The audience roars with excitement as Ahmer Javed steps on the stage. Wearing an oversized black jacket, sporting a rather scruffy beard, Ahmer carries a vibe of his own. He holds the stage as if he owns it.
It is March, 2021. I am in the basement of Jhelum café, located in the Maisuma locality in Srinagar, Kashmir. The café sits calmly on the banks of the river Jhelum. It is the first time in months that I have left my house in the Pandemic.
On my left a compact hamam seating is decorated with diamond shaped cushions and embroidered bolsters. A fine Kashmiri rug in the centre and crewel curtains against the walls gives the basement a traditional Kashmiri sitting-room feel. I smell the fragrance of coffee diffused with strong room fresheners. Himalayan mountain mist, I take a wild guess. My hand reaches out to my mask strap to confirm it is in place. It is a new OCD I have developed over the past few months.
When a friend of mine told me that Ahmer has an upcoming gig at the café, I did not think twice before booking a ticket. Although, in all honesty, my enthusiasm had surprised me. I am not the biggest fan of hip-hop, and had only recently begun observing Ahmer’s work, which I was drawn to.
Only in his early twenties, he has grown to be the face of the emerging hip-hop scene in Kashmir. I found the cinematography in his music videos and sound editing especially remarkably done. But a gig meant the opportunity to jam to good music and I love to dance. So, here I am.
Ahmer begins to chat with the audience. Twenty-somethings, I assume. Like myself, I notice most of them have dressed in denim. Some are more fancily dressed. I see a guy in a Hilfiger jacket with white shoes that glow in the dark.
Ahmer converses with the audience in Koshur. His Koshur sounds coarse, lacking the definition that a native speaker usually has. In fact, his Koshur sounds a lot like how lately millennials like myself, who have been conditioned to socialise in Urdu or English, speak it. But Ahmer does not hesitate to speak the language on stage even if he is not entirely fluent in it.
After a brief silence, the sound-track from one of Ahmer’s most popular singles, “Little Kid, Big dreams’’ blasts from the speakers and is met with cheer. Ahmer reaches the verses that are in Koshur. “Beha Kashir, Azad myen sonch / Haal myon ghamgeen, topath bekhouf” (I am Kashmiri, set my thoughts free/ my condition is tragic, still I’m fearless).
The audience sings the lyrics in unison. I am impressed by the girl standing next to me who lip syncs word for word. I look around and feel a sense of solidarity. Ahmer’s blunt and unfiltered lyrics – living up to the spirit of hip-hop – strike a special chord within me. In fact, the way the audience jams to his songs feels as though we are all feeling the same feelings.
Perhaps the collective conscious is real, I think to myself. Perhaps it is our shared experiences from having grown up in Kashmir in a tumultuous environment – marked by closure of schools, month long lock-downs, civil strikes, news of army raids in civilian houses, and more recently arbitrary communication blockades – that make us relate to his lyrics so much.
I give the stage a closer look. Together with the hip-hop performances, the gig effectively demonstrates the empowering and transcendental nature of the genre first hand to me. The background of the stage is a black sheet. Two big yellow traffic barricades that read “STOP” are placed on either side of the stage. “They stole those from the road the other day,” my friend whispers in my ear, sniggering. I snigger back.
I think of the symbolic value of using barricades as props. Especially since New Delhi nullified Article 370 and bifurcated the region into two federally governed territories in August 2019, many such barricades and check-posts now adorn the length and breadth of the valley. These check posts are marked by bunkers with armed men and are dressed in tangled concertina wires. The barricades on the stage are a commentary on our daily life and the scale of state surveillance normalised in bustling market places, towns and cities in Kashmir today.
I shut my eyes and feel the music on my skin. My heart begins to race. My mind drifts. I think of all the army check-posts I had to cross in the afternoon to reach the café, a car ride that must not have lasted more than fifteen minutes. I think of the army bunker that stood only a hundred meters away from the café.
