Taking Pakistani Hip Hop Seriously
Themes of hip hop globally reference economic struggle and personal hardship. This is why the visual aesthetic of bling, of over-the-top consumption makes sense in hip hop. For marginalized voices that use hip hop to express the difficulties they attempt to escape, the success hip hop brings them allows them to display an achievement and culmination of their journey through the use of hip hop itself. The culture of consumption in hip hop is a rally call to let others know that escape from struggle is possible.
For this reason, the juxtaposition of two songs in this February’s Hamnawa Select playlist is interesting to me.
The first is Benz, by Young Stunners. The chorus says everything you need to know about the vibe of the song:
Crusing in a benz I got everything I need
Gaaney saarey trend karey kia mein Aladdin?
Chotey underground ko mein laaya mainstream
Sab sey aalag sound mera sab sey baari team
I contrast this with Kab Tak, by Shareh, who is a young rapper in what I call the Stunners Universe (i.e. the network of artists built around the Young Stunners, held together by frequent collaboration). In Kab Tak, Shareh writes:
Log laga bethay umeedain
Ghar wale hain peechay
Meri maa mujhay samjhaye
Baron ka kehna mano
Lekin mein maanu kaisay
Jab un ka kehna hai ke music se nahin banta paisay
Un ko kya pata kaise bhar raha mein fees
I got Spotify paying for my university
Hamari zindagi hi melancholic
Wo pills karein pop
Calls pe sab melatonins
Yeh bars bharein mera kitchen
New household appliances
Brand name Panasonic
What I love is that the underlying impulse in both Benz and Kab Tak is the same, a defiant display of fighting surroundings and making it big. But while the goals of a Benz are understandable, it is easy to miss that the same level of excitement is extended by Pakistani hip hop artists towards paying for tuition and getting new kitchen appliances.
I’ve heard dismissals of the Pakistani hip hop scene which are centered around the infancy of its musical influences. What this criticism misses is the underlying thematic nature of the words being spoken by young artists that would not be visible in any other popular art form in the country. So ignoring it from the perspective of cultural commentary is to proactively turn a blind eye towards a thriving scene capturing something very real about Pakistani society.
The ignoring of the Pakistani hip hop scene is not just a question of who is louder on Twitter. Rather, there are real economic consequences to the way this scene is viewed. To illustrate my point, I need to sketch out how I understand it.
When I categorize hip hop in Pakistan, I do it on two broad axes: sound, and lyrical theme.
Rappers like Maanu, or even Hasan Raheem are in the Pop Rap category in terms of sound. In that they are rapping, but there is a strong melodic component and hummability to their songs. Sunny Khan Durrani, or JJ47 veer more lyrical. Which is that the words matter more than the melodic style of their delivery.
Then comes the question of what the words are about. Some rappers, like Rozeo, Maanu, RFB & Ashir talk about the themes you’re likely to hear in other pop – love, self development, dreams. Other rappers, like Eva B speak more of the struggle of their circumstances.
The people with the purse strings in Pakistani pop, largely corporate sponsors and production companies, basically ignore anyone in bottom-left quadrant above. Eva B and Young Stunners are exceptions. Eva B, as one of the only female voices in the genre was thankfully heard. And the Young Stunners by sheer force of how big their audience is, as well as being drafted into the PSL Anthem.
What makes this even worse, is that this is not just a question of some genres not being fit for corporate consumption. Because even hip hop artists that veer towards Pop Rap in their sound, such as Jani, but are connected to the broader scene in the bottom-left quadrant, are dutifully ignored. It’s almost as if the circles of corporate sponsorship remain blind to artists with audiences in the tens of thousands, for no discernible reason other than their own limited scope.
It’s problematic that young artists like Shareh, Jani, JJ47, aleemrk, Nabeel Akbar, and others are not in real conversations about being featured in corporate shows and sponsorship deals. It’s time the tide changes.