Raags to Riches: Globalism and Vernacular in Contemporary Pakistani Rap

[Following is a guest post by Hamzah Saif. A version of this essay was published by Ajam Media Collective.]

By Hamzah Saif

Rap’s transition from the poetry of marginalized African American communities to the mega-hits circulating in mainstream America today draws fierce debate. Consumerism and commodification are frequently found guilty of eviscerating a once-radical movement with the market’s golden handcuffs, swapping its class politics for “mere spectacle.”

In contrast, Western popular and academic assessments of rap’s journey beyond American borders, particularly in the “Muslim world,” are markedly inattentive to this commercialism. Instead, this rap evokes a virtually unanimous nostalgia. There, 1986 Los Angeles is found alive in 2013 Lebanon, and New York’s Public Enemy and L.A.’s N.W.A are discovered rhyming through Beirut’s Rayess Bek and Tehran’s Yas. So prevalent is this penchant for locating the dissent lost in American rap in “over there” rap that the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, Middle East Institute, finds Iran’s Ayatollahs battling a reanimated Tupac, and Wall Street Journal has rappers soundtracking revolt from Egypt to Iran.

The anachronism of finding 1980’s Ice Cube in contemporary Islamabad can be plausible only if one abundantly ignores the realities of contemporary rap. In a landscape where middle class white purchasers have dictated the contours of the genre’s production since at least 1992, it is particularly absurd to impose upon non-American “Muslim” rappers the romantic notion that their rap is protest.

Imagining a resurrection of resistance in “over there” rap shortchanges the breadth of the non-American musical movements. Instead, they are much more productively seen as artists in the peripheral markets of globalized rap. Such a lens appropriately situates the rappers, and accords their work the creativity and artistry it deserves.

Far from culturally-appropriate replicas of bygone American rappers, Middle East and South Asia rappers are creators of an entirely new art, vastly expanding the frontiers of the genre. “It may not have started in our communities, but just like cricket”, says Islamabadi rapper Xpolymer Dar (Muhammad Dar), “we have made rap our own.”

Indeed, in Dar’s country of Pakistan, where rap is a growing underground music genre, the ‘80s American rhymes for race and class justice are judged to have little resonance with Pakistani realities. Instead, it is the stylings of hyper-commercialized contemporary artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent that find ears, and have provided the launching pad for contemporary Pakistani rappers.

Eminem, 50 Cent and Bohemia: Language, Vernacular and Rap

Prior to this most recent spike in the popularity of rap among Pakistani musicians, the genre’s heyday would likely be located in the early 1990s, when acts such as Fakhar-e-Alam enjoyed a broad audience. Alam’s hit track Bhangra Pao held the number-one spot for 28 straight weeks in local charts and was among the first Pakistani songs to be featured on MTV Asia. Indian and South Asian diasporic rappers such as Apache Indian and Baba Sehgal too found their tracks bumping across Pakistan in the 1990s.

Pakistan’s contemporary rappers, however, rarely trace their roots to that rap tradition. In fact, many take reminding to even recall the productions of the 90’s decade. Today’s movement, instead, is overwhelmingly a product of the globalization of commodified American rap. And if there is one American artist around whose productions penetrated Pakistani music stores, and whose face came to represent rap in Pakistan, it is Eminem.

From Peshawar, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Party Wrecker (Mustafa Khan) of the Pukhtoon rap group, Fortitude, describes its introduction to rap, “I used to go to Shumail and Shahkar’s house and we used to sit and listen to Eminem.” From distant Karachi, Qzer (Qasim Naqvi) similarly describes, “I was eleven years old when I listened to Lose Yourself by Eminem, and realized the connection between my poetry and rap.”

Ali from the Lahore-based crew DirtJaw offers perhaps the most vivid example. A poet for some years, Ali was introduced to rap through the movie 8 Mile, featuring Eminem, and loosely based on the artist’s life. Having no idea who Eminem was, Ali nevertheless discovered the strength of poetry over beats, and began to transform his verses into rhymes.

