African sounds in the Indian subcontinent
Music was never a goal when I first arrived in India over a decade and a half ago. I came to study and like most foreign students, I was supposed to be on the next plane out of here after my last exam paper. But one course turned to two and then some more. Along the way, I met a local friend who kept insisting some day we should make music together. I was already a recording artist voicing numerous raps on Bollywood soundtracks, but the live act never took off until four years ago when a mutual friend brought the two of us together with two other musicians to form the band called Bombay Basement.
It’s been a fabulous journey since then, both musically speaking and physically travelling around the country. We’ve been up north as far as Kashmir, northeast to Arunachal, down to Ooty and to all the metros for various performances. We have opened for international acts like Snoop Lion and even done shows in Dubai as an Afro Indian act. Our music is influenced by all our varied upbringing, we have hip hop, dancehall, afro beats, a touch of reggae, funk and even some rock because all the members – two who are Goan and one a South Indian – have to bring something to the table. We released our self titled debut album last year through Sony India and we have enjoyed a lot of support and positive feedback from the youth especially, although our sound is arguably fit for all age groups because it's geared to simply make one happy and to get up and dance.
Music however isn’t the only thing I’ve been up to in Mumbai. After completing my studies in Mumbai University, I joined a friend in his start up company and handled social media marketing for the brand. We had a successful run and even won a Times Award for the best new brand on social media. But music was always calling even as I did the 9 to 5, so I kept performing in between shifts.
Being in the country for so long, I have been privileged to witness India turn into a strong economy with a middle class that manufacturers worldwide have in their cross hairs. Compared to the period around the turn of the millennium, the country has undergone a massive change not just economically, but also culturally. I wouldn't dream of performing our style of music back then to packed clubs. Hip hop barely made any sense to the average night clubber back then. But the start of the 2000s saw the genre and the culture spread exponentially in the metros, initially among only the English speaking crowd, but eventually local variants also spawned, so today you will hear Punjabi, Tamil and even Kannada rap music all over the internet. Having studied media, I felt the need to formalise recording the development of hip hop in India as music and as a culture. I started blogging on events and music releases in 2006 on Bombayhiphop.com. Later I was hired by Sony India to run their hip hop website which shut down after two years due to downsizing in the corporation.
Undeterred, last year we established a new site, VOTP. in which is one of the biggest hip hop sites in the country today. We also have a fortnightly podcast "The VOTP Show" on which we play the latest of Indian hip hop and discuss burning topics in the community, mostly but not strictly entertainment related. We have also ventured into club gigs to promote the live performance part of the culture because we noticed many rappers were stuck between recording studios and the internet. In today's music industry, selling recordings is not enough to sustain a musicians career. Live shows are the only reliable source of income but without adequate exposure, most rappers stood no chance. The Hip hop Bomb Thursdays held monthly at Mumbai suburban pub Three Wise Monkeys is one of the platforms we hope will help change that.
At the moment, the band, the website and the live gigs are all integral parts of my future plans with hope that hip hop will get bigger and better in the country. All signs are encouraging, especially the proliferation of vernacular rap which to me is the biggest development in Indian hip hop since I landed in the country.
Despite being comfortably adapted in Mumbai, being an African artist cum blogger still has its awkward moments. It's weird every time I get to a police stop and the officer can't figure exactly where to place me. "Where are you studying? Where do you work? Where is your work ID?". A passport with a valid visa often doesn't satiate their curiosity. The youth are however more blunt with their curiosities, often even after a show or after holding a DJing workshop, someone on the sidelines will coyly ask, "Do you know where I can get some stuff (code word for narcotics)?". Similarly whenever I'm back in Kenya, my siblings always ask, "So when do you plan to finish studying and come back permanently?". It's like no one really buys that there is anything for a foreign student to do in India after graduating, the jobs, the websites, the band and the work permit notwithstanding.
At the moment, the band is working on music for our sophomore album, The VOTP is about to metamorphose into a company and one more media certificate might be on the cards as I explore ways of adapting to the trends of the future in music marketing.
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