music

Why everyone is hailing this Sikh from Delhi as the next big star of Indian hip-hop

Prabh Deep addresses inconvenient truths and gives a voice to a marginalised community.

On a sunny day in Tilak Nagar, a neighbourhood in West Delhi, Prabh Deep Sagar moves swiftly across the streets. He dodges people with the deftness typical of someone who grew up in a bustling part of the city, and stops to greet those he knows. People conduct long conversations over intersecting electric wires and children stand on a terrace to scream at everyone below. It is possible, as Prabh Deep says, that anything can happen at any time here. Tilak Nagar and its streets are colourful and eclectic, with constant bustle – this is Prabh Deep’s world, and inspiration. It is where he was born and raised, and where he learned to rap.

“There’s something about these streets,” he said. “I’ve just been all around the country – staying in large houses in Bandra, and other places – but as soon I’m back here in Tilak Nagar, my heart begins to pump.”

The newest hip-hop artist on the Delhi scene, Prabh Deep, 24, is unlike other Punjabi musicians of his time. His songs do not revolve around glamour or the high life, but tell tales of life in a suburban community in Delhi. “My rhymes are about real life, about growing up on these streets – the simultaneous danger and pleasure that defined my youth,” he said. “When this many people – especially Punjabis – are concentrated into small spaces, shit can go down. There aren’t any bars here, or tennis courts. Life here happened outside, at corners, with everyone rubbing shoulders against one another.”

‘Life is shit here’

Hip-hop as a movement evolved in the Bronx in 1970, as a subculture in the ghettos. Like many pioneers, Prabh Deep believes that it is the voice of strength for those who are marginalised. The Sikhs of Tilak Nagar, who form his community, are immigrants from Peshawar and Sindh in Pakistan and distinct from wealthier Punjabis in other neighborhoods of the capital. Overpopulated but underdeveloped, there is a lawlessness to these parts of Delhi that inspires Prabh Deep’s music and informs his disdain. This mix, he says, is integral to the evolution of the culture of hip-hop – “You have to find poetry in difficulty. That’s what the movement is about. Why should music and art only be about beautiful things? Life is shit here, so I tell people about it. I tell them the truth. Not [spin] some party grooves that ultimately make no sense.”

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When Prabh Deep raps, he gives a voice to a community, a medium to the Delhi-Punjabi language used otherwise only in slang, and creates a realm distinct from the norm. His music is resonant with lingo, references, and an inscrutable loyalty to his own people. Like other messiahs of the hip-hop culture, Prabh Deep is determined to disrupt engrained parameters of what could be Indian music – and at the same time shake up the autocracy in the Indian music scene.

In his song Kal, he raps about being threatened on the streets as a young man, getting into fights and the terse danger that defined his young life. In a sequel to the song called Kal (Future) he sings about how he picked himself up, found inspiration in his reality, and never gives up. His lyrics and videos time travel to his childhood in Tilak Nagar, with gang fights, and his memories of days filled with both immense friendship and danger.

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“This stuff is normal here in our neighborhood,” he said. “We got into fights every day when we were kids. It was like entertainment.”

After graduating from Guru Harkrishan Public School, Prabh Deep worked in a call center for three years to support his family and make money so he could make music. He was not interested in higher education and the aspirations of others didn’t make any sense. When he was making music, he met Sez, his first producer, and together they began to record. “Everyone had begun to move to Canada to start a shop or something, and I thought, why the f**k should I leave my home to make some sort of name for myself? If this is my life, I will make it work.”

Prabh Deep’s music reflects on the difficulties faced by young men, their problems of addiction and the dangers of the streets in which they live. In his song Suno he introduces himself as a messenger of truth, aiming to expose naked truths about his neighbourhood, where there is poverty and unemployment, and substance addiction is common among the young.

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“There are drugs everywhere on these streets,” Prabh Deep said. “People don’t have much, so they get lost easily. I want to clean up the streets with my rap. I want to tell these kids – [there is] no need to waste your life on bullshit, you can be more than what you think only if you try. We are made to feel like we are worth nothing, just because we are not rich? I want to change that.”

While Prabh Deep’s verse is original and distinct from the other voices of Punjabi hip-hop and rap in the country, he is keen to distance himself from the underground music industry in India. He is critical of the industry, which he dismisses as a façade – “Of course, rap is my passion, but it is also my job. When I started out, I was making music for money, but no one pays you well for this stuff. They treat music like a hobby, like side-projects. This whole underground scene, it’s all bullshit. It is basically a bunch of middle-class and rich kids who are friends, all listening to one another, there is no criticism, no competition. F**k being underground. I don’t care about that. Hip-hop is a culture, not a community. We are competitive with one another.”

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Even though Prabh Deep’s success is growing rapidly, he still has to fight people for payments and is disappointed that even contracts are not signed. Standards of wage in the Indian music industry have been low for decades, creating a hurdle for artists without any reach in it to enter the scene.

“Payments are always delayed, no one signs contracts, how do you expect any originality or new voices in this setting?” he said. “When I did one gig, someone wasn’t paying me, and the landlord was banging on our door asking for rent. We aren’t middle class here, I need the money from my music, and whatever happens, I will get it out of them.”

As the sun begins to set, the lights in the gullies of Tilak Nagar began to change mood. Women start leaving, more young men come out to sit in corners, and at a chai shop near his house, two men in purple Nike sneakers watch him intently.

“You see that,” he said. “They are wearing trainers like mine. “Hip-hop is more than just music, it gives an identity to people. It is hard to do that here, it is not easy, but f**k it, I’ll make it happen.”

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