During this time, a period beginning shortly after Eminem’s release of the Marshall Mathers LP in mid-2000 to 2005, rap remained a marginal artistic force in Pakistan. Rappers were dismissed as Eminem ki aolad (Eminem’s children), and yo-bache (yo-kids), the latter a construction on a caricature of American slang that accused Pakistani rappers of aping Western culture.

This all changed in February 2006, when goliath label Universal Music dropped the first commercially backed album of the Bay Area rapper, Bohemia.

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Love Sans Gurdwaras

[Following is a guest post by Pukhraj Singh (Email: pukhraj AT gmail), the founder of Abroo.]

By Pukhraj Singh

The latent passions of this land are steeped in love and longing. If one sees Punjab solely from the perspective of its oral traditions, local continuities and folklore, then the picture that emerges is in complete contrast to the drubbed, kitschy monochrome making its way to the mainstream. It is the unquestionable faith and conviction of its peoples, which have often subverted the rigid precepts of religion and nationalism, to create identity markers that are more organically rooted in the mythos and geography.

By innately focusing on the unseen and the unsaid, there will be an emotional realization of a certain kind of inexplicable absence, and the purity of absence, overwhelming its verdant backdrop. The dirt-tracks crisscrossing the rural outliers are pockmarked with the signage of a time bygone, managing to exist somewhere between the interstices of memory and history.

It was from the critically-acclaimed documentaries of Ajay Bhardwaj that I first learnt to conduct séances, invoking an esoteric Punjab that has been rarely been experienced or talked about. His trilogy—Kitte Mil Ve Mahi, Rabba Hun Kee Kariye and Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te—has archived such crucial portions of its culture that the future generations would forever remain indebted, be it the lesser-known Dalit Sufi customs or the militant pluralism of its men of faith like Baba Hajji Ratan and Sakhi Sarwar. Beating the post-traumatic amnesia of the Partition, the Green Revolution and the militancy, reemerged a few counter-narratives such as these—and that is how I started trusting the contemporary lore more than the intellectual discourse—leading me to territories uncharted.

When Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal laid the foundation stone for a 120-crore Valmiki temple this October to woo the sizeable community, the irony wasn’t lost on me. For decades the Balmikis or Mazhabi Sikhs have consecrated their identity and heritage in barebones temples, overshadowed by the mighty village gurdwara. The fretful caretaker of one such insipid place of devotion in village Dhotian (district Tarn Taran) first apprised me of an unpardonable depravity perpetrated by the local Sikh clergy, which barred the low-castes from performing kar seva (voluntary service) because “they looked dirty.” The dilapidated building, sticking out like a sore thumb, then seemed like a towering tribute to the inconsequential life of a Punjabi Dalit.

The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.
The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.

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The East African Baloch

In 1821, the Sultan and Imam of Oman, Seyyid Said bin Sultan Al Busaidi, hired an Iranian fleet to invade the islands and ports of East Africa. The Iranian fleet leased by the Sultan of Oman consisted mostly of Baluchi and Sindhi/Cutchi mercenaries, with a few Arab, Persian, and Pathan officers from India. Almost all of these, after their families had arrived from Iran and India, settled in the coastal towns in or around the forts and the newly built camps (e.g., Saa-teeni north of Zanzibar City and Fort Jesus in Mombasa – the largest fortification in East Africa), with the Baluchi cavalry settling in Zanzibar City at the site of the present Haile Selassie School.

