Where Them Gully Girls At?

We went to one of Asia’s biggest slums to trace the roots of what’s responsible for the lack of female representation in gully rap, and spoke to some people fighting for change.
Shamani Joshi
Mumbai, IN
Gully girls
Image: Shamani Joshi

If you, like me, find your Instagram feed flooded with an angst-ridden, hoodie-clad Ranveer Singh dropping deadpan expressions and contagious AF lines like “Apna Time Aayega”, you probably already know the #AsliHipHop hype surrounding the release of the upcoming film Gully Boy is real. But even as I partake in the excitement that turns up every time Singh spits out sentences at an electrifying pace, the butchered beats of his ‘Mere Gully Mein’ version included, I can’t help but wonder: Where them gully girls at?

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Sure, the film features feisty female characters like Alia Bhatt, whose swearing abilities are pretty on point, and Kalki Koechlin, last seen being a spray-paint can wielding badass. But even the film’s female leads seem limited to just being love interests. Maybe I’m counting my easter eggs before they hatch, but so far, the film’s previews make no mention of the gritty gully girl, the one who trades her dupatta for a hoodie as she stacks her struggles into words that whizz by faster than you can say feminism.

Even beyond the fictional setting, it’s a glaring reality that despite gully rap growing over the last few years, there are virtually no girls from the gully (lane) who have managed to make it big. There are a handful of established female Indian hip-hop artists such as the OG Hard Kaur and the socio-politically driven Sofia Ashraf , but barring these we rarely see girls grabbing the proverbial microphone. Even Raja Kumari , the California based rapper often projected as the female face of the gully gang, isn’t exactly the most appropriate person to represent a movement that stems from stories of slum life struggles, especially in light of her controversial casteist remarks. So where TF are all the gully girls? Why haven’t we seen them rapidly rhyming their way into the scene the way crews like 7BantaiZ, Slum Gods and Dopeadelicz have sprung up from the slums of Mumbai?

Get, set, gully girl

Deepa Unnikrishnan, known as Dee MC on the streets, is one of the only young girls who resonates with the gully scene, despite not being from there. Having grown up in Kalyan in a family that was slightly more open to her getting into hip-hop, she considers herself privileged to be a part of the hippest city in India. But when I asked her why there were no gully girls, she points out how we’ve all basically grown up with patriarchal conditioning.

“Some families don’t want to see their daughter struggle and would rather they settle down. When I started, I had to put in extra mehnat (effort), which females don’t really do in this country. This is only because of how they’ve been conditioned. Ladkiyon ke dimaag mein bachpan se jaata hai ki tumne job nahi kiya toh bhi chalega (girls are told from a young age that it’s fine if they don’t get a job) or giving them a kitchen set.” She is currently working on an EP to shatter the existing inequality that she believes is product of religious traditions that portray women as weak or sinners like Eve. “Even popes, priests and Imams are not female, so how the fuck can we expect equality?” she says with a sigh. While Dee MC is one of the few female voices to grace the scene, she admits that while she wasn’t born and brought up in Dharavi, the gully has grown to become her home.

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But what about the girls who do actually come from one of Asia’s biggest slums? With a population of over a million people co-existing in lanes of plastic-sheet shanties, poor drainage facilities and an informal economy that mainly runs on the leather trade, Dharavi is one of India’s most overcrowded areas, which made me curious as to why there was a lack of female representation despite the high population.

The gully girl next door

It was at a Republic Day ‘rap meets reggae’ groove session organised at The Dharavi Project, a collective that aims to teach the elements of hip-hop from rapping to graffiti to young potentials in the area, that I first spotted 16-year old Gayatri Nadar. Decked in a magenta hoodie, hoop earrings and sneakers, she exuded effortless confidence as she swayed to the reggae infused rap beats amidst a bunch of bantais (bros). She happens to be one of The Dharavi Project’s only female beatboxers, with big dreams of being an established “ stree” in the scene. (woman on the scene).

“My introduction to hip-hop was through the music of my neighbours 7BantaiZ and the Dopeadelicz crew,” says the aspiring rapper. “Then, at my annual day function last year I saw some boys beatboxing. Mujhe laga ki music peeche se aa raha hai (I couldn’t figure out where the music was coming from and I thought it must have just been in the background), but when the beatboxer told me he was making noises with his mouth on the mike, I was very interested.” After finding out about the genre, Gayatri joined the free beatboxing classes conducted by The Dharavi Project in her area, and began secretly bunking her tuitions to attend them.

