The surprise in Naezy’s six-track debut album Maghreb is a love song, Pyaar Hai. Twenty six-year-old Naved Shaikh, who performs under the name Naezy, has built an image of himself as a socio-politically conscious rapper spitting rhymes about the hard life on the streets. So a song in which he tells a woman, “I am Nobita, you’re my Shizuka”, is unique for his listeners, not just because of its romantic theme but also because he has chosen to reference the couple from the Japanese anime Doraemon.
“People hadn’t seen this side of Naezy,” Shaikh told Scroll.in. “So, it was fun to show that even I can love.” The song, he said, was inspired by a woman he fell in love with when he was touring in the United Kingdom in 2017. “But the song isn’t just about romantic love,” Shaikh added. “One can love their family, friends, community, religion, country. Love is universal.”
Maghreb (meaning “west”) is Shaikh’s acknowledgement of having been inspired by a philosophy, both musical and personal, with its origins overseas. In the title track, he raps about the problems plaguing his personal life, local community, and the country at large, and asks, “Maghreb, tell me what do I do and where do I go?”
The album was out on January 8, exactly six years to the day since he released his debut single, Aafat.
Maghreb was conceptualised only four months before it was released, Shaikh said. Barring a track each produced by Canadian Big Byrd and UK’s Compa, four songs feature the work of Mumbai producer Karan Kanchan, who has often performed for Shaikh in live shows.
In a climate where Indian pop stars are fine with releasing only singles, Naezy’s decision to make an entire album stand out. “There are certain messages that I want to send out to the public that I cannot through singles,” Shaikh said. “Plus, the album culture should become popular in Indian hip-hop, like it is in the West, and create an impact on the scene.”
The messages he wants to spread include his thoughts on the streets (Khamakha), the ups and downs of life (Jeeta Haara), love for his community’s young ones (Mere Bhantai), and opinions on the current hip-hop scene (Kon Hard).
“Bombay 70 is still the same as it was when I rapped about it in my first song,” Shaikh said about the impoverished neighbourhood in Mumbai’s Kurla West, where he grew up and honed his rapping skills before breaking big circa 2014-’15. “I understand rap became cool and fancy after Gully Boy, but the truth is the bhantai [meaning brother/friend] the listener finds so cool still don’t have access to proper schools, proper provisions for ration, clean water and healthy food.”
However, his success as a rapper which helped him escape his early years of street violence and run-ins with the law has inspired other young people in his community, Shaikh said. “As bad as things still are, at least they stay out of trouble, and seeing me, they want to use their lives for something positive,” he said.
The 2019 film Gully Boy, inspired by Shaikh’s life, went on to become a critical and commercial hit and was India’s official entry in the International Feature Film category for the 2020 Academy Awards. Immediately after its release, hip-hop exploded across mainstream Indian culture, appearing in film after film, with even political parties using rap to woo voters. Shaikh isn’t a fan of all this.
“Bollywood has a set pattern within which it takes a genre like hip-hop and limits it thereby creating safe music,” Shaikh said. “The final product is adulterated and nowhere as real as the stuff that inspired Bollywood in the first place. I keep getting Bollywood offers myself, but I filter my projects. I do not want my creative freedom to be shackled by money.”
Having battled poverty, and hailing from a conservative Muslim family who are yet to be completely comfortable with his profession, Shaikh has a come a long way since Aafat. Shaikh has gone on to release several hit singles, and has toured across the world.
But something has changed since those early days.
“When you get signed by a major record label, you cannot talk or think freely,” Shaikh observed. “You have to think before you say something. I look around myself and see artists getting into trouble for speaking their mind. There seems to be no freedom of expression. Now, I have to keep in mind my positioning and responsibilities. I need to remember that my audience includes people of different perspectives and ideologies.”
Shaikh feels this fear is the reason major rappers such as himself and his peers have remained quiet about the ongoing protests against the rollout of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the proposed National Register of Citizens, and the attacks on students across university campuses.
“But I try to send my message across through my art,” Shaikh added. “What I wrote four months back in my song is happening now.” He was referring to the line “Kal tak jo bande goli chalare the, aaj desh chalare toh kya kare?” (If the men who were shooting guns yesterday are running the country, what to do?) from the Maghreb title track, which he tweeted a few days ago.
While hip-hop is being promoted as the new genre capturing the political zeitgeist, it has not been hip-hop but Urdu poetry that became the sound of the ongoing protests. Shaikh blamed the silence of the country’s mainline rappers for this.
“The main rappers are not sure of which stance to take,” Shaikh said. “They are maybe waiting it out, thinking this is not that big an issue. Or they are thinking, since everyone’s speaking out anyway, what’s the need to join? Maybe, they are waiting for the right time to speak out. The only rappers who have taken to the streets are not signed to any major label.” Delhi’s Raftaar has been the exception.
But is Shaikh bothered by the CAA and the NRC, considered to be anti-Muslim by its critics, at all? “I am not affected by it,” he said. “I feel the laws are meant only for infiltrators. We were born in this country, live in this country, and will continue to do so. No minister can come and ask me to prove my citizenship.”