With the expansion of Zanzibari trade and political influence in the interior of Tanganyika, Baluchi squadrons were dispatched to Tabora in central Tanganyika and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. In 1873, about half of the 3,000 Zanzibari troops engaged in the war in Unyanyembe in the interior of Tanganyika against the Nyamwezi ruler Chief Mirambo were mercenary Wabulushi from Iran and Washihiri from Hadramawt in South Yemen. A number of Baluchi soldiers joined trade caravans as guards and reached the Congo with the legendary Zanzibari trader Tippu Tip (Hamed bin Muhammad al-Murjebi, who had under his command 1,600 armed men – both freemen and slaves – in his caravans and depots). Tippu Tip became the first and only Zanzibari governor of the copper province of Katanga (the present Shaba Province) in Eastern Congo; he later became the first Belgian governor of Katanga for a short time when Belgium occupied the Congo after the European scramble for Africa was concluded in 1890. Many Baluchis thus served in the Belgian Congo army for some years before returning to Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya just before World War I. During 1891–1919, some Baluchi soldiers also served in the German colonial army in Tanganyika; some of them later joined the British forces in Tanganyika after World War I.

Earlier, the Baluchis in East Africa were known also as Mabulushi (singular: Bulushi), and almost all of them spoke Swahili as their native language. Today, some of them speak a mixture of Baluchi and Swahili because of the influx of new Baluchi immigrants. The early Baluchi settlers frequently intermarried with other Muslims of East Africa, who were themselves of diverse ethnic origin, and adopted Swahili as their native language, though often Baluchi households received ‘‘fresh blood’’ as new immigrants from their old country, Iranian Baluchistan, arrived to join their relatives and friends.

East Africans of Baluchi origin are Sunni Hanafi. There are no special Baluchi mosques or jamati/jamaatkhana (community centers), but the Baluchis usually gather at a particular Sunni mosque and socialize and intermarry freely with other Sunni Muslims. (The few Shia Iranians in East Africa socialize more with the South Asian Khoja Shia Ithna Asheria, whose mosques and community centers they use.) For many Wabulushi in East Africa, the ‘‘Baluchi’’ identity is self-perceived, just as it is for most of the ‘‘Arabs’’ of East Africa; one is a Baluchi because of one’s patrilineal descent, even if one does not speak the Baluchi language.

from Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, The Baluchi of East Africa: Dynamics of Assimilation and Integration

The Baluch from the coastal region of Makran were pushed from the extreme misery of their country towards Persia and towards the coasts of Arabia. Here, they offered themselves to the Omani sultans as soldiers, sailors and bodyguards for pay that, though even modest, could represent the difference between life and death for them and for their families.

At that time, the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba were administered by governors representing Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id (r.1806-1856) and exercised all power on his behalf. The military support furnished by these representatives with extensive authority over the islands and their affairs, consisted of special troops of proven trustworthiness, that is to say, Baluch corps “closely tied” to the Al Bu Sa’id by fundamentally economic agreements. The loyalty these Baluch soldiers had for the Omani ruling family at a time when there was much anarchy amongst the groups of Oman, earned them lasting trust with the Sultan who deployed them to guard all his palaces and interests in the region.

The first settlers on the East African coast were the Baluch soldiers, who until the establishment of the Sultanate in the 1840s, maintained army posts in the major centres of Mombasa, Zanzibar and Pemba. These men intermarried with the local Waswahili and were quickly assimilated into their culture and society. They were later followed by whole families who left Baluchistan in the hope of finding better life along the Swahili coast, which arose at the time as an important manufacturing centre and only later became the hub of international maritime trade with Asia. Most of the Baluch came from Kasarkand, although their brothers later followed them in from Sarbaz, Lur and Muscat. Although the life and times of Baluch on the Swahili coast during the 1800s is quite obscure, it seems however that Mombasa was the major Baluch settlement at the time. It is believed that the first non-African to go into Maasailand was a Baluch, so too was the first non-African to be welcomed into the royal court of the Kabaka of Buganda. As they moved inland, the Baluch founded cluster communities in Djugu and Bunia in the Congo; Soroti, Arua and Kampala in Uganda; and Iringa, Tabora, Mbeya and Rujewa in Tanzania; probably there was a Baluch family in almost every main Swahili town.

