All We Can Do Is Search For The Truth

An emerging hip-hop artist from Kashmir talks to us about growing up in curfews, the politics of the land, and finding catharsis in his music

LILA: Thank you for speaking with me in such turbulent times. I would like to begin by talking a little bit about your background. Your uncle, Shaheed Ajaz Ahmed Dar, is known for his fight for human rights in Kashmir. Can you tell me more about your experience growing up? Has your family always been politically active?

Ahmer: I recently had a conversation with my grandfather about the current political scenario in Kashmir, and about everything that has happened in the past. He told me about the time when Sheikh Abdullah, who was the first person to ask for Kashmir’s right to independence, had opposed Hari Singh. He had wanted equal rights for Kashmiri Muslims, who were minorities back then and were suffering a lot. My grandfather told me about the time Sheikh Abdullah was jailed for eleven years because he had spoken against the Maharaja. When he was released from jail, his views had completely changed. He started opposing the things he had once sided with, and people stopped believing whatever he said. It was around that time that my grandfather got into politics. He wanted to speak out against what Abdullah had started saying. However, when my grandfather saw that things were getting ugly, and that politics wasn’t always a righteous path, he regretted ever participating in it, and left. He realised that people in politics were never going to support him because he was just an ordinary man, and only powerful people were backed by other powerful people. After that, nobody from my family wanted to be in politics. My uncle was the one who had advised him to leave in order to avoid becoming a political puppet. He wanted him to find other ways to help the people of Kashmir.

So even though some of my music is political, I don’t consider myself to be politically inclined. I like to focus on the human stories, the daily struggles that a guy like me faces in his neighbourhood. I’d rather talk about the militarisation of some areas in Kashmir, to the extent that we don’t even know if people there are alive or not, because we cannot go there. Politics is something we are dragged into; it’s not something we can escape. If you go to Kashmir, you will see how our own political leaders, from the time of Sheikh Abdullah, have turned Kashmir into what it is – a mess. And right now, being locked up, I’m pretty sure they also regret it, and realise what the common Kashmiri has gone through over all these years, things they’ve never had to face. Right now it is karma, because the people they thought were going to bring them freedom, have put them behind the bars. But this was much needed; this justice had to be done. Politics is a dirty game. Kashmir has always been a political issue. Two countries want the same thing, but it is the place that they want, they don’t care what the people think. It is as simple as that.

LILA: In times like these, when national and State politics is failing the people, often the personal becomes the political. Personal acts like your music or what people wear, or how they behave also becomes a political instrument. What is the sense amongst the youth today about politics, and how can they understand and engage with the circumstances Kashmir has faced through the years?

Ahmer Javed: I say politics is a dirty game because if you compare Kashmir with other states, the attention it gets is not like that which the other states are given. Kashmir is geographically sensitive, and politicians have their eyes on it. Every time something political happens in Kashmir, I feel like it is either in this country’s interest or that country’s interest. Through the 1990s, or even before that, every time there has been an election, there has been a controversy (like the 1987 vote rigging). There have been elections where people didn’t turn up on their own but were forced to turn up at gunpoint. The desire of both countries to ‘have’ Kashmir’s land has been so dangerous, that wars have been fought just for it. It has never been about people.

People never really cared about the elections or whatever this country was trying to do. For instance, you see Narendra Modi in a boat on the Dal Lake, waving at people who are not even there. These stories are clearly dramatised narratives. And this has been possible just because the people of Kashmir did not have access to Internet and information. Sometimes I think about how much fake news and information has been fed to everyone because of this. Just like it is happening right now, with all the stories that are coming out [about the ground reality in Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370]. Everyone has to feel normal about Kashmir, that is the strategy. I feel they don’t want this to be recorded in history books, so they are wiping out all the information that is coming out against the establishment. There are journalists who are getting arrested; they fly in for two days, and are not able to record anything on the phone because it is monitored, so they have to take a pen drive and store it in that. It feels like the end of the world; like we are facing something so powerful that we don’t have control over anything right now. We are powerless.

