“Put yo’ motherfuckin’ hands in the air ya’ll!” This is hip-hop sensation B-Boy Taishi, yelling to a roaring audience of 150 sweaty twenty-somethings, who shriek in reply and put their motherfucking hands in the air.
Taishi picks up the beat played by the DJ (just a dude pressing a play/pause button behind a console). Blueish lights crisscross his face, and his harsh voice blares out from massive speakers, in machine-gun flow, overlapping the sermon that echoes from nearby minarets.
Welcome to the fourth edition of Rhymistan, Pakistan’s biggest gathering of homegrown hip-hop.
The country’s finest have come from all over to perform and contest in a rap battle straight out of a desi reboot of 8 Mile. The event is set in a nondescript building tucked between an infertility center and a Sufi shrine, up a flight of stairs leading to a rooftop terrace that overlooks a busy flyover and the Badshahi Masjid, old Lahore’s Mughal landmark.
Hassan Amin, 26, is the co-founder of Rhymistan. He stands at the top of the stair like a mountain, clad in a black shalwar kameez, selling tickets like candy. “We started last December and this is the fourth gig,” he says. “I’ve never seen so many people attend.” He explains that “There are a lot of hip-hop artists in Pakistan but not a lot of hip-hop concerts. So we decided to fix that.”
Amin originally comes from the rock scene (he's vocalist in the Dead Bhuttos, a metal band named after slain members of the Bhutto dynasty), but has turned Rhymistan into the unmissable, if not only, hip-hop gathering in Pakistan.
The lineup includes 20 artists with names like Young Bone, Big H, Traitor, Junior Jabbz. It’s a mix of up-and-coming rookies and well-established MCs. Next up after B-Boy Taishi is 21 year-old Sunny Khan Durrani from Peshawar. His one song for the night is “Fatwa Jaari”, rapped in Urdu, at the end of which he requests the crowd to join him in raising a middle finger to the mullahs. A sea of fingers points up, some of them still holding smartphones so as not to miss a single second of this unusual Saturday night.
It doesn't require a theology degree to suppose the lyrics are not halal. Yet there’s no security. According to Amin, confidentiality is security. “Mainstream Pakistan is very unaware of what the underground scene is doing. Even if a terrorist wants to blow some place up, he’s not going to target an underground concert. To him music is just Bollywood or Hollywood. He doesn’t know about anything in between.”
Danish, a 21 year-old veterinary student, came for a night away from the election fury currently enthralling the country . “The scene is just starting,” he smiles. “All this is new in Pakistan. But some of these performers will be big one day, Inshallah.”
Rhymistan offers fierce and remarkably good hardcore rap. And this is no mild entertainment for rich kids. Like Danish, most of the crowd comes from regular backgrounds.
“We specifically targeted lower and middle class rather than rich people,” says Amin. “I put up promotional posters in the neighborhood’s snooker cafes, where kids from middle income families hang out.” He adds, “People from the bourgeois side of Lahore don’t like coming to this part of the city—they associate old Lahore with dirtiness, and a lot of them have a hard time navigating their way to this place.”
Amin wants to take Rhymistan out of old Lahore too. “The next Rhymistan is going to be in Karachi, but we are also looking at expanding to smaller cities, like Peshawar or Multan,” he says.
Like most people here, Amin has never been abroad in his life. It’s hard to imagine, seeing as how the night runs like a loyal replica of American gang culture, with all the paraphernalia you might expect in the grimiest den in Midtown Detroit: gold chains, baseball caps, jerseys and a lot of “‘tsup brahs”.
Yet the event remains utterly Pakistani (and not just because of the irritating feedback and technical hitches galore). Rhymistan is a syncretic blend of Americanisms and desi rap. The performers rap mainly in Urdu and Punjabi, with bhenchods and madarchods liberally dotting the lyrics.
There’s also not a single drop of booze to be seen, notwithstanding the rumours that someone who knew someone would manage to smuggle in some beer at some point. A frustrating void at first that, quite surprisingly, doesn't poop the party.
Most importantly, the crowd is 99 percent male. “Yeah, we’re trying to overcome that problem”, Amin admits, slightly embarrassed. “But I can’t force women to come out of their homes and go to a concert. Pakistan is a male-dominated society, what are you gonna do?”
Nonetheless, the boys give it up for 22-year-old Hafsah Haq, the lone female performer. As everyone hustles around the dance floor—a tarp spread out on the brick floor—Amin asks the audience not to take pictures. “Show some respect.” The crowd reholsters their phones.
With her jaw-dropping 10-minute freestyle breakdance, Haq steals the show. She twists, turns, and improvises flawlessly, all while remaining fully covered in jeans and shirt. She leaves the dancefloor clamouring for more. Haq is studying psychology in Lahore but hopes to become a professional dancer. “I have received criticism for doing this” she says. “Basically if you’re a girl in Pakistan and you’re interested in dance, you’re supposed to simply do Kathak.”
I ask why she didn’t want her performance filmed. Haq explains that someone once shared a video of her dancing at a show-your-talent event in Karachi, and captioned it with a conservative rant about the vulgarity of young girls.
“We live in a society where you have to follow certain rules,” Haq sighs. “The one thing that could help me is a crop top. But I can’t really wear one here because obviously that would be too… out there.”
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Haq hopes Rhymistan places Pakistan on the global rap map.
“We’re just trying to be like everyone else man. It’s really heart-wrenching when you see your favorite choreographers going to India but never to Pakistan. You see Matt Steffanina going there, you see Dytto going there. And here we have nothing because they think it’s not safe or they think they don’t have a market here. That really gets to me.”
It’s already past 1 AM when a last fierce battle has all the rappers take the stage in a no-holds-barred melee. When the applause dies down, everybody disperses into rickshaws and hurtles into the night.
A few days later, I meet Durrani again in his hometown of Peshawar. The city has just been bloodied by a Taliban attack that claimed 22 lives. Durrani takes me through the streets of the old city, where he shot the clip to his song “Log Kya Kahenge” which crossed 115K views a few days ago.
The song takes on religious extremism: “It’s about how mullahs molest kids in their mosques and then tell you that you are out of Islam for doing certain thing,” he explains.
Sunny has received death threats for his songs. “Seriously, just look around you and then look at me. Do you think I have not been confronted with extremism ? The way I look is risky in itself!”. With his baggy t-shirt, Timberland boots, and messy Jim Morrison mane, Sunny stands out among the burqas and beards of the winding alleys of Peshawar.
“I knew i was a product of this society, and that it wasn’t where I wanted to go,” Durrani says, waving at the people around him. “I always knew I had to fight it.”
One of his songs, “Dost” is a letter to God in which Durrani complains to the Almighty, asking why he’s letting his name be fouled by extremists. Durrani is now working on a second album, to be released at the end of the year. He seems pretty confident of his success as a rapper in Pakistan. The reason is simple, “Wherever there will be oppression and people wanting to speak up, we will need hip-hop.”