On a windy and grey afternoon, the hip Mellow Mood Café located on the first floor of a somewhat rundown building in Laitumkhrah – a bustling neighbourhood in Shillong – slowly started filling up with regulars. The audience comprised a mix of ages. Enthusiastic high school children and 20-year-olds had gathered at the café as part of a friendship jam organised in aid of victims of the Kerala floods. Besides a deep sense of empathy, there was another strand though that bound them: a shared love for hip-hop.

The music movement that originated in the United States in the 1970s has been steadily gaining ground in India. Hip-hop consolidated its position at the top of the charts in 2017, with acts such as Prabh Deep, Hard Kaur, Divine and Dee MC. One of the more popular tracks last year was This is My Life by Khasi Bloodz, who hail from Shillong.

Shillong has often been described as the rock capital of India, though some would say mistakenly so. But it’s a reputation so well entrenched that the city’s affiliation and penchant for hip-hop doesn’t get talked about much. In 2016, Anthem For The North East, a rap video featuring three acts from the region – Khasi Bloodz, Symphonic Movement and Cryptographik Street Poets – went viral, drawing attention to the popularity of the genre. Today, there are several hop-hop crews from Shillong that are trying to become a voice of the youth in the region, talk about its socio-political issues and draw attention to this growing subculture.

Kingdom Culture performing at the Mellow Mood Café. Photo credit: @knoodles_art/Kingdom Culture/Facebook.
Kingdom Culture performing at the Mellow Mood Café. Photo credit: @knoodles_art/Kingdom Culture/Facebook.

One of the bands who were part of the jam at Mellow Mood Café was Kingdom Culture. They were founded in 2014 and are into gospel-inspired rap. Their inspiration: Khasi Bloodz. “We’re like the ‘third generation’ of rappers and for us, they’re the pioneers – they started it all,” said the 19-year-old Shanboklang Lamin, the youngest of the four-member crew. “For us, rap is a medium to express ourselves. We don’t even want to label ourselves as Christian artists. We’re just artists.”

One of their popular tracks, Catalyst, which has a little more than 2,500 views on YouTube, has a strong R&B feel to it. The video begins with a panoramic view of neon-lit Shillong. It then focuses on two of their members: TennySxn, 23, and Cassidy Godwin, 21.

I’ve been lookin’ for a change/These days, I’m tryna be a change/They all think ‘bout Fame’/They all think I’m Strange/I’ve been on my way, Ballin’ everyday’/My skin thick as clay, My sin at the bay/I’ve been runnin’ round/I’ve been Slammin’ hard like I’m Jordan now/I’ve been Soarin’ High like a Falcon now/Rammin’ hard like a Hammer now/

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According to music writer K Mark Swer, hip-hop started becoming popular in Shillong in the late 1990s in the wake of the global success of one of the most well-known artists of the genre – MC Hammer. “Gangster rap was big in the United States and it became a big thing over here as well,” said Swer. “Suddenly all the Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden cassettes were replaced by Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. They [music lovers in Shillong] didn’t switch their allegiance but hip-hop overtook their love for alternative rock and grunge.”

Swer says that one of the earliest rap songs produced in Meghalaya was Resemblance. Shot in 2002 by filmmaker Tarun Bhartiya, it featured Tipriti Kharbangar, lead vocalist of the blues rock band Soulmate, performing the hook, and four to five Khasi men rapping in English. “By the early 2000s, there were rap crews to be found,” he said. “The rappers who are with Kharbangar could be called the first generation of rappers from Shillong.”

Around that time, avenues were limited, and offers to play gigs were sparse. “Technology wasn’t as enabling as it is now,” said Swer. “There were rock gigs but I can’t really think of hip-hop gigs as such.”

Moksh of MOX. Photo courtesy: MOX-Movement of Expression/Facebook.
Moksh of MOX. Photo courtesy: MOX-Movement of Expression/Facebook.

Movement of expression

The friendship jam, which brought together local rappers, was organised by a local collective called Movement of Expression. The idea behind the collective, when it started in 2017, was to curate hip-hop events featuring local rappers from Meghalaya. One of its core members, Mrinal Paul, more popularly known as Moksh, described it as a “do-it-yourself initiative where we’re trying to learn new things every day through trial and error”. Since its formation, Movement of Expression has branched out as a four-member team of rappers, all of whom rap individually and collectively. They’re also the only rap collective from Shillong featuring a Bengali, Assamese, Nepalese and Khasi rapper.

In a black-and-white video, the 22-year-old Moksh raps about his daily life. But that’s not all. The lyrics delve deeper into the Bengali phrase “poro ninda poro chorcha”, or people love talking about other people. Moksh’s lyrics focus on social issues and what it’s like to be a Bengali in Shillong.

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The Mawlai Emcees. Photo courtesy: Mawlai Emcees.
The Mawlai Emcees. Photo courtesy: Mawlai Emcees.

Social issues also underlay the lyrics of Mawlai Emcees, which was formed in 2016. Its 12 members come from the Mawlai locality in Shillong. Focusing on old-school hip-hop, they talk about issues that plague the Khasi society, such as poverty, unemployment and the Khasi language. “When we rap in Khasi, we’re making a statement,” said Banphira Kharsati, 26. “The language is already fading into oblivion, with more and more people speaking in English, [and] we want to preserve our language.”

“In Meghalaya, a lot of young kids are into drugs,” said Praiselyson Lyngskor, who at 25 is the oldest member of Symphonic Movement. “Through our music we want to make an impact on these young minds – by creating something that could make a change.” Lyngskor rues lack of sponsorship and proper management. “It is an underground culture. It’s dormant. There are hardly any gigs and even when there are, we don’t make any money.”

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Globally, rap music has often been associated with misogyny and violence. As hip-hop grows at a gradual pace in Shillong, most of these new acts are trying to make a difference with conscious rap. “If you look at the Cryptographik Street Poets, for instance, they have got their heart in the right place,” said Swer. “They are politically more conscious. Khasi Bloodz might not be politically correct, but they have become more refined over the years. Mawlai Emcees’ lyrics can be taken to be parochial [and] extremely pro-Khasi. But they have no access to resources – they are a bunch of working-class boys. For them to express creatively, is a wonderful thing. Contradictions exist in all popular music. It’s a vibrant scene – and it should evolve.”

Could hip-hop overtake rock in the region? “If it wasn’t for hip-hop then I wouldn’t have been talking to you right now,” said Moksh. “It gives me a reason to speak, to fight, to stay alive, and to share a story that could change lives.”