I talk to a lot of Kashmiris. Right now, all they want is someone who will sincerely represent them. But we have seen how it goes under Governor’s rule. There was Governor’s rule in 1990’s, which divided Kashmiri Pundits from Kashmiri Muslims, and Kashmir got the image of a dangerous place to go to. All these things don’t really happen, but are political constructs. People can’t see it because they have been doing it behind curtains. I feel really bad for people who were made to feel guilty, or were found guilty for no reason at all, and for the people who were misinformed over all these years. Maybe some of them will never know the truth. It is sad to think about these things. Being an admirer of my uncle and the things he did, it’s really sad when you think that his cause will be with us, and Kashmiris will be the only ones who will understand what he stood for. How hard life must have been for him, that he felt the need to pick up arms and fight. To know that he wouldn’t have a normal life anymore; that he wouldn’t get married, even though his family wanted him to, because he didn’t want to ruin another person’s life, knowing that he might die. I don’t know where Kashmiris get the strength to live through and endure these things. It feels normal for a person who just watches news channels and thinks this is all for the good. But for years, Kashmiris have been forced to train themselves to live in curfew for months. They have to prepare themselves with rations because any day a curfew could be announced, and you need to know which shops will remain open somehow, just in case there is an emergency. We are born in all of this, so we deal with it. I haven’t faced shit but there are people whose stories don’t come out, who have faced this everyday, and there is no one to ask them about their lives, and how they feel, how they deal with the stress, the oppression. Armed forces raiding their houses everyday, molesting women, doing whatever the fuck they want because the Kashmiris don’t have power. Their phones don’t work, they can’t do anything about it. How are we going to justify that?

LILA: These are issues you have tried to raise in your music as well. How did you come to choose hip-hop as your medium of expression?

Ahmer Javed: Hip-hop was something that came way before I knew about the conflict. I was in school that time, and hip-hop was sort of an obsession that built over the years. It made me feel like I could escape; that I could take some time out and chill and listen to music and just be happy for some time. With time I got to know about other artists and sub-genres as well. Even as a kid, I related to conscious music the most because of the curfews that used to happen. Though a kid’s concerns usually revolve around going to school and then waiting to come back home and play, with time, the curfews really took a toll on me. I started feeling that this was wrong, and wondered why it was happening. In school we were taught that we are Indians, so as a kid, I used to think I could go to any other State in the country and feel like a part of it, because we were all one. I didn’t care about borders. But with time I was proven wrong. I got to know how things get ugly, and that Kashmir was not like any other State; that it was a completely different game.

So things happened in life and I started to question myself: How much did I know about Kashmir? What do I know about my land? Tomorrow if I have to speak for the people, or about the unrests, do I really know about them? Do I really know about my roots? So I started to do my research and got to know a lot of things that I had no idea about. The hip-hop scene in Kashmir was also growing around the same time. We started with six rappers, but in a month we grew to around 40. That was because of MC Kash (Roshan) who was the first rapper from Kashmir. I don’t think there was any rapper in the country back then that had as much influence as Roshan did. Being a guy who lived in Kashmir, he had people from Al-Jazeera and BBC come and interview him, which was a huge thing for a Kashmiri. Around the time I was thinking about taking up conscious music because I was worried about what was happening in Kashmir, I was introduced to his work. I was much younger than Roshan, and thought I couldn’t do this better than him. As a hip-hop fan, I really wanted him to represent us. I thought he could inform the world about what was happening in Kashmir, and that is what his goal was too (though he was a bit militant minded, and they shut him down). But his goal was always to inform people. Roshan became a figure for me to look up to.

So, in the first few years, I took a decision to put out music that wasn’t conscious. I was just trying to copy whoever I was listening to, to put something out there, thinking that people would listen to me. Three or four people would listen to it and not give a shit about it. Being a Kashmiri, rapping in English, and then using slangs – people in Kashmir could not relate to it, and that turned out to be an epic fail. The thing that pushed me though, was this attitude of not giving up. I just had a feeling that I could make a career out of it. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and it had to be the thing that would help me earn a living and survive. So I thought, why not do reality rap? Talk about real issues, and do conscious music. If I am so in love with a form/medium, why can’t I be truthful with it? Music is something I consider Holy. I can’t lie on a track. Yes, rap musicians brag in their songs, to show strength in their lyrical abilities; that is fine. But I can’t be the guy who boasts about big cars and money, because it’s all lies. I wanted to deviate from the material life and make music that people could listen to and say yes, this guy stood up for something. That is how I connect with music. Even if tomorrow I am under more pressure than I am today, I still won’t compromise on my music, or change the content. It is a relationship that has kept me sane throughout my life.

