On the night of August 4, Ahmer Javed did not want to go through with a scheduled performance in Delhi. All week, the 24-year-old rapper had been getting disturbing news from his home in Kashmir – orders to stock up on rations, tourists flown out of the Valley, a dramatic press conference at which the army displayed a Pakistani sniper rifle. As rumours flew thick and fast, Javed had a sickening feeling that something bad was going to happen. He almost called off the show.
“Then the manager of Azadi records said – you should speak,” recalled Javed. Azadi Records is the label that produced his debut album, Little Kid, Big Dreams, earlier this year. “I thought I’ll perform. If something bad happens, this will be my farewell gig.”
The next day, the Centre announced that it would strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and split the state into two Union Territories. For a month-and-a-half after that, Javed was out of words. He thought he would stop making music.
“Then it got to me, all the lying – that there is normalcy, there are no casualties,” he said. “I thought there should be a voice against the lies. I started writing songs for a mixtape.”
The tape, called Inqalab, was released on October 27. It has four songs. They are terse, as if sung through gritted teeth. In Nazara, Javed demands:
“Agar sab theek hai, to humko karte tum khamosh kyun?/ Bandi banake tum hum pe lagate dosh kyun?/ Humaare ghar me ghuske karte tum tor phor kyun?”
If everything is fine then why do you silence us?/ Why do you lock us up and then blame us?/ Why do you enter our homes and vandalise them?
In Aman, clips from news reports speaking of “calm in the Kashmir Valley” cut into the song. “Hasi aatey hai inke news channel dekh ke” – their news channels make me laugh. He spits the line out after the clips have played.
For Javed, the time for poetic language, for metaphor and storytelling, is over. “I’m now being direct,” he said. “It is all factual.”
As Kashmir comes to grips with an altered reality, a young generation of its poets and singers are searching for words to speak of it. For three decades now, the experience of conflict has been entwined with verse in the Valley.
In an article from 2002, Muzamil Jaleel writes that poetry had become a record of traumas blotted out of prose by fear and censorship. In the metaphors of poetry, residents of the Valley could long for disappeared friends, recount experiences of torture, transmit the shock of bombs. The lakes and flowers once used to represent the Valley as a paradise are now turned into symbols of suffering.
Poetry did not just describe loss and grief – it enacted and then became witness to them. In doing so, individual traumas were transformed into collective grief, writes academic Suvir Kaul. It was an important step towards reconstituting a ravaged society. “In commonality of suffering, and the shared idiom of testimonial and poetry, lie the roots of strengthened political community,” writes Kaul.
As Kashmir entered an era of civil protests in 2008, a new generation reinforced this political community through songs and verse. Like the verses of earlier decades, they are haunted by the need to record all that will slip through the cracks of official history. As one musician, who did not want to be identified, said of his songs, “It is a documentation. Every time someone listens to it, it is a documentation.”
In the songs of the past decade, two registers of documentation stand out. Some are songs of longing, in which Kashmir is the ever-receding homeland, its shrines and chinars all the more dear because they are endangered. In the video for Ride Home, Mohammad Muneem drives into the Valley, picking up Kashmiris all headed the same way – home. In Jhelumus, also written and sung by Muneem, the conflict is inscribed in the landscape: “Kusu boze kaswane naar ha loug Jhelumas.” Is anyone listening? Who can I tell? My river is on fire.
Others are songs of rage, speaking of the turmoil on the streets. The spread of cable television and the internet had brought languages of protest from elsewhere into the Valley. The era of civil protests in Kashmir shaped a generation of rappers from the Valley.
Javed was introduced to hip hop by his older brother. He counts US musicians 50 Cent and Eminem among his early influences. “Songs like In da Club felt very different from what we were listening to on TV,” he said.
In Kashmir, hip hop had a particular appeal. “Black people in ghettos were facing police brutality and they were rapping about it,” he said. “We Kashmiris could relate to it. It made you feel empowered, that you have a voice.”
He also listened carefully to the grammar of rage. “Rappers in America, they were saying you had to be original, you had to measure your words, you had to be factual,” said Javed.
Eventually, Javed and a group of friends from school decided to write their own songs. They started off “impersonating” American rappers before they found their own voices, speaking of their own realities. Like so much of the poetry written since the 1990s, the tracks on Little Kid, Big Dreams are songs of record. For instance, Kasheer begins with the lines “Crackdow’nas manz zaamit, curfew manz maraan/ Haqoomat yi haptan hunz, nindrah karaan.” We’re born in crackdowns, we die in curfews/Governed by bears, who sleep on us every day.
He never wanted to be political, Javed says, but in Kashmir, what choice did you have?
It is a question echoed by other rappers from the Valley. Twenty five-year-old Aamir Ame is candid about why he started rapping: “I wanted to collaborate with Eminem.” But the mass protests which raged across the Valley in the summer of 2010, killing at least 110 civilians, changed him.
Ame is from downtown Srinagar, with its historic mosques and political streets. Two incidents shaped his memories of 2010. A friend was shot during the protests. He died on the spot, Ame insists, but was taken to hospital and kept on a ventilator for days, just to avoid a backlash. “To see a dead body on the ventilator was terrible,” he said.
Another day, he went looking for his elder brother in the middle of mass protests and neighbours asked him to check at the hospital. “I saw lots of injured people lying on the floor, unattended,” he said. “I forgot about my brother. I was at the hospital for six hours that day.”
From then, the 16-year-old decided he would use his talents to speak of Kashmir, even if it meant giving up on dreams of working with Eminem.
