EXCLUSIVE: The Return of the Prodigal Son of Indian Hip-Hop, Naezy

We caught up with Naved Sheikh to talk about the pressures of fame, his hiatus and now, his impending comeback.

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23 January 2019, 10:30am

A little under four years ago, Indian hip-hop had its first breakthrough moment with the release of Divine and Naezy’s “Mere Gully Mein (In My Street)”. Produced by Sez On The Beat, the single laid the foundation for the rise of the gully rap movement in India, introducing the voice of thousands of teenagers belonging to lower-income communities to our cultural discourse. On the back of their work on “Mere Gully Mein”, Naezy (aka Naved Sheikh) and Vivian Fernandes (aka Divine) established themselves as the new face and voice of Mumbai—providing a witty and authentic window into how life functions in the city outside the glitz and glamour of Bollywood.

Three years ago, I met Sheikh for the first time in an abandoned, derelict auto rickshaw in a small alley in Kurla, a Mumbai suburb. At the time, he had to sneak away due to his family’s vehement disapproval of his music career, to do interviews, to record songs and perform at shows. Sheikh’s ability to craft razor-sharp takedowns of India’s socio-political problems is what sets him apart—and that’s apparent on songs such as “Tragedy Mein Comedy (Tragedy in Comedy)”, “Aafat (Trouble)”, “Haq Hai (I Have The Right)” and “Asal Hustle (The Real Hustle)”. However, the pressure to be the face of India’s nascent hip-hop scene, along with his entry into Bollywood (with the upcoming blockbuster Gully Boy starring Ranveer Singh), seemed to be taking a toll on him. It finally led him to disappear from the scene altogether in 2018.

Now, with the release of Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s feature inspired by the lives of Naezy and Divine only weeks away (February 14), Naezy has returned to the city and industry where he made his name. We caught up with him for a quick chat about the pressures that led him to disappear, his hopes for Gully Boy, and his future plans.

VICE: How does it feel to be back?
Naezy: It feels great! I feel healthier, much more at peace. There’s also a bit of regret because I lost a year from my career, but I’m raring to go now.

Obviously there's a lot of buzz because of the movie and the timing of your comeback? What are your hopes with this movie?
It was a coincidence that I happened to return just as the marketing campaign for Gully Boy was kicking off. We had not planned this, but it happened to turn into a nice story for them. As far as hopes go, obviously it’s great to be the first guys to bring our scene onto the Bollywood stage and introduce the culture to a wider audience.

Did your hopes change over the course of the year as the movie was being made?
Not really, no. For the last year, I’ve been focussed on getting myself right. My hope for Gully Boy was always that it helps take the culture forward and that we get the recognition for the work we do.

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Image: Naman Saraiya.

Do you feel it does justice to your story?
I can’t say it’s my story. Most media believe that this is a biopic or something, but it’s not. The team and I have been clear on that from day one. It’s a piece of fiction which is inspired by some moments from my life and the hip-hop community in general.

You've been away for a year—what happened? Did the pressure of fame start affecting your life?
It wasn’t just the pressure of fame, etc. My family and the community around me had gotten adamant that I stop doing music. My abba (father) in Dubai was constantly getting messages from people in the community, and he is the one person who has always been against me pursuing a career in music. It led to a lot of confrontations, and living here became impossible. Couple that with the pressure of being on top, of being the one constantly looked at for delivering hits or pushing the scene forward or being the face of a movement—it affected my health and wellbeing.

Where did you go?
I went to Dubai to be with my father. We haven’t spent much time together since he’s always been working there. Even as a child I don’t remember seeing him much. It was important for me to get myself right, and I thought I could use this as an opportunity to build a closer relationship with him as well.

And did you manage to do that?
I think he understands now that this is where my heart is and I will never completely leave music behind. There’s a history of poetry, etc. in our culture and he’s coming around to the fact that I’m doing the same thing. Even if he doesn’t support it, he’s starting to understand it at least. At the same time, I’ve understood his life and viewpoints better. Some part of me wants that structure of a normal job, and the opportunity to go for higher education.

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Image: Naman Saraiya.

Do you feel like this comeback offers you a fresh start without the pressure of being one of the biggest artists in the scene considering how it's grown?
Definitely. Because the scene has grown so much, and so many artists have emerged who are doing really good things, there’s space for me to make mistakes and experiment with my sound as well. There’s an environment where I can figure stuff out at my own space, which is definitely a welcome development.

What are your future plans? What are the themes you’re looking to explore with your music in the future?
There’s a comeback track that’ll be out soon—after the movie most probably. Theme-wise, I want to continue on the socio-political foundation that I’ve built and improve on that. There’s stuff I want to learn as well. I saw that a few people were calling out the “tucche chamar” (a casteist slur) line on Aafat. I would like to apologise, and as I’ve said before, just clarify that I had no idea of the meaning as it was a word that I’ve heard thrown around in my area as a slang—even on me. These are the kinds of things I would like to learn more about, as I’ve never been taught.

The basics, or the processes of caste-based discrimination and the language used to employ them, are pretty far removed from the basic Indian education system. Many [Indian] hip-hop artists have this problem...
Exactly. But the onus is on us to learn about these things if we’re not taught. I haven’t used those words since then, and I don’t plan on doing so ever. I was a kid when I wrote that song, and I’ve grown since then. That’s the kind of improvement I want to keep making.

Follow Uday Kapur on Twitter.

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