On July 8, the People’s Archive of Rural India posted an unusual short video from Odisha on social media.
In under two minutes, it introduced Dule Rocker, a young man with intense kohl-lined eyes, in an obviously ramshackle rural setting. He gathers himself as a spare, catchy backing track kicks in. Then, mind-bendingly shocking, he explodes into controlled fury, rapping in full flow with tremendous assurance, “Sarkar, jabab de, jabab de” (subtitled as “government, answer this. Oh government, answer this”).
It was an electrifying debut. The next day, singer/composer Vishal Dadlani, who judged Indian Idol from 2013-19, tweeted “This is incredible! @DuleRocker, if you need help producing/recording/releasing your music, get in touch. I’ll do what I can. I’m sure we all will…check this fire out!”
I follow PARI on Twitter, and viewed Dule Rocker’s video soon after it was posted. It hooked me immediately (a week later, the refrain still plays in my head). But it also triggered insistent flashbacks to the 1980s, and my teenage years playing basketball on public courts in New York City, which constantly reverberated with the birth of the rap genre (also known as hip-hop).
Back then, when mainstream media in the US was still largely segregated, Chuck D of the all-time-great rappers Public Enemy famously called the new music form “Black CNN.” This came rushing back to me when I tracked down more Dule Rocker videos as the realisation set in that my initial instincts were justified. The fates have conspired to deliver India a great rapper of the old school, urgently communicating breaking news from parts of the country so little known they could be on another continent.
“Poverty is my companion,” 27-year-old Duleshwar Tandi told me when I manged to call him at home in the village of Borda, in the Kalahandi district of western Odisha, “but at least I am lucky to have my mobile phone. It makes some things possible. But everything in my life is just another reminder that I am poor.”
The unlikely happenstance of Dule Rocker becomes truly dramatic when you zoom out to understand its context. His home district is amongst the poorest in India, literally synonymous with destitution. “Kalahandi Syndrome,” says Wikipedia “[is] associated with backwardness and starvation.”
There are no jobs. Tandi is fluent in four languages (he spoke to me in easy English, peppered with “bro” and “man”), and earned a BSc, but before lockdown he was cleaning tables for Rs 3000 per month in Raipur, across the border in Chhattisgarh.
Purusottam Thakur, the PARI Fellow who first noticed Dule Rocker and brought him to national attention, grew up 20 km from Borda. “I have witnessed drought, starvation, child sale, deaths from hunger, and constant waves of migration,” he said.
Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Deve Gowda have all visited “when the situation was worst”. Today social security alleviates some desperation, but “migration is continuing”.
Oh government! Answer this!
Why is the pregnant woman returning,
Walking thousands of kilometres
Step by step, barefoot
With a baby in her womb?
Immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced “the world’s strictest lockdown” on March 24, it became clear his administration had failed to consider its implications for millions of migrant workers (estimates range up to 130 million), especially the 85% of the labour force employed in the informal sector. Accurately surmising things would only get worse, huge numbers of these citizens – the backbone of India’s growth story – took to their feet in the absence of any regular mode of conveyance, and streamed down the highways to try to get home.
We have seen an extraordinary barrage of images reminiscent of Partition in 1947. The little boy passed out on a suitcase being dragged by his mother. The teenaged girl cycling 1,200 km with her injured father on the pillion. These have been gruelling months of helplessness, frustration and tears, and now here’s Dule Rocker to voice the refrain that fits perfectly on everyone’s lips. Sarkar, jabab de, jabab de, yes indeed.
There are so many singular aspects to the young rapper’s emergence, that it beggars the imagination. For instance, he raps in Kalahandia, one variant of Kosali. I’d never even heard of the language, but it turns out to have 20 million speakers, and a strong case to be included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution as an official language of India. One of its leading authors and activists, Saket Sreebhushan Sahu told me, “Kosali is the dominant means of communication in western Odisha, which severely lags the coastal districts in literacy. This is because those students are getting education in their mother tongue, while ours are instructed in Odia, which is not their mother tongue.”
Whatever the language, there’s no mistaking Dule Rocker’s aplomb and sheer chops, backed by attitude which communicates supremely well even without subtitles. In fact, this is the essence of hip-hop. In his introduction to Jeff Chang’s canonical Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, the “Founding Father” DJ Kool Herc writes with great insight, “It’s not about me being better than you or you being better than me. It’s about you and me, connecting one to one. That’s why it has universal appeal.”
Dule Rocker told me his idol was Divine, the 31-year-old Mumbai rapper with his own compelling origin story from the backstreets of the megalopolis, so effectively mined by Zoya Akhtar in Gully Boy. Taking a chance, I reached out to the star via his agent with a couple of video links, and was delighted to hear back from him.
Divine wrote, “Really proud of Dule and to see that Rap is being used in the way it was meant to be! Also proud of everyone in this country who’s using Rap/Hip-Hop as a means for expression.” Then, just a few minutes later, he tweeted this public message to his fan in Kalahandi: “Proud of you bhai! Keep going.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.