs’,” says Sethu, the frontman of Willuwandi. All members of the band are in their early 20s and, besides Sethu, include Balu (a civil engineering student who goes by one name only) on the guitar; Swathi Sangeeth (who is pursuing graduation in Hindi) on the bass guitar; and Subi (who is interning at the Kochi shipyard and goes by one name only) on the drums. The four met each other in college and bonded over Dalit activism and music. The band members say their death metal brand of music is a tool to propagate the ideals of justice, freedom and enlightenment. Triggered by the atrocities committed against the Dalit community and the political scenario in the country, the band took shape in 2009 and has amassed a huge fan following since. They also record some of their performances and post them on YouTube. Their songs such as Eat me brother, Black god and Najeeb have been very popular.

Through their music, Sethu and his bandmates are seeking the support of the youth for a more inclusive social and political set-up. “My biggest dream is to perform at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, wearing the black coat of Babasaheb Ambedkar amidst a gathering of thousands, much the same way he once united people,” says Sethu.The musicians feel that through their music they can motivate change rather than just inspire thought
and that was the reason behind writing From shadows to light, a song about Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad University student, who committed suicide in January 2016. “We use music for social activism, as ‘it takes a revolution to create a solution’,” says Sethu, quoting Jamaican reggae artiste Bob Marley.

Prabh Deep Singh: Inspiring youth with gully hip hop

When Mumbai-based artiste Vivian Fernandes, better known by his stage name Divine, broke into the independent music scene in 2011 and rapped about life in the slums of his city, not many were aware of the underground hip hop community that was burgeoning in the country. Seven years later today, the community is taking giant strides, with even Bollywood director Zoya Akhtar making a film, Gully, on the lives of Mumbai’s street artistes. But perhaps the best example of its success could be 24-year-old Prabh Deep Singh, a New Delhi-based gully hip hop artiste, who is touted as the next big thing in the genre today. Singh, who grew up in Tilak Nagar, one of west Delhi’s ghetto areas notorious for drug abuse, ventured into music in 2013. “I started making music after I met this guy, Jaspal Singh, at a Snoop Dogg concert,” he says. Apart from a brief tryst with b-boying (break dancing), it was this chance encounter with Singh, a PhD scholar studying the evolution of hip hop in Indian communities, that got Singh closer to his calling. Singh was the one who got him to start rapping by inviting him to his house to record a track.

While leaving for Germany to finish his PhD, Singh also left Singh his microphone. This encounter inspired Singh to delve into the roots of hip-hop and learn the ropes of music production and recording. The artiste, who released a 12-track debut album Class-Sikh in October last year, reveals the trigger behind his music: “My emotions are about the situations that people are experiencing around me—family, friends or strangers. I’m always writing about what I see around me (such as drug addiction, poverty, gang wars, etc),” he says.

The album, which won the Toto Funds the Arts (a non-profit trust, which encourages young artistes in India through awards, workshops, etc) award last month, features songs majorly in colloquial Punjabi, interspersed with English and Hindi. The songs, which are angry, as well as altruistic, tackle the rampant drug addiction in the community head-on, as the artiste sings about his childhood and how he lost people around him to drug abuse and street fighting. Singh says children in his community have been coming up to him to say how inspired they are. The album was released in collaboration with Azadi Records, an independent label launched by music journalist Uday Kapur and UK-returned entrepreneur Mohit Joshi aka Mo. “Prabh is like a brother. We have a great working relationship, so even if Azadi had not signed him, we would still be helping him,” says Joshi. Kapur and Joshi back Singh, as they believe that the record has the potential to be the first Indian hip hop album that breaks out internationally through collaborations with other artistes and music labels.

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