On my way I was stared at by three personnel on duty there. I sing Ahmer’s lyrics louder. All of a sudden something about attending the gig feels rebellious. The audience and I rap in unison. The neat lines of a “performer” and the “audience” begin to blur. We are no longer just an audience at a gig. Somewhat unknowingly, we are also staging and performing the artists’ protest.
In Ahmer’s lyrics, we find expression to our forcefully bottled resentments – against the functioning of the state apparatus in Kashmir, against the political developments since Article 370 was abrogated, not to miss the collective grief and humiliation from the manner in which it was abrogated two years ago. In order to implement the major constitutional changes, the Centre declared a lockdown invoking section 144, a colonial era law that restricts assembly of four or more people, across Jammu and Kashmir.
In addition to that, an indefinite communication blackout was extended across the region. Most basic telecommunication facilities such as landline connections remained snapped for months on end. And to think of it, the repressive measures were discharged to implement a law, the center claimed, the Kashmiri population, was supposedly strongly in favor of. When I sing Ahmer’s explicit rap again, I feel unusually empowered.
Jamming to the hip-hop songs begins to feel almost cathartic. I then think of the role hip-hop is playing in facilitating such catharsis. Interestingly, hip-hop as a genre was spawned in America as a form of black-resistance and protest. It has continually reinvented itself in the decades since, while preserving its essence as a means of self-expression and empowerment.
Hip-hop has also always been strongly anti-elitist. While print literature as means of expressing dissent has historically been an intellectual pursuit, the hip-hop genre, by combining performativity and poetry, has transcended these limitations.
I begin to see for myself the sheer potential the genre has in enabling and mobilising an organised dissent against the onslaught on civil liberties in the valley. I am filled with a strange urgency not known to me. I begin to think how this emerging, hip-hop culture in Kashmir, in the moment in which it finds itself, is deserving of and desperately needs an active endorsement and patronage by its Kashmiri audience. Now, more than ever before.
The genre integrates art, language, performance and resistance, in such a way that it might just offer the perfect synchronisation that a Kashmiri can use to level a unified dissent against the state; that also initiates a discourse that transcends rigid class barriers in the valley.
The use of Koshur
Recently, the renewed wave of hip-hop culture, also referred to as “conscious” Koshur hip-hop, is gaining much traction in the valley, especially in the urban spaces. In addition to Ahmer Javed, Syed Arsalan Afreen (Atankki) and Tufail Nazir (the duo call themselves SOS), SXR, Arif Farooq, alias Qafilah, have also grown immensely popular.
With over a decade having passed since Roashan Illahi aka MC Kash rose to popularity with his rap single “I protest”, much has changed. Kash, a young adult then, had uploaded the rap as a reaction to the summer unrest of 2010 that was triggered by the killing of a local teenager named Tufail Mattoo. Mattoo was on his way home from tuition when, caught in a skirmish between a group of protesters and the police, a policeman fired a tear gas shell at him, making a hole in his skull. A whole new generation of rap artists has taken to the stage since then.
Additionally, since 2010, there have been tectonic advances in technology and its accessibility. The easy access to high quality smart-phones has democratised both content creation and consumption. Moreover, mega social media platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram have allowed both sharing of content and localising of audiences. The renewed hip-hop wave must therefore be located within these shifts.
In addition to better sound quality and cinematography in the content, one notices a rather conscious accommodation of Koshur in this emerging “conscious” hip-hop culture. In the case of hip-hop in Kashmir specifically, the use of local language in rap songs can be conveniently labelled as a common feature of content creation seen across South Asian societies.
Increased digital penetration has at least assured content creators of more localised audiences, whereby opting for local languages has become a possibility without facing the threats of not reaching wide audiences. However, in the case of Kashmir, the stakes of the choice of language for communicating intellectual and creative ideas remains relatively high. And this has to do with the onslaught that Koshur as a language faces by its own native speakers.
