Around The Corner is a series that aims to highlight India’s diverse cultural landscape beyond its metropolitan cities.
“Kids in Ramgarh don’t dream,” says Sumit Singh Solanki. “The things I experienced in my childhood, I used to think that was the kind of childhood everybody had. I dreamt of something different, and the few supporters that I have gained over the years, they dreamt as well. But shit never changes.” Solanki, who produces under the moniker Tre Ess, is one of the most exciting artists to come out of the country in recent times. While his work as a rapper has room for improvement in terms of projection and delivery, Solanki is the driving force behind the alternative hip-hop sound that next the generation of Indian artists is exploring–incorporating folk and classical samples and structures into his productions.
However, a critique of Solanki’s art is secondary once he tells his story–the fact that he’s making music at all is a testament to his will and desire as a person, and his continuing persistence in pursuing a career in music, despite the industry being largely restricted to the country’s metropolitan centres, is inspiring.
“They [his extended family] shot my cousin, Neeraj Singh last year,” he says. “My extended family was the inspiration behind Gangs of Wasseypur–they were involved with the coal mafia and ran labour unions. Neeraj was the first one in our family’s Dhanbad house who was going to take things legit. Not everybody liked that, so they shot him. Being educated, or even being progressive makes you stick out like a sore thumb,” says Solanki. His relationship with his father is also a fraught one. The latter’s vague stance and desperation for society’s approval has led to friction between the two in the past. “The effect of a toxic community on him still amazes me,” says Solanki. “His worldview changes according to the worldview of the people around him. Once, I heard him agreeing with someone on the phone about how one should let their kids follow their passion. I mean, I couldn’t believe he would say that after he’d just thrashed me for asking for money to fund my drum lessons.”
Solanki’s persistence eventually paid off and he’s attempting to heal his relationship with his father now. In 2016, he released his debut album–titled All Before Dawn–providing a glimpse into an artist who, while finding himself, was also trying to create a sonic identity for a city that had no representation in the Indian independent music scene. It’s a responsibility that Solanki takes in his stride. “I can’t let the Jharkhand music die out before it hits the spotlight,” he says. Influenced by the likes of Mos Def, Linkin Park, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, Tame Impala, Hiatus Kaiyote and others, Solanki, a self-taught musician, spent hours going through YouTube tutorials, both at home and in internet cafes in his neighborhood, before financial considerations finally took their toll and forced him to experiment. He maintains it’s the best thing that happened in his learning process, thereby giving him the freedom to arrive at a sonic identity that contains characteristics of lo-fi, alternative hip-hop and trap music.
Since the release of All Before Dawn, Solanki, now residing in Ranchi, has dropped multiple projects that have highlighted his growth as a musician. His recent release, a collaborative project with some of the country’s best upcoming MCs, including Gravity and Tienas, received widespread acclaim from industry publications such as Wild City and Rolling Stone India. He’s signed to Mumbai-based label nrtya, arguably the only label in the country releasing independent artists from Tier II and Tier III cities, and regularly tours with Rana Singh’s REPRODUCE Listening Room sessions. “I’ve received a lot of love in unexpected places,” he says. “In Varanasi, there was this German girl who saw us perform and then went back and started spreading the music there. The Manali show was my favourite–I got to meet a lot of artists thanks to The Burlap People, and genuinely had one of the best shows of my life. We performed free but after the set the owner came and gave us a fee because he couldn’t believe how good we were.”
However, it’s clear the violence he grew up around has taken its toll on him. Solanki is slightly older than the state of Jharkhand, and in his story, you can trace the evolution of the state itself. Blessed with an abundance of mineral resources, it has been at the centre of the Naxalbari struggle– experiencing violence at the hands of the Naxals, the Salwa Judum and state forces–forcing its people to fend off poverty amidst chaos.
“The situation that I grew up in has made me numb,” he says. “Even with the industry, where your connections decide whether you break through or not, I don’t know how to deal with it so I choose to ignore it to keep myself together. We’ve had young Naxal recruits hiding in my neighbourhood who almost got lynch mobbed, an ISIS guy blew himself up while trying to manufacture a bomb, two burglars shot each other in a parking lot. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was working on my debut record, so I’ve been in a dark place for a significant portion of my life. This shit [my music] saved me. It’s made me focused and determined, and it’s made me the most consistent artist in the country by a mile. As tough as it is for someone like me to break through, especially considering where I’m from, I’m going to try my best to make it happen and make sure I have no regrets in life.”
Follow Uday Kapur on Twitter.