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.

‘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.”

‘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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Can a colour encourage creativity and innovation?

The story behind the universally favoured colour - blue.

It was sought after by many artists. It was searched for in the skies and deep oceans. It was the colour blue. Found rarely as a pigment in nature, it was once more precious than gold. It was only after the discovery of a semi-precious rock, lapis lazuli, that Egyptians could extract this rare pigment.

For centuries, lapis lazuli was the only source of Ultramarine, a colour whose name translated to ‘beyond the sea’. The challenges associated with importing the stone made it exclusive to the Egyptian kingdom. The colour became commonly available only after the invention of a synthetic alternative known as ‘French Ultramarine’.

It’s no surprise that this rare colour that inspired artists in the 1900s, is still regarded as the as the colour of innovation in the 21st century. The story of discovery and creation of blue symbolizes attaining the unattainable.

It took scientists decades of trying to create the elusive ‘Blue Rose’. And the fascination with blue didn’t end there. When Sir John Herschel, the famous scientist and astronomer, tried to create copies of his notes; he discovered ‘Cyanotype’ or ‘Blueprints’, an invention that revolutionized architecture. The story of how a rugged, indigo fabric called ‘Denim’ became the choice for workmen in newly formed America and then a fashion sensation, is known to all. In each of these instances of breakthrough and innovation, the colour blue has had a significant influence.

In 2009, the University of British Columbia, conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. While the red groups did better on recall and attention to detail, blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination. The study proved that the colour blue boosts our ability to think creatively; reaffirming the notion that blue is the colour of innovation.

When we talk about innovation and exclusivity, the brand that takes us by surprise is NEXA. Since its inception, the brand has left no stone unturned to create excusive experiences for its audience. In the search for a colour that represents its spirit of innovation and communicates its determination to constantly evolve, NEXA created its own signature blue: NEXA Blue. The creation of a signature color was an endeavor to bring something exclusive and innovative to NEXA customers. This is the story of the creation, inspiration and passion behind NEXA:


To know more about NEXA, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of NEXA and not by the Scroll editorial team.