The period of liberalisation in the 1990s in Kashmir witnessed a devastating phenomenon where class conscious Kashmiri parents (especially the ones residing in urban spaces) began to consciously discourage their children from speaking in Koshur. This denial of the mother tongue continues even today.
One could level the charge that it is the institutional framework itself that must be held responsible for the slow erasure of the language. For instance, in the 1990s, children who were socialised in Koshur began to face a direct disadvantage during admission processes in the more popular colonial era private schools. Over the decades, newer private schools have followed suit.
Another explanation is the deeply internalised cultural inferiority amongst the Kashmiri’s itself, which has resulted in this phenomenon. Whatever be the case, the point remains that what one notices today is a careful, crafted and systematic elimination of Koshur as a medium of communication in urban spaces.
Indeed, Urdu has enjoyed the status of being the official language for well over a century. However, the post-globalisation era differs in that one has begun to notice a deliberate erasure of the language even from the more private spaces and institutions such as the family.
Today’s class-conscious, urban Kashmiri, therefore, must rejoice. Koshur is close to reaching total annihilation in the urban spaces. A completely new generation, often termed the “90s’ children” (I identify myself with this generation), has entered adulthood without having spoken in their mother-tongue, despite having been born and brought up in their own native land. And the onslaught continues.
Ironically it is this class conscious, “intellectual” Kashmiri who worries about demographic change in the valley the most and complains about threat to their identity, all the while blatantly complacent about preserving their own mother tongue.
The fact that there was felt the need to introduce the Kashmiri language as a “compulsory” subject at elementary and high-school level in 2017 speaks volume of the state of affairs in which the language finds itself. In fact, the government completely failed in making Koshur a compulsory subject across the 366 higher secondary schools of the valley, on account of a lack of permanent faculty.
The government just could not find enough Kashmiri teachers who could teach the Kashmiris their own native tongue. As urbanisation continues, the replacement of Kashmiri with Urdu has spread beyond the major cities.
For these reasons, it matters when artists such as Ahmer Javed, who himself is educated in one of the private schools of the like mentioned above, rap in Koshur. By mindfully accommodating the language in their lyrics, these artists initiate resistance and dissent at the level of language.
Through their rap the artists wish to convey how any resistance against the onslaught on the cultural identity of a Kashmiri remains incomplete without duly accommodating the mother tongue in it. By singing in Koshur, these artists not only expose state excesses, but also initiate a much broader discourse – one that also challenges the classism and Urdu hegemony in the valley.
On one level, by combining elements of music and cinema both verbally and visually, the songs represent the unfiltered claustrophobia from living in a state of military siege. On another, deeper, level, they represent an active effort to reclaim koshur as a mother-tongue, blatantly sidelined by its own native speakers.
Towards the end of the gig some of us throw our fists into the air and chant the lyrics also from Ahmer’s other single, “Tanaza”. The chorus from the song – zindagi meri tanaza, yivaan be paerithjanaza (my whole life is a conflict, every day is a funeral) – reverberates against the walls and dances on my ears.
In chanting these lyrics, I realise, we are, in a limited capacity, trying to take charge of our identity and reclaim the mother-tongue denied to us.On account of its performative nature, the art-form transcends the conventional intellectual spaces and enters the public realm. And by leading conscious resistance at the level of the mother-tongue, the art-form promises true revolution. For these reasons, it desperately endorsement from the public in the valley.
I step out of the café rejuvenated. It has begun to rain, even when the weather forecast had promised a sunny day. On my way back to the car park, I cross the same army bunkers I had encountered earlier. The army personnel there now wear plastic see-through raincoats. They stare at me again. This time around, I stare back at them. I put on a false face of calm. Ahmer’s song “Tanaza” (“Contention”) accompanies me throughout my silent, almost inconsequential act of bravery. It lasts barely five seconds. I begin to walk briskly and turn left near the end of the road.