Now and then
MC Kash started it, rapping about the protests of 2010. The video for I Protest had featured clips of demonstrations and young bodies on stretchers. The song became anthemic in Kashmir; just posting it on social media became a gesture of protest.
It was an early instance of how potent social media could be in Kashmir. Also in 2010, Burhan Wani, a teenager from Tral in South Kashmir, left home to join the Hizbul Mujahideen. Over the next few years, he would take to social media, posting pictures and videos of militants, gathering support for a new phase of local militancy in the Valley (as opposed to militants coming in from across the border).
Ame also found an audience on the internet, releasing home-spun videos to the mercy of likes and comments. Wani’s death in 2016 would set off another season of protests, killing nearly 100 civilians, maiming and blinding hundreds more as security forces sprayed pellets into the crowd. Ame made them the subject of his track, Dead Eyes. Once again, verse became balm for a wounded community. “I got messages from the families of victims, saying this is what we wanted to tell people,” said Ame.
The next year, he wrote a song about the plight of Rohingya refugees, which brought on a flood of angry messages from Kashmiri Pandits who asked why he had no sympathy to spare for them. He gave them all the same response: “I deeply regret whatever happened, I would love to have you back in Kashmir – we could have been friends. But it happened in 1990, when I wasn’t born. If I had seen it, I would definitely have rapped for you guys as well.”
But Javed, who grew up in an affluent Srinagar locality, finds the assertions and ruptures of the 1990s more compelling as subjects. He had not joined the protests that swept across Kashmir in 2008, 2010, 2016. “I will never get why people are out on the streets and throwing stones,” he muses. He is quick to add that he had not had the same experiences as the teenagers out on the streets.
The new militancy, which had gained followers on social media, also left him unmoved. “Uploading your picture on social media, it has nothing to do with me,” he said. “I would rather go back to the ’90s era, to take inspiration from the educated people who had to get into militancy after 1987, when democracy was killed. I see a cause there.”
Assembly elections held in Kashmir in 1987 were widely believed to be rigged in favour of the National Conference and against the Muslim United Front, a conglomeration of parties which was tipped to win. It had led to an exodus from electoral politics, with many Muslim United Front leaders turning to militancy.
In those early years, Javed’s uncle became a militant. By 1990, five years before Javed was born, he had been killed. But stories about him were handed down. “The family looked up to him,” he said. Over two decades later, the stories crystallised in the song, Uncle. “This energy through music was my way of reaching out to him,” he said. It was also, Javed says, his own fight against forgetting.
Singing in Kashmiri
Javed wrote most of the songs in English, then rewrote them in Kashmiri for his first album. Indeed, with the new generation of rappers and singers, Kashmiri is welded into new forms — the spiky rhythms of rap, the fluid blues note. Some have also revived traditional folk songs, reimagined in the new political community of conflict.
As Kaul notes, poems in Kashmir had always provided aphorisms and colloquialisms — “lines from the poetry of 14th century mystics Lal Ded and Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali (Nund Reshi) are treated as maxims and spoken often enough to constitute the commonsense of the land.” Nand, Reshi, Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, these are the poets invoked in the everyday as well as when speaking of a lost past.
The poems of Habba Khatoon, the 16th-century peasant queen, have become idioms for love and longing in Kashmir. Khatoon wrote these poems for her husband, Yusuf Shah Chak, who died in exile in Bihar. In local histories, Shah was the last independent king of Kashmir, even though his son briefly ruled the Valley before it was annexed by the Mughals. To invoke the medieval king in the Valley today is to invoke a lost freedom.
For the 2019 film, No Father’s in Kashmir, Ali Saifuddin sings Habba Khatoon’s Chol Huma Roshay. The film traces the story of two teenagers who go searching for their fathers, among the thousands who disappeared in Kashmir as it plunged into conflict.
Several singers have resurrected a Kashmiri folk song, Zaarum Na Doorer, also about estrangement from a loved one. Autumn winds and rose gardens become interlocutors of longing in the song, and the land itself is infused with pain. After August 5, Muneem posted a series of songs and verse on Instagram, mostly in Kashmiri. Once again the Jhelum is invoked, a symbol of resilience as it flows calmly through the turmoil in the Valley. “What would ‘Vyeth’ Jhelumas do, who would help it to cross?” he asks in one song. Vyeth is the Kashmiri name for the river.
But Javed says he will not sing in Kashmiri anymore. His first album had been written in hope, that his songs could communicate the Kashmiri point of view to listeners outside the Valley. “Letting people know this is our culture, our ideology, so you know what’s going on,” he said. Even a few months ago, he says, the “environment was different. We had the space to explore, to be poetic, to write in Kashmiri. Now, we are confined.”
The new mixtape is recorded in Hindi/ Urdu. It is a public service announcement rather than an invitation to a dialogue. “I want people in all the states to know what’s happening,” Javed said.
After August 5
But the wounds of August 5 are still deeply personal. One singer missed his mother. Javed was anxious about being away from his family with the Valley under lockdown. For Ame, workplace relationships in his office in Delhi broke down. He was forced to leave, he says, after weeks of abuse and suspicion.
Ame has not put out any new songs for a year now, and not been able to write after August 5, he says. For him, the political community forged by the protest songs of the last decade has been broken, partly because of despair, partly because the continuing internet blockade in the Valley has cut off the circulation of songs.
The songs of the last three decades were of longing and fury. After August 5, Kashmiris speak most about a loss of agency, a stamping out of their political will. It has silenced some for now. For others, writing is the only way of restoring agency. “You can’t control what’s happening around you,” said the singer who did not want to be identified. “When someone slaps me, abuses me or gives me a flower, the only thing I can control is how react to that.”