Hip-Hop in Mumbai – Thoughts from the Indian Underground

By Edward Appleton and Aastha Tiku

A few days ago we posted a piece on how research on socially complex issues, such as the shifting sensibilities of Indians moving out of poverty, people who are cautiously adopting new lifestyles, needs to embrace not just qualitative research per se, but push the boundaries, get out in the field, embrace ethnographies, adopt a fully  immersive approach.

We need to get our hands dirty – even if we don’t wish to retrain as anthropologists.

This post is a summary of the key findings – and ends with some suggestions for how they might be relevant to researchers in other areas.

  1. Indian Underground Hip Hop is “Different”

The words “knock-out” or “battle” in an Indian hip-hop context sound aggressive, confrontational, a bit like being in a boxing ring. Indian sub-culture hip-hop as we experienced it is actually very different: it has been culturally adapted, not at all a simple imitation of the American “original”, with the following characteristics:

“class-agnostic”, with poorer and middle class kids coming together in a neutral venue, listening, connecting – through each other’s stories, hearing of their anxieties, fears, hopes….

Socially cohesive: through listening to narratives from across the social divide, live, at class-agnostic venues, there is a heightened empathy for those from a different class.

Empowering for both kids from the middle class and the less privileged. For the middle class kids, it allows them to interact with people whose parents would likely otherwise discourage cross-class contact. For those coming from a poorer background, it sets their sights higher. All this was traditionally unheard of in India.

The whole thing was very different to what we had expected.

  1. Rapping as a Form of Storytelling

By adopting personas, performing, getting on a stage, engaging in rapping, the kids we observed had a freedom to explore topics that would otherwise be socially taboo or ignored: corruption in the police force, the role of women in society, inequality in society, for example.

Musical narratives are especially powerful in creating new bonds – they transcend language, convey emotions in an unmediated, unabashed manner.

  1. Pinpointing Cultural Disconnects

Analysing a range of rap texts proved a good way of revealing where and how mainstream cultural narratives were in – or out – of-touch. Underground hip-hop touched on socially relevant themes such as the destruction of a local factory to make way for a shopping mall, highlighting the downside of “emerging consumerism”.

This contrasted strongly with the mainstream, reassuring but less powerful Bollywood rap narratives of cars, bling, girls, money, penthouse pads….

  1. Identifying Emerging Subcultures

Class-agnostic rapping venues such as the Hive in Mumbai lead to a common dress sense adopted by rappers from both the poor and middle class. If someone is wearing the gold chain, the baggy clothing, the reverse cap, it’s difficult to tell what section of society, caste, region and religion they’re from. This helps break down prejudice, and shows how new communities are emerging with a common language, shared goals.

There is lots more to tell – the phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” raised its head, with some rappers from lower income communities expressing a sense of discontent once exposed to a higher standard of living.

If you’re interested in more detail, pls. get in touch with us.

What can we learn from this in a few sentences?

  • We’re not trend managers, but we’d suggest that to understand tomorrow’s mainstream, you need a good sense of what’s emerging from today’s sub-cultures – likely in towns, cities or conurbations, which is where many of the new centres of wealth are occurring in India
  • Second, we benefited immensely by being able to adapt our interview guide fluidly as our observations and experience revealed important issues and topics that we were initially not aware of
  • Finally, we realised – or were reminded of – how powerful youth culture is, and how complex the task is of bridging not just class divides but intergenerational divides. Forget to “talk to the next generation” in the right language, with the right tonality – and you struggle to “recruit” (excuse the military sounding language) tomorrow’s core users

Engaging in immersive qualitative research certainly helped us appreciate the ins and outs of underground Mumbai rapping in ways we could never have imagined.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Edward Appleton and Aastha Tiku, Happy Thinking People Berlin & Mumbai