Across the border

Bangladeshi rappers wield rhymes as a weapon, with Tupac as their guide

In voicing youthful outrage over inequality and violence, Bangladeshi rappers are creating a powerful form of protest music.

Bangladesh, which became independent from Pakistan in 1971, is a young country. Only 7% of the 160 million people in this South Asian country – which is home to more Muslims than Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia combined – are over the age of 60, according to a 2016 United Nations Development Program report.

It is young, but not hopeful. Youth unemployment is high in Bangladesh, especially among those with only a primary school education. According to a recent survey, 82% of young people are not optimistic about getting a job.

One consequence of this youthful unrest is religious radicalisation. Once lauded for its secularism, Bangladesh is now seeing young people increasingly adopt more conservative Islamic values. Though many conservative Muslims denounce violence in the name of Islam, religiously motivated crimes are on the rise. Since 2013, at least 30 secular bloggers, authors, intellectuals and publishers have been murdered.

But there is another story about youthful anger in this Muslim nation, too. And it contradicts that all-too-familiar narrative about radicalisation. It’s the story of hip-hop.

Tupac, Eminem and young rage

Over the past 15 years or so, a new kind of musical activism has emerged in Bangladesh, one inspired by American rappers like Tupac Shakur, Eminem, NWA and Public Enemy.

The old school hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur – who was murdered in Los Angeles in 1996 – holds particular significance for Bangladeshi MCs. Like Shakur, who spoke of police brutality and racism in the US, Bangladesh’s young rappers want to use their music to criticize their country’s political dysfunction, democratic erosion and gaping inequality.

Hip-hop was born as protest music in the United States. The genre emerged in the late 1970s, as black Americans raised their voices against the poverty, police brutality and violence taking place in black communities.

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‘Fight the Power,’ an early hip-hop anthem by rap pioneers Public Enemy.

Songs like Fight the Power by Public Enemy and NWA’s F*!k tha Police underpinned the black struggle for black freedom and freedom of speech in America. This trend continues today, with hip-hop fuelling the social movement Black Lives Matter.

Breaking the culture of silence

Over the past 12 months, I have listened to about 50 tracks by some two dozen Bangladeshi hip-hop artists. With this project, which grew out of my research on political Islam in Bangladesh, I hope to understand how this emerging underground genre reflects the youthful unrest that drives violence and radicalisation in the country.

Though many Bangladeshi rappers rhyme about love, money and romance, there are several recurring political themes. One is the culture of silence around inequality.

“Everyone is silent…nobody is talking,” observes rapper Skib Khan in Shob Chup. The elite need inequality, he says, because “otherwise how will the rich get servants to serve their families?”

In Bangladesh, more than 60 million people – nearly a third of the population – live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day. Twenty per cent of Bangladeshis hold 41% of all wealth in the country.

Inequality is visible every day in the slums of the capital Dhaka, arguably the world’s most crowded city. But it is ignored in the nation’s political debate.

Shob Chup, which translates to “everyone is silent”, frames the country’s inequality and disenfranchisement as a betrayal of the inclusive, secular and democratic ideals behind Bangladesh’s 1971 revolution.

Rapping for freedom of speech

Bangladeshi hip-hop, which is celebrated with an annual festival in Dhaka, is also a defense of free speech in a country where that right is rapidly eroding.

In 2013, the government amended the Information and Communication Technology Act to mandate a jail sentence of seven up to 14 years for online speech deemed “offensive” by the courts. Since then, 1,271 Bangladeshi journalists and activists have been charged with cyber defamation, according to the international nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch.

A proposed new digital security law would impose even stricter regulation of speech.

In his track Bidrohi, or rebel, rapper Towfique Ahmed sees these crackdowns as a violation of Bangladesh’s founding ideals.

“I haven’t seen the war but I heard of it. I don’t know how to do revolution but my blood is on fire,” he raps. “Don’t take me as someone who is stupid because of my silence.”

Hip-hop artist Towfique Ahmed is a vocal critic of corruption in Bangladeshi politics. Credit: YouTube
Hip-hop artist Towfique Ahmed is a vocal critic of corruption in Bangladeshi politics. Credit: YouTube

Another group Cypher Project raps about the high-profile 2014 murder case in which security forces abducted and killed seven people in the Bangladeshi city of Narayanganj.

Dysfunctional politics

Bangladesh’s politics is bloody. By virtually any measure – political equality, freedom of speech, human rights, religious tolerance, press freedom – this is a country struggling with the most basic tenets of democracy.

Rappers’ criticism of Bangladeshi politics can be fierce.

One group, Uptown Lokolz has declared elections, which are held every five years, pointless. The “country’s situation changes in every five years,” they rap. Yet “whoever comes in the power…everything is lost under the curtains of self-interest.”

Rappers also indict self-serving politicians for the rise in religious violence in Bangladesh. In White Democracy, the rapper Matheon wonders “for how long religion would be subject of big politics…maybe I am a Christian but I understand your corruption.”

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‘White Democracy’ indicts the corrupt politicians who manipulate religiosity to amass power.

Research confirms that mainstream parties in Bangladesh have embraced religious zealotry for political gain, giving Islamic extremists more power. Religious radicalisation is not a marginal phenomenon in Bangladesh: Studies have found that many who support terrorism in the name of religion come from a middle-class background.

The US-based Bangladeshi rapper Lal Miah condemns politicians who foment religious zealotry as “frauds who are betraying the secular spirit of 1971”.

Towfique Ahmed has perhaps the most pointed critique. Bangladeshi politicians corrupting society for their own benefit, he says, are waging “false Jihad”.

Speaking truth to power in a time and place where that habit is strongly discouraged sends a powerful political message. Hip-hop in Bangladesh, as in the US, becomes protest music simply by unflinchingly portraying the harsh reality that too many young people live everyday.

Mubashar Hasan, Postdoctoral fellow, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.