LILA: As you mentioned, hip-hop has grown exponentially in Kashmir, especially as a means of expressing protest. While people’s words and creative expression can take any form – like poetry, stories, etc. – what do you think it is about hip-hop that attracts people to it, as a means of protest?

Ahmer Javed: Hip-hop is Black music. Black people living in ghettos used this form of rap to protest against not having equal rights in society. But though it is labelled as Black music, I think it is protest music first. That is where its roots are. I feel that Kashmiri people are more into this genre than any other because they can express themselves much better through spoken word.

When I went deeper into hip-hop music, and learnt that it was more about putting across a message, rather than bragging about things, I thought, what if I get an offer from a major commercial label, and they ask me to make the kind of music that they wanted to sell – I would earn money, but would I be happy with what I do? Would it satisfy me? Would I be proud of it? In Kashmir today, as people are becoming familiar with this genre, there are rappers on YouTube who are getting popular by rapping in Punjabi and copying others like Bohemia, etc. I’m not saying that is wrong, or this is right. But it goes to show that hip-hop can be interpreted in many different ways. There is no limit. That is why this genre is very beautiful, because you get to express whatever you want. Unfortunately, if you are too real on a track – for instance if I make a song on Article 370, and speak against the establishment, I am pretty sure if it goes viral, I will be under PSA and be arrested, not because I am making music but because I am a Kashmiri. There has to be more tolerance towards freedom of speech, at least when it comes to music. And as things stand today, with the situation in Kashmir, I think this tolerance also needs to be shown towards the journalists who are simply doing their jobs, and getting arrested in numbers just for speaking the truth. I think this country should at least let people speak up, and protest. There is no harm in non-violent protest, in expressing yourself in a poetic form, or other artistic forms. Faiz Ahmad Faiz has suffered a lot for speaking up. A great artist like him, whom people didn’t understand back then; we are nothing in front of him. How will they understand us?

LILA: I want to also talk about the audience that comes to your gigs. Often these gigs are attended for entertainment purposes, but with the content of your rap, and of others from the label (Azadi Records), how do the audiences react?

Ahmer Javed: I’ll take you back to the time I met Uday Kapur, the co-founder of Azadi Records, for the first time. We had met to finalise our respective roles as they took me on as an artist under their label. Since that very day, Uday was very clear that I had to take my music back to my roots. I had to speak up as a Kashmiri, I had to take pride in it, and most importantly, I had to be truthful with it. He would do the rest.

Conscious music hasn’t been appreciated as much as other forms have been in India. Back when we were kids, the artists who did conscious music got into a lot of trouble. I feel like Azadi had a huge role in bringing back this genre. So, we now have Delhi Sultanate who makes music against lynching that has become rampant in the country; Swadesi who protests against the cutting down of forest in Mumbai, and many more. Azadi in that way is much more about creating conscious, political music, rather than about people coming to gigs and just jumping up and down. I feel like the audience also now knows when it’s time to jump around and dance, and when to be sensitive and feel a track. This has happened naturally, because people who have been following Azadi are getting to know with time what the label is all about. They had never imagined that rappers from Kashmir would join a label one day, in this country. But now they hear us and say “achha, yeh Kashmir ki kahani hai” (ok, this is the story of Kashmir). I saw at Prabhdeep’s EP [extended play] launch, people already knew how to react to different tracks. When I played AKH, they knew it was a track to vibe. They knew about Galat. When I played Roshan’s words, some people recognised him talking about his studio being raided. So I didn’t have to speak a word. Then, when Kasheer came on, people had an idea that this was about Kashmir, and that it was a protest song to vent out all the frustration. So the audience is getting smarter everyday in India. I had never imagined hip-hop would reach where it has in India. It has been a struggle, but now it has a bright future ahead, and it deserves this.