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"Bank mein na note hai, mere dimaag mein chott hai, lekin ladko ke beech mein main hu ek stree, mera naam Gayatri, karti beatboxing aur karti rap bhi, sab karte hai clap bhi, rap hai mera taribhi, sab karte copy, yeah yeah." Image: Shamani Joshi

Inspired by headstrong female figures in the scene like Dee MC and even the bold disposition of Raja Kumari, she adopts the alter ego Icy Fire because being on stage gives her a powerful headrush and makes her feel cool, like a song of fire and ice coming together to create a diamond. She has even taken baby steps into rapping songs that she has written, themed around her struggles of being a stree and the lack of opportunities because of it. The spirit is strong in this tough teenager, but her path to success has its share of potholes.

“When I started, I was the only girl in a group full of guys, which led to a feeling of guilt. I am a South Indian girl toh aise allowed nahi hai, aise bahar jaana (we aren’t allowed to engage in activities like this and go outside). Bahar log sochte hai ki hip-hop sirf drugs aur nashe ke bare mein hai, toh beti log ka naam kharab hoga (People have misconceptions that hip-hop is all about drugs and alcohol and that letting their daughter do it will spoil her perception in society),” she tells me. She then opens up about her first performance held at a big hotel with Badshah, where the uplifting energy of the environment helped her break out of a shy shell and made her beatboxing spring to life.

Although her parents were strictly opposed to the idea of her getting into hip-hop, she has slowly and steadily managed to educate them that asli hip-hop is more about self-expression than substance abuse with the support of her siblings and Dolly Rateshwar, a founding member of The Dharavi Project.

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“Ladki ko boys ke saath dekhte hai toh sochte hai ki pyaar ho jayega, toh girls ko guilty feeling hoti hai. Lekin mere ko iss sab cheez mein koi interest nahi hai. Sabke saath chill rehna ka (People think that when a girl does things with a group of guys, it will lead to something romantic, which makes us feel guilty as girls. But I can’t be bothered about all this. I am chill with everyone). I charge my way through people, say what I want and fight back. I don’t care what people say.”

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Gayatri is one of the only girls in a class of guys learning how to beatbox at The Dharavi Project. Image: Shamani Joshi

When I discuss this with Dolly Rateshwar, the female force behind The Dharavi Project, she points out that the association of hip-hop with substance abuse and sex symbols, coupled with the fact that Indians, especially those from lower-income backgrounds, are dismissive of experimenting with music styles that go beyond the mainstream Bollywood has led to a lack of acceptance of girls getting into hip-hop. Opening up about instances in which girls who were interested in rapping and would come to the school to learn, but were forced to stop because of their families feeling it wasn’t “appropriate” for them, Rateshwar is attempting to change this at a grassroots level by constantly encouraging the few girls who do show up to keep going and even visiting their families and trying to make them understand the potential of hip-hop. But even this has its difficulties.

“Dharavi was considered to be an aggressive place, and domestic violence and drug influence is present even today. So, parents are more protective about their daughters compared to their sons.” Rateshwar explains. “If you see the layout of ghettos like this, houses are very close to each other so there’s no privacy and whatever is being spoken about in one house is easily audible to the neighbour next door. So girls are informed to keep themselves low. That pressure remains on them.”

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Dolly Ratheshwar spends quality time with the children who come to be schooled in all things hip-hop, and makes an extra effort especially with the girls, often visiting their families and keeping them informed to make them feel reassured. Image: Shamani Joshi

Taking into account public misconceptions, the misogynistic mentality prevalent in our society and the extent to which one’s economic status defines their access to the right information, it’s no surprise that even girls who genuinely want to make a difference are held back because “ log kya kahenge”. Fembot5, a blog that raises awareness about female empowerment in the Indian music scene, estimates that deep patriarchal ‘power-structures’ within the industry create unfavourable conditions for most women artists, especially in regions like China, India, Africa and Latin America that silence any discussions that say otherwise.

Going ahead in the gully

So how does one forge the way forward for female representation in gully rap? When asked whether much will change following the upcoming release of Gully Boy, Rateshwar says, “Parents will realise that rap does have a future, but it’ll be seen more as a Bollywood movie than as a representation of hip-hop, so there’s still a long way to go for girls. People will still say usse shaadi kaun karega? (who will marry her)." She tells me about a memory still fresh in her mind at a turntable workshop held with Spin Doctor, where a parent who had come with both his son and daughter held his daughter back when she tried to step towards the console and said, “ yeh nahi jayegi par mere bete ko leke jao (She won’t do this, but my son can).” She stresses upon the need for more women to fight against society’s narrow-mindedness, come together and stand in solidarity with each other to create a support system that makes it easier for them to cancel the patriarchy.

So to all the aspiring gully girls out there, apna time aayega. That’s a (w)rap.

Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.