The Voice in Our Streets
When Venil Ali, City Director, Teach For India Mumbai introduced me to a bunch of new hip-hop artists from Mumbai, I had no idea that Divine, Naezy and Gujarati rapper MC todfod would take over my music playlist. A week later, their songs haven’t stopped playing on loop.
Divine, Naezy and MC todfod represent a new brand of hip-hop artists from Mumbai to hit the hip-hop scene in India.
Born and brought up in the slums of Bombay, Divine, Naezy and MC todfod draw upon their experiences to rap about their gully, their sheher and the haq that they think children in their communities deserve. Far removed from the mainstream rap one gets to hear these days, their lyrics are real, raw, subversive and represent the struggles of everyday life in Bombay.
Venil chanced upon Naezy when she saw the short film ‘Bombay 70’, the winner at MAMI-14.
A few years before these rappers arrived on the scene, Venil was a teacher, working in Govandi in a community similar to the ones that Naezy and Divine grew up in. Currently with Teach For India, Venil works with over 8,000 children across low-income communities in Mumbai and is only too aware of the harsh realities surrounding the children in these communities.
In communities from Govandi to Dharavi to Malwani, stories of children indulging in drugs, violence, sexual abuse unfortunately reach Venil and her team, far too often.
Recently, Venil reached out to Divine and Naezy, and together they discussed the possibility of them working with children across different communities in Mumbai. Here, I speak to Venil about her new favourite artists, and why she thinks Divine, MC todfod and Naezy could bring about a change in the lives of children in communities across Bombay.
Q1. Tell me a little bit about how you came across Divine, Naezy, MC todfod and the others.
Venil: A friend of mine who works in the music industry introduced me to the short film ‘Bombay 70. – the film that is based on Naezy. I remember that it was the end of a long day, and I didn’t really want to watch the video, but I saw it and was instantly hooked. Later that night, I saw about five to ten other videos of Naezy & Divine and I was obsessed with their brand of music. I was really keen to find out if there were others in this space, and while looking up artists online, I chanced up the hip hop homeland series which had so many other amazing local hip hot artists. To me, it was an inspiration overdose and nowadays I use any opportunity to show their videos to people.
Q2. This is your 8th year where you’ve been working in the education sector, with children from in Bombay. What are some of the the key challenges that you’ve faced over the years?
Venil: Such a hard question. I think the biggest challenge is that people who have power to influence change probably don’t know enough of the ground realities and so may not always put efforts in that area. I would like to believe that everyone has the right intentions. Teaching is challenging enough, but currently the system makes it more challenging.
Our National Curriculum Framework talks about reducing the burden of the curriculum, changing the rote way in which we learn, allowing children to create their experiences, provide opportunities for children to engage with music, arts, drama etc. However within a school we are still stuck with pressures to complete the textbooks, there is limited or no exposure art, drama, music and students still rote learn everyday. So basically what is anyway a challenging job has been made far more challenging, with most of the joy and creativity taken away.
Similarly the ‘system’ for student is even more challenging. When I think about growing up, I think about all the exposure, opportunities, books, games that I had access to. As a teenage I think about the privacy I had, space I had to myself. The children we serve have a very different environment. Whether it is space, sanitation, access to materials, opportunities, time to play it is very different. Our kids are really happy for most parts, but I think we could be doing more as a country.
Q3. Why do you think that is it important for artists like Naezy and DIVINE to reach out to children and talk to them about their stories?
Venil: So so many reasons! I’m really excited about prospect of them working with our kids.
Let me start with where the thought came to me – one of the instant connects was the language Naezy was using. I was talking to one of of my students Raza who lives in Govandi, when he said ‘zyaada yedechaali nai karne ka.” When I saw Naezy and spoke to him and saw the language that he used, I instantly thought about Raza, and I realized that there’s a good chance that I probably don’t get through to Raza, but someone like Naezy definitely can connect with him.
I think there are a lot of positive community role models, and many people are doing things. To me, what sets Naezy & Divine apart is that children love music and children love rap. Often they are singing current bollywood rap songs that have really poor lyrics. For them to listen to the music that Naezy and divine write will be radically different, yet entertaining.
The other reason is that Naezy & Divine will be able to reach out to these kids, is because they aren’t just your next door boys who sing well. They’ve done so well for themselves, they are both upcoming stars. Divine has been signed by Sony Music and Naezy’s short film won the best film in MAMI. They were on the cover of Rolling Stone India, and they have both collaborated with Nucleya. I think it’s a great way to get our children to see that there are many ways of doing what you love to seeing success. I think that message coming directly from them, is what our kids need.
When I think about the other hip hop artists – Flying Machine, Shawty Pink, Annul Pale and others. I hear grit, hard work and perseverance. While I think these values are important for everyone, for our kids they are non negotiable. And again these people have really achieved a lot. Flying Machine is representing India in B-boying, he practices for approximately 9 hours a day. Shawty Pink had to leave school because of financial reasons, today she works at Imagica as a B Girl. Annul Pale is one of the best flatlanders in India, again practices more than 6 hours a day. Our kids need to be introduced to these people. It is one thing for me to stand up in front of my kids and talk to them about all of this, coming from a place where I probably didn’t embody any of this during my childhood. Coming from someone who has lived it, it is far more credible and inspiring.
Q5. I know you love most of their songs, but is there a particular line or verse that you love, that stands out to you?
Venil: Ahh, that’s so hard. I love how they’ve captured the spirit of our communities in Mere Gully Mein – the joy, feeling of family, grit and swag :). I love how they challenge status quo, hold the government accountable. I love how they put themselves and their life experiences out there, with so much pride.
A line the consistently give me goosebumps – “kai raaste hai tere saamne, tere nafs ne tujhe gher rakha hai, tu lautna chahta hai vapas magar, tere vakt ne tujhe thaam rakha hai, ab tak poora na dooba ho to laut ja tere khatir tere rab ne kuch aur intezam rakha hai
Q4. In the larger scheme of things, what does the music of DIVINE, Naezy and MC todfod represent? What does it stand for?
Venil: For me it represents change. A group of young people asking for change, sharing their stories, building awareness. They are changing the conversation in communities.
Venil hopes to bring Divine and Naezy to classrooms across Mumbai to share their stories. More power to Venil, Divine, Naezy and to the children in Mumbai! Watch this space for more updates on the same!
Cover photo: Divine