LILA: Hip–Hop really has picked up today, and people are recognising it as any other form of art…

Ahmer Javed: Absolutely! When I pen something down, I don’t care about the meter or the scheme. My goal with my writing is that it should be impactful enough to make me go crazy while writing. I can’t settle for anything basic or generic. I just have to write something that is layered and can make people wonder; make them listen to it over and over again and break it down. Even if they don’t understand it today, I want them to come back to it and draw out new meanings. I feel like Azadi’s goal is the same. No album is released with the idea of making it go viral. Our goal is: five years down the line, people should consider the project a classic. It should have durability.

LILA: When people write so passionately, about subjects that are close to their heart, it is often an exercise to get the weight off their shoulders. But with something like hip-hop, you have to keep coming back into that zone to perform these stories for an entire audience. What does it take to do that?

Ahmer Javed: I’ll tell you about Prabhdeep’s EP launch, which happened on 4th August. Every one there was normal, as they deserved to be. I was the one who was lost and thinking about the next day, about what would happen back home. Family ka stress tha [I was stressed about my family]. One hour before the performance I thought that maybe there will be no tomorrow. I should think about how far I have come. Though many people still don’t know me, there are people back home who look up to me, and think that I am there to represent them. I can’t let them down. So I had to give my all to that performance. I had an inkling that something bad was going to happen, and if it was the revocation of Article 370, then my chances of performing again in such a space were minimal. So I thought let this performance be like a farewell and let me give it my all. Before going on stage my heart was in my throat. I am not the kind of guy who is always confident. I shiver, I feel stressed, I worry about the mic working properly. These are the things that I think about before going on stage. But when I am on stage, I forget about all that. I see the people who have all come to see my performance, and I just have to do my job. Then whatever happens, it comes from the heart, because I don’t know what I’m doing in that moment. I believe a performance shouldn’t be something that is planned or scripted; it should be in the moment. Of course jamming is a must. Otherwise you won’t hit the notes correctly. But most importantly, even if the audiences don’t understand what you are saying, or they don’t like your beats, they should at least feel like you are giving it your all; that you are feeling it completely, venting it out, and your performance is coming straight from the heart.

LILA: There is such a diverse set of emotions that you bring out in your songs. There is something like Elaan, which has an aggressive quality, and then there is something like Uncle, which is more sentimental.We don’t see such variety in too many artists from this genre. Can you tell us a little bit about your EP and how you came to combine such diversity?

Ahmer Javed: Before I say that this was all me, it wasn’t. This album is produced by Sez, and he was equally important in ensuring that the tracks are not repetitive. We wanted the EP to be thematic and go along with the story. Sez was very important in giving it that shape. Before producing or writing anything, we had a long discussion about where we will start and where we wanted to go with the project. Elaan is a track where I talk about my society back home, in Kashmir. Many artists show only one side of the situation there, but I wanted to bring out the other side as well, that many people are afraid to speak about. There are people who have looted us; there are people we are not allowed to question; there is a system that we can’t question. I felt like this was the right time to talk about these things, because people in Kashmir, at least from my generation, would appreciate that someone was speaking up. There is a clear generation gap, and I felt the need to address that.

‘ELAAN’ | Ahmer x Sez On The Beat x Prabh Deep | All Rights Reserved – 2019 Azadi Records

Then Uncle is a track I felt the need to make ever since I got to know about my uncle, and his absence sort of became an obsession – that he stood up for the righteous, and I need to follow that, even though the medium I have chosen is different. I couldn’t do what he did (he didn’t have as many options as I do either). So I always felt that I needed to make a track about what I am going through and what Kashmir is going through. I wanted him to listen to these issues, even though I know he can’t. It was a track to make me realise that he is not there anymore, but that I could connect with him through my music, which is my strength, and let him know that nothing has changed. He is not here to see what is happening anymore. So, it was a message that I wanted to give him. I don’t know, usne seen pe rakha hoga…  [he must’ve seen the message and left it there]
‘Uncle’ | Ahmer x Sez On The Beat | All Rights Reserved – 2019 Azadi Records  

When the album was in the making, Sez and I wanted to raise the bar. We wanted to make an album from Kashmir that people would remember for the rest of their lives. And Azadi never settles for less. So we were on the same page. That, I think, is what made this album what it is. The only thing that I wanted from this album was my message to get across. We wanted to give it back to people of Kashmir and represent Kashmir on the scale that it deserves. In fact, Sez and I wanted it to reach people from other states more than those from Kashmir, because Kashmiris will already know most of these things. But we wanted the message to reach people on the outside; people who don’t realise how volatile or sensitive the situation really is. People are getting to know about it now. Let’s see what happens…

LILA: There is a track called ‘Kasheer’ in your EP which is completely in the Kashmiri language. What is it about?

