Around The Corner is a series that aims to highlight India’s diverse cultural landscape beyond its metropolitan cities.
One of the criticisms levelled at the desi hip-hop community is the lack of female representation in the scene. With only three recognisable MCs who have come through the Indian underground as of now—namely Dee MC, Siri and Manmeet Kaur—as well a couple outliers from the left-field electronic space such as Pulpy Shilpy experimenting with the genre, there’s concern growing that the Indian hip-hop scene will be confined to remaining a boys’ club. Patriarchal structures have played a major role in restricting access and opportunities to women, especially from lower-income communities, to join the community. Coupled with the misogynistic image that the genre has cultivated, it’s understandable as to why we have such few female artists in the scene. However, another reason that I feel often goes unaddressed, is that we haven’t actually had a female artist who’s connected in a way artists such as Divine, Naezy, Prabh Deep and others have to the audience at large.
Representation for the sake of tokenism never ends well, and there’s been a genuine dearth of quality amongst female artists in the hip-hop space. Having said that, we might finally be on the verge of witnessing an artist make that jump.
Hailing from Shillong, Meghalaya, Meba Ofilia might just be the breakthrough artist that Indian hip-hop needed. Her first single, “Done Talking”, made in collaboration with Khasi Bloodz co-founder and veteran MC Big Ri, was a refreshing addition amongst the somewhat indistinguishable hip-hop offerings that came out over the last year. “Done Talking” showcased Ofilia’s incredible vocal talent, and earned both Shillong-natives the Best Indian Act award at the 2018 MTV European Music Awards. Having grown up in a close-knit family, Ofilia is well prepared to take on the male-dominated hip-hop space. “I used to love playing outside,” she says. “Because my family was all boys, and most of the games I liked to play were played by them, I learnt never to back down from a challenge and assert myself in the group.”
Brought up on a heavy mix of ’90s pop, Ofilia’s love for hip-hop and R&B music grew through her discovery of African-American gospel music. “I grew up listening to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion and the likes,” she says. “Later, as I discovered gospel, I started singing in church. Eventually, it led me to discover artists such as Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys and Tori Kelly, and they continue to be my main influences.” Aside from singing at church, Ofilia was also a part of Eunoia Souls, an acoustic trio formed with friends from Nepal, and acclaimed Shillong bands The Rudy Wallang Band, Dewdrops and the Roots Reggae Band before she decided to pursue a solo career.
The Khasi Bloodz have played a pivotal role in putting hip-hop from north east India on the map, and their backing also gave Ofilia the confidence to express herself through the genre. “I was always into the music but it was only when I met Lamonte Pakyntein (D-Mon) in 2014 that I figured out where my zone was within hip-hop,” she says. “Big Ri, Lamonte and Danbok have played a very important role in my life and I know that they’ve always got my back.” “Done Talking” represents the first time Ofilia really puts herself out there as an artist, and its positive reception has calmed some of her fears. “I was a nervous wreck,” she says. “A lot of anxiety, honestly, the song was a pain in the ass record, and I shed a lot of tears out of frustration. But now seeing how well it’s been received and the fact that it’s won an award, I’m shedding tears of joy.”
The success of “Done Talking” will put a lot of pressure on her follow-up releases, and often artists buckle under the pressure of having to live up to previous acclaimed works. “I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by people who inspire and support me,” she says. “A lot of the songs I’m working on right now are based on the stories that I share with these people, so hopefully it’ll build on the success that “Done Talking” achieved.”
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