The Baluch settled in Mombasa and developed a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, preferring to engage in small real estate ventures and trade, or keeping employment with the Omanis and later, the British. Those who lived in the fertile hills of Uganda and Tanzania flourished in the farming and trading industries. The mercantile skills and business acumen of the Baluch earned them high regard amongst the various communities in which they settled. This can also be said of the small but vibrant Nairobi community.

from Beatrice Nicolini, The Tupak of the Jemadar: Notes on the Baluch presence along the Swahili Coast during the 19th century


Further reading:

Encyclopædia Iranica entry on East Africa

Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, The Iranian Presence In East Africa

Beatrice Nicolini, Slave Trade in the Western Indian Ocean during the 19th century: the role of Baloch Mercenaries

Beatrice Nicolini, The Makran-Baluch-African Network in Zanzibar and East Africa during the XIX century

Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The Baluchis from East Africa

Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The culture of East African Baluchis

Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2013

2013 saw the publication of a collection of Lapata’s translations of Ashk’s short stories. You can read excerpts from the collection here and an interview with Lapata here. CNN returned to talk to her about her art and her new book (link), and again to ask the “terror artist” about the offensiveness of Rolling Stone’s depiction of that good-looking white boy. Sanyasi returned the gaze and observed that CNN’s reading of Lapata’s art reflects “something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.” Taking some time off from painting terrorists, Lapata also reviewed ‘Aisha Jalaal”s hagiography of Manto.

Sepoy began the year by completing his Berlin series (III IV), and ended by translating Faiz. In the middle was his review of Dalrymple’s latest that found D’s critique of empire to be “at the service of bettering Western-driven governance in Afghanistan and the pacification of Afghan tribes.” And then, there was his piece on the Pakistani elections  for the paper of record (yes, that). In this piece he made some bizarre statement about peasants and laborers having agency, which irked some folks who pointed out that those deaf and dumb slaves only act out the narratives that their superiors set. Sepoy responded by arguing for understanding “agency and contingency in an historical event from the perspective of the subaltern, the vanquished, the dispossessed, the marginalized […].” And so it went.

Sanyasi returned to CM with reflections on the violence of American paranoia from the Hindu-German conspiracy to its present day Islamophobic avatar, and with reviews of Ramachandra Guha’s latest (link) and Niraja Gopal Jayal’s Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History (link,). He also gave us a glimpse of his forthcoming book, Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss. Speaking of forthcoming publications, Sepoy discussed his approach for the book he is working on (here, here), and Bulleyah contributed an essay (here, here) on Sepoy’s forthcoming chapter (link) in an edited volume.

Sepoy also wrote about growing up in Dubai, and Basanti about surveillance in the KSA and the USA (link). Our friend MNJ reflected on “[t]he power inherent in autobiographies, and our fascination with them” in a three-part essay on Mahvish Khan’s memoir My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me (III, III).

We published a greater number of guest posts this year, bringing to our readers glimpses of JLFKurdistan, and Kabul; a review of Vollman’s memoir; a comment on “the politics of ‘Razakar memory’ in Andhra Pradesh”; a reflection on the “everyday political in Paromita Vohra’s documentary films”; and AJK’s Shura City. Of all these many excellent guest posts,  Prof. Veena Oldenburg’s contribution was truly a cut above.

In 2013, CM launched a new series of conversations to discuss and introduce new and exciting scholarship on South Asia. The interviews with Teena Purohit and Kavita Datla are the first of what we hope will be an ongoing feature of CM. Bint Battuta started contributing excerpts from her readings to CM (here, here). Also, with a satire of LUMS’ paindu dayour friend, Mutiyar, started contributing to CM.


PS. Where are you from? Or, how I became a Pakistani?


PPPS. I reviewed a couple of books for Dawn (link).

PPPPS: Here are the previous year-end summaries: 20102011, and 2012.