Tupac in the Gully


Tupac in the Gully

Illustration: Riya Rathod

Back in college, summer holidays slipped by in a haze. We were teenagers, newly introduced to the thrill of blowing up allowance cash on contraband, and spent our days lounging in people’s empty flats; smoking, drinking, and pumping out the sickest tunes. I had a few spots of my own that I frequented. I’d show up with some weed, plug in my iPod to the speakers, and sink into a couch listening to fly raps.

Through the haze of the dope smoke, I came across an artist that changed the way I looked at the world: Tupac Shakur. In “Dopefiend’s Diner”, the first song I heard, Tupac sings of Late night coolin’ with my homies / Drinkin’ Hennessey an’ cold brew / After smokin’ stopped in Oakland / Got the munchies for some soul food. It was perfect because this was pretty much my lifestyle. But over the course of one rap, Tupac turned a song about good times into a gritty tale of gun violence in black America. An argument breaks out between a dealer and a fiend, and a senseless shooting over a few dollars worth of crack follows. Pac screams out, “What’s goin’ on?” to a Greek choral intonation of: Another gunshot rings / Another siren rings / Another mother cries / ’Cause another innocent dies.

My sheltered sensibilities were not prepared for this dose of reality. The rap I’d heard up to that point was about hitting up clubs and picking up chicks – the kind of hedonism my upbringing could afford. My life had followed a generic privileged trajectory until then: A fancy ICSE school, and afterward, an equally fancy college where I’d ride on the scooter my folks bought me at 17. My worldview was more MTV Select, less Satyamev Jayate.

If I were oblivious to life around me at home, my view of America was influenced by Archie comics and Die Hard. A land of suburbs, full of cosy cul-de-sacs and cities spotted with skyscrapers, a place whiter than snow. The projects, the ghetto, and the way of life their inhabitants led never crossed my mind. Until I discovered Tupac – the voice of the voiceless, chronicler of the unwritten stories of life in the hood.

Through his words, Tupac painted a poignant picture of what it was like to live and die as a black American. He spoke for the “thugs” and the “gangstas” demonised by the media. Grab your Glocks when you see 2Pac / Call the cops when you see 2Pac / Who shot me, but your punks didn’t finish / Now you about to feel the wrath of the menace / N*** I hit ’em up. This outré bravado was laced with empathy; a front for the innocent residents of the ghettos trapped in the storm alongside him, like the single mothers and fatherless children of the hood. And even as a crack fiend, mama / You always was a black queen, mama / I finally understand / For a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man.

I was surrounded by people struggling through lives as hard as anything Tupac rapped about, and I remained blind to the relevance of his words in a local context.

The man whose entire life was a dichotomy between his alter egos of an activist and a gangsta was introducing me to duality. I took off my rose-tinted glasses, as I learned about police brutality, crack addiction, and gang violence. Verse by verse, Tupac unloaded the hard times from his block onto my shoulders. At a time when Vanilla Ice, a lanky white dude with a fade haircut was breakdancing to Ice Ice Baby, and MC Hammer, whose greatest achievement was proclaiming that you can’t touch him, Tupac cut through the patriotic din of “USA! USA!” with a battle cry that hollered “THUG LIFE”. Before we find world peace / We gotta find peace and end the war in the streets.

Yet, I blasted his rhymes on the speakers of my AC car, getting lessons in the plight of people of colour overseas – oblivious again to what was happening outside my tinted window. I was surrounded by people struggling through lives as hard as anything Tupac rapped about, and I remained blind to the relevance of his words in a local context. Blind to a hungry, angry local hip hop movement heavily inspired by Pac.

I’ve been hearing strains of the resistance from the wrong side of the tracks. Much like Tupac recorded what he saw all around him in the hood, a new wave of rappers have become custodians of the unseen side of urban Indian life through their rap music.

Busting out of the chawls of Andheri and Kurla, rappers like Divine and Naezy capture life on the fringes. The latter once performed at a venue in a Khar hipster haven, where the capacity crowd bounced along to his verses while remaining blissfully unaware that the management refused to let Naezy’s friends “from the hood” in for the concert. It was a miserably apt metaphor for the way in which we consume and appropriate the culture of struggle.

For the rest of us, it is easy and convenient to play “Guerrilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machine while sitting in a joint circle and talk about how the Man is holding you down. We’ll pontificate upon American protest music, without ever having felt the oppression it aims to resist or engaging with the ones who do. The ones who live through the oppression remain permanently under our radars.

This struggle to be acknowledged, is exactly what Divine and Naezy rap about, when they declare that they are the “voice of the streets” and that “poori sheher ki awaaz meri gully mein.” In the manner that Pac’s discography charted the landscape of black America, today’s desi rappers are bringing to life the characters, stories, and dreams of the residents of India’s slums and chawls. They’re tapping into the same spirit of the subaltern that Tupac channelled in the ’90s.

All around us, are parallels between the environment that birthed Tupac and the one in which these modern Indian rappers practice their craft. The regime is paramount; any sort of examination or criticism is shuttered. “Dangerous” or “offensive” material faces an uphill battle to be heard, as JNU’s Rahul Rajkhowa learnt when he rapped against Delhi University’s revised seat policy. The mainstream wants to push rap as an express delivery system for party-friendly tracks courtesy Honey Singh and Badshah.

More than two decades ago, Tupac forced the mainstream to acknowledge the existence of Thug Life, normalising previously fetishised aspects of black culture and affording it greater visibility and acceptance. The homegrown hip-hop movement is following the same trail that he blazed.

This is exactly what we need. Music that shakes us to our roots, art that forces us to confront our privilege. As the spirit of a 25-year-old West Coast rapper watches over us.