In September 2017, in collaboration with BFR Soundsystem and a few local artists, Azadi Records hosted a small event at a private art residency in downtown Srinagar. While many are aware of Kashmir’s independent music community through the work of MC Kash, there’s been a steady stream of artists who have come up since Kash’s forced hiatus, hoping to tell Kashmir’s complex stories in a manner that sidesteps the sensationalism often adopted by mainstream media in India. Some, like hip-hop artist Illsane, were inspired by Kash’s sincerity towards the stories of the victims of Kashmir’s 30-year internal conflict, and had to quit music under pressure from the police and the state. Others, like Ahmer Javed, Ali Saffudin and Esxaar, represent the new face of Kashmiri music—adding nuance to the narrative surrounding the valley.
Born and raised in Rajbagh, a neighbourhood on the banks of the Jhelum river in Srinagar, Ahmer Javed was always an introvert. “The education system confused me a lot. I used to think a lot, and talk less since day one, and presently, I consider this my strength,” he says. Having studied at Delhi Public School Srinagar, the conflict in Kashmir had an early impact on Javed’s life. “I remember I was 12 or 13 [in 2008], we were under curfew, and they used to lift it for 1 or 2 hours in the day,” he recalls. “My brother went out to fetch milk with Rishi, my dad’s driver. There used to be an army bunker (now dismantled) that he had to cross. Th army officers stopped him and started to ask questions. “Where are you going? Where do you stay?” and all that. My brother answered and explained why he was out, and out of nowhere, one of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel said, ‘You are the one who throws stones, right?’ My brother was in high school back then I guess. The army officer started screaming at my brother, yelling, ‘Bol Jai Hind (Say Jai Hind)’. He had a stout stick, and with it one of them started beating my brother, another joined, and they didn’t stop for almost 10 minutes. Rishi was from Nepal and he could only watch, he wasn’t beaten. My family found out, and they all came out. I was shivering, my heart was racing, and I couldn’t think straight. People from the area found out and came to save my brother. That was one of the worst days of my life. I got a reality check back then.”
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Kashmir saw the emergence of an armed insurgency against the Indian state, and one of the primary factors for its rise was the Legislative Assembly election in 1987. Widely considered to be rigged and with numerous instances of electoral malpractice, the election of Farooq Abdullah and the National Congress-led coalition was rejected by the people of the valley who came out to vote for the anti-establishment Muslim United Front coalition in large numbers. As many as 80% of the population voted in the 1987 elections (there was only a 3.4% turnout in this year’s municipal polls) and, as the people in Srinagar tell it, everybody knew that the people had voted for the MUF. When Farooq Abdullah was announced as the victor, the Kashmiri people revolted. One of those was Javed’s uncle, Shaheed Ajaz Ahmed Dar. “He was one of the most influential figures from our area who stood up against human rights violations and the rigging that took place back in 1987,” says Javed. “He helped shape the peoples’ movement against such atrocities and was martyred in one of the encounters that took place in the ’90s. My grandfather thought that he wasn’t taking his life seriously. He only got to know what uncle stood for and how much he had done for Kashmir and its people after his demise.”
Hip-hop emerged as a medium for Javed to express his thoughts and tell the story of his family and community. His writing draws inspiration from the brazen, layered and razor-sharp lyricism of Tupac and Nas, and also borrows from the storytelling structures of Shakespeare. On a track titled “Uncle”, from his upcoming EP Little Kid Big Dreams, Javed offers a glimpse into the labyrinth that kids from the valley often find themselves in. “Tell that Uncle/I put my heart out for this/I’m praying to God/All for this/It’s been too hard/They contradict,” he raps before rescinding to a monologue from Macbeth. The production is dense, and the closest contemporary you can find in hip-hop to his delivery on “Uncle” is Odd Future prodigy Earl Sweatshirt. Another track, titled “Galat” showcases Javed’s ability to create bangers out of the criticism directed towards him as a Muslim artist by the hardliners in the state. The influence of gangsta rap on his understanding of hip-hop is clear, but what cuts through the staple hip-hop bravado is when he suddenly drops a couple of lines about his late uncle or slips in a morbid observation about his life in Kashmir.
“The essence of hip-hop kept me up and running as a kid,” he says. “Being in that booth, performing, being on stage, connecting with people who think like I do gives me power. I was 13 when my brother played “The Real Slim Shady” for the first time on my mother’s Nokia phone. I felt good as I heard it and couldn’t stop playing it. A few days later, he took me to this cafe in Jawahar Nagar, one of the finest places in Srinagar. We saw the video, and I didn't know how to react to it. I loved the sound and I didn’t care about what he was saying; I couldn’t understand. Then I was introduced to 50 Cent, since “In the Club” was playing everywhere—the video, the sound, and me imagining myself being there in that video, doing all that and acting like a boss. I could sense the power these guys had, and the people loving them, and that was inspiring to me. I was really young, but I could connect with that feeling. Later, I discovered Tupac Shakur and read about the history of this beautiful genre they call rap, and what hip-hop was about and where it came from.”
Over the past couple of years, Javed has been making a name for himself as a producer as well, working with clients and artists in Mumbai and Delhi. His debut EP is scheduled for release in early 2019, and with it, he hopes to change the way Kashmiris are viewed in the country and across the world. “If you’re a Kashmiri, you’re pro-Pakistan, you help the so-called terrorists enter across the border, you support the Pakistan Cricket Team,
you surely love Pakistan more than you love India, and for you to say that you have no issues with the people of India, the government wants to believe you, but for that, you need to say ‘Jai Hind’, or else you don’t belong,” he says. “Kashmiris are the reason why theatres [in India] have been playing the national anthem. For the news channels—we give them the best TRPs possible. False story allegations are made about us every day—about how evil we are—and there are debates about whether the state should continue using pellet guns or just shoot us in the head, and how badly we want to go back to Pakistan. That’s what they show the people who don’t know what the ground reality is. I want to change all of it. I want to change the way the conversation surrounding Kashmir occurs. We are just like the rest of you —trying to feed our families and get through life. We are artists too, we are rappers, we are poets, we are filmmakers and photographers. We are more than just this conflict, we have dreams that we want to fulfil. I want to make the people of Kashmir believe that we can do it, we can be who we want to be. And the hope that has faded, I just want to help reshape and give it back to the people, even if it’s too small. I hope it inspires some kids like me, who are trying to escape but think that they have limited options just because they are from the region.”
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