Ahmer Javed: So Kasheer, which means Kashmir, is basically about the conflict in Kashmir, and the killings that have happened there. The starting lines “Crackdow’nas manz zaamit, curfew manz maraan/ Haqoomat yi haptan hunz, nindrah karaan (We’re born in crackdowns, we die in curfews/Governed by bears, who sleep on us every day).” There are other lines, like “we are not meant to be slaves, you treat us like slaves, we get killed everyday”. “People who do you wrong are the people you elect; the people you have voted for are the ones responsible for the bloodshed.” In the second verse I have talked about the 90’s, since it is considered an infamous time in Kashmir. I just wanted to talk about how back in the 90s, they used to drag the men from the houses and gather them in the playgrounds. The women used to be alone in the houses. They used to check the identity cards of the men, and this used to go on everyday. The BSF could break into your house at 3 am. They didn’t care about how it would affect our lives. They would get a call about suspicious individuals in a house, and they would just break in and destroy stuff, without any worry about the consequences of their intrusion. They would eventually not find anyone there and leave. There is another line that says, “even if we speak the truth, even if we tell the facts, what are they are going to do? They are going to label us as Pakistanis at the end of the day.”

LILA: What was your motivation to write songs in Kashmiri, especially since you wanted them to connect with people from other states also?

Ahmer Javed: At home, I always talk in Kashmiri with everyone. It’s our language, and it comes to us naturally. I don’t feel ashamed about it. When guests come over, some people ask their children to talk in Hindi or Urdu instead of Kashmiri. There is a feeling that if you speak in Kashmiri, it may not come across as very sophisticated. But I never felt that way. My parents used to try to force me the same way, but I always felt that wasn’t right. Even when I tried to rap in Kashmiri back then, people wouldn’t respond well to it. They always thought Kashmiri wasn’t a mainstream language, and it wouldn’t get an audience. Working with Sez, I felt like I had reached a position where I could change that. I could use this language and represent my culture through it. That is when I started to think and write in Kashmiri. What happens is, when a famous person does something, people try to do that too. They want to copy it. But if you don’t have a good grasp over that language, there will be no impact. I wanted to give people the option of rapping in Kashmiri; to show them it was possible, should they chose. This is the language you speak everyday, and therefore have a good hold on. So you should be able to use it. People have stopped speaking it regularly, because of the taboo around it, and so Kashmiri has lost itself. Even when I speak it, it is a mixture of Urdu, Kashmiri, Hindi and English. We are the ones to blame for this, for not appreciating a language that is so beautiful. I felt the language was on the brink of extinction and people who spoke it were subject to comments like they were illiterate, and that’s why they spoke this language. I wanted to save it from that. 

LILA: As you reach out to people outside Kashmir and inform them about everything that’s happening there, how can people respond and help the people of Kashmir today?

Ahmer Javed: I can’t do anything about it being a Kashmiri myself, you know. I don’t expect much from people in the other States. I can’t change the situation, nor fight against it, but all we can do is make people aware, and I am lucky that at least the people in my circle, whether they are in Delhi or Mumbai, or wherever, are doing that. You can’t fight the people who are ignorant, because before considering you human, these people have already judged you as a Hindu or a Muslim. Even with what happened to the Kashmiri Pundits, I don’t know how people can become so cold that they colour a human crisis with such polarity? I cannot blame people for their ignorance either because it is the media that has brainwashed them. I blame those who control us; those you make the army stay in Kashmir and order them to oppress, which even they don’t want to do. There are army guys who tell the locals kab khatam hoga? (when will all this end?) The way everything has been set up, no one can do much. We can only search for and speak the truth, and the rest time will tell. I think everyone will get what they deserve. So that is all we can hope for.

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