Duleshwar Tandi, who records under the name Dule Rocker, knows exactly what his music isn’t about.
“My rap isn’t to please you,” the 27-year-old said in a phone interview from Bhubaneshwar, where he lives. “It’s not for your entertainment and your parties and dancing.”
Equally, the part-time construction worker from Odisha’s Kalahandi district knows just what he wants people to get out of his music: “I write about social and political issues that are important for people to know.”
Tandi shot to national attention in July 2020 when he released a tune in which he raps in his native dialect Kalahandia about the migrant crisis created by the hasty Covid-19 lockdown imposed by the Union government.
This fortnight, he was back on many social media timelines when he announced a fundraiser to help produce his first full-length album titled Annihilation of Caste, named after an undelivered speech by BR Ambedkar.
The album will address the plight of the “poor and marginalised, who face atrocities at the hands of the government”, Tandi said. This will be in keeping with the themes of his previous songs, which have addressed such socio-political issues as the Hathras rape case, the farmers’ protests in Punjab and the shoddy treatment of frontline Covid-19 workers.
The track that brought Tandi into the limelight, Sarkar Jabab De (Government, Answer Us), will be one of the ten songs in his upcoming album.
After that tune went viral, high-profile musicians such as Vishal Dadlani and Anu Malik praised his skills. Since then he has released around 27 other rap videos, all recorded on his mobile phone and edited on his laptop.
Now, Tandi says he wants to broaden his reach. However, when he contacted producers and record labels to see if one of them would produce his album, no one showed any interest.
Rappers who speak about “trivial issues such as money and cars” have been signed by record labels, but his political rap is not acceptable to producers, he grumbled.
With this album, Tandi wants to highlight Ambedkar’s vision for India. “Nowadays people have forgotten what Ambedkar stood for – he fought for reservations, women’s rights, social welfare,” Tandi said. “I want to highlight his vision for India. This album should reach a bigger audience. That is why I want to professionally record it, and not just continue making videos on my phone.”
Tandi said he had been exposed to Ambedkar’s writing after he had getting a Bachelors degree in chemistry from Government Autonomous College in Odhisha’s Bhwanipatna in 2013. When he moved to Raipur in Chhattisgarh and started working in restaurants, waiting tables, he met Dalit students and joined an Ambedkarite association. Friends from Jawaharlal Nehru University recommended books about caste, politics and Ambedkar to him.
Through discussions with other Dalit students and reading books on the internet, he grew more aware of “the caste and gender hierarchies that continue to dominate our society”.
At first, Tandi admits, he was swayed by the “celebrity culture” of India’s music industry. “When I was in college, I used to think the men rapping about riches, women and booze were the ones to be idolised,” he said. “It was only in college that I realised they didn’t even resemble real rap.”
But in Raipur, he was exposed to rappers like Divine from Mumbai, who wrote about their financial struggles as well as India’s precarious social conditions. It was also where he learnt to channel his socio-political awareness of the world into his verse.
“I’ve seen poverty around me all through my childhood,” said Tandi. “I’ve also noticed how the government crushes dissent, does not pay attention to its most marginalised communities and creates barriers through religious discrimination against minorities.”
Tandi said he believed the rap scene in India has changed substantially – enough for listeners to look forward to his album. “I’m seeing young artists from impoverished areas like Kalahandi, Balangir, Bhwanipatna rap about women’s education, unemployment, caste violence – things that matter,” he said. “People are expecting greater things from me too, and this fundraiser is so I can continue making my art and not disappoint them.”
He has thought long and hard about dissent and democracy. Said Tandi: “Artists [alone] shouldn’t question the government – every citizen should.”