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This Tamil Rap Group Is Challenging Corruption and Inequality in India

The South Dandies Swaraj are a hip-hop group in Mumbai using their music to talk about street life, slumlords, prostitution, recycling, heartbreak, and Tamil pride.

by Mansi Choksi
Jun 30 2015, 7:13pm

All photos by Mansi Choksi

Suresh Agalian Bose was sitting at the entrance of a fair near a railway station in eastern Mumbai, under an enormous watercolor cutout of a Hindu celestial nymph. It would be another hour before the fairgrounds would open, when grown adults would tumble inside the cars of a Ferris wheel like clothes in a washing machine, couples would aim their air-guns at balloon arrangements, and the pong of marijuana coming from the magic tricks counter would eventually dissipate into the smell of sweat.

Bose was sitting here, lamenting the depravation of Indian society: violence against women, classism, youth unemployment, terrorism, sectarian conflict, and misinterpretation of hip-hop culture.

And yet, Bose had brought me to the fairgrounds because it somehow summed up what he wanted to convey about himself and his work: "We start our day with the problems we carry on our backs. But we are here in this carnival 'cause you should feel free to connect and get happy whenever you can."

Bose, who goes by the names Sean YKV, Slimstyler Sean, and Seansta, is the founder of South Dandies Swaraj, a Tamil-Hindi-English hip-hop group of three men who were raised in families that moved to Mumbai from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. These families had come in search of the economic promise of a city giddy with circulating money, but disappointed by the limited opportunities in Mumbai, they improvised to meet whatever jobs they could find.

The Dandies rap about street life, the distribution of opportunity, slumlords, prostitution, recycling, heartbreak, and Tamil pride. But their music also carries the optimism that "at the end of the day, no matter all the struggles, happiness is the main stream of life."

In the mid-1980s, the success of the Hindi film song " I Am a Street Dancer" signaled the arrival of hip-hop in India. It took another decade for the popularity of American hip-hop to generate a following in major Indian cities. By the early 2000s, rap had been incorporated into Bollywood music, graffiti had festooned street corners and entire thoroughfares, and b-boying had become a separate genre on Indian TV dance shows. 50 Cent and Mobb Deep had performed in India and Snoop Dogg had appeared in a song, turbaned, and bejeweled, in the Hindi film Singh Is King. Hip-hop had gained a foothold in India.

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"Hip-hop is one of the fastest growing cultures in India. B-boy and b-girl crews are emerging from the shadows of the oppressed and what is known as India's slums, uplifting the young with social change," wrote Vijaya Supriya Sam, an assistant professor at the Loyola College in Chennai, in her paper True to Words: Hip-hop and the English Language. "This is hip-hop's true form, as a vehicle for social change in an oppressed society."

This is certainly true for the members of South Dandies Swaraj. Bose, for instance, grew up in Dharavi, among the world's largest slums in Mumbai where over 600,000 people, packed in or on top of thousands of tenements, run small businesses selling clay pots, snacks, trinkets, and embroidery, generating approximately $650 million each year. His address has been a source of both inspiration and irritation, providing the experiences that define his music but also the frustrations of being labeled "slumdog."

"I'm not concerned about this place at all. I'm alone with my music. I'm rich and wealthy from my heart and will always be," he said.

Bose has a light goatee, a triangular chunk of scanty hair that extends below his chin, and when he raps his new song "Kacheri Vibe," he wears an expression so focused and so measured, it conveys nothing at all.

On Bose's left, there is Ranjit Shankar, or Kushmir. He tells me he's chosen the name because "kush means marijuana"—a name fit for a hip-hop artist—even though he doesn't actually smoke it himself. He's a short man with a muscular upper body and a Llyod Banks beard, who taps his thigh and fuses in and out of the song. Shankar's day job is load control management at the international airport.

Then there's Rahul Prasad, whose stage name is Tamil (after his native tongue). Prasad, who has a pencil-thin mustache, is squatting on the steps, making an inverted S with his hands (S for South Dandies Swaraj) and bobbing his head.

"At the end of the day, we're Indian. That's what we are feelin' and tryna represent," Bose explained, after rapping a few verses. "We are doing our job, what is real hip-hop culture, it's about our roots, we are tryna get to our own roots."

We're not talking about babes and bitches. We're talking real stuff. – Ranjit Shankar

When a Hindu devotional song began playing from a speaker behind the celestial nymph announcing the opening of the fairground, the Dandies snuck past empty ticketing counters with signs that said "India is Great," high-fiving, cracking up.

The Dandies are inspired by 2Pac, Jay Z, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, MIA, Eminem, Michael Jackson, and the Indian composers A. R. Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja, Shankar told me. But the group is also about celebrating their ethnicity with vernacular lyrics, classical beats, and issues they cared about: Mumbai, gangsters, rag-pickers, rape, and the Tamil Tigers, the militant group that fought for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka between 1976 and 2009.

"We're not talking about babes and bitches," Shankar said. "We're talking real stuff."

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Some of that talk is in a mash-up of Hindi, Tamil, and English slang: They use Tamil words like "seemaati" and "raakkamma" (which translate to "baby girl" and "sweetheart," respectively) alongside Hindi words, like "ek number" (which means "cool"). These were their languages: Tamil, the mother tongue, Hindi, the language in wide circulation in Mumbai, and English, the language of social mobility.

"Hip-hop in America has its own language," Bose said. "This is ours."

For the past two years, the Dandies have been in a self-imposed exile of sorts, rejecting gigs to focus on "making it big" with their new album Namma Kacheri, which means "our feast," and its message that "whoever you are, you can always find a reason to celebrate."

"We have 15 finished songs," Shankar said, "but we are waiting for the right people to back us."

In 2009, when the Dandies first came together, they performed with Timbaland Productions and Apache Indian, the British reggae DJ for a show called "Respect Recycle" in Dharavi, Bose's home. The Dandies made headlines, mostly containing the word "slum," but nothing lucrative came out of it. "I went and did my stuff, and came out, that's it," Bose said.

The same year, the Dandies contributed a track called "Ragamuffin Mix" to the Indian film Quick Gun Murugun, based on the adventures of a vegetarian cowboy. The movie ended up being exhibited as contemporary Indian cinema at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the film's critical acclaim did not bring them business. Bollywood was preoccupied with what was selling—Hindi songs interspersed with commercial rap that could become anthems in nightclubs and weddings, "not straight rap about real issues of real people."

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The Dandies fund themselves with their day jobs: Shankar manages load control at the airport; Prasad keys in data on incoming and outgoing cargo; Bose DJs. "There are only few people who understand real hip-hop," Prasad said, climbing into a rainbow-colored ride that resembled a giant saucer. "We are teachers who are educating about any small and big issues. Change can happen this way also, people need to see that."

That's why they wrote "Respect Hip-Hop":

Money, power, fame, ain't you wants dis/Keep the music real, just keep it real high/Respect the chase like we praise the God, Amen

In India, Prasad said, hip-hop ought to come with some morality. "They think that if you do dope, you get crazy ideas for lyrics," he said. "We don't drink, smoke, or anything, but young kids get attracted to wrong things. If I do some crazy noise in front of a kid, he will not understand but he will like it. He'll say, 'That guy is dope.'"

An indigenous hip-hop culture is growing in Indian and the South Dandies Swaraj are an important part of that, but Prasad believes it will take at least another ten years for hip-hop to fully take off in South Asia. In the mean time, the Dandies will continue to lay the foundation for the next generation of India's MCs by staying true to the core essence of hip-hop and their culture.

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