Communities targeted by America’s War on Terror enjoy few luxuries—especially when it comes to art. Since 9/11, art from these communities has been deconstructed in search of political meaning, and reinterpreted to appear legible within dominant Euro-American narratives.
Rap occupies a particularly strange space in these re-imagined narratives. In Europe and North America, consumerism and commodification have been guilty of hollowing out the once-radical hip hop movement. Progressive resistance has, however, been resurrected in rap from “over 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.
But depicting hip hop in the Middle East and its environs as “resistance” music downplays a major development: the proliferation of rap music that is local, while simultaneously a product of hip hop culture’s globalization. Instead of defining this music as an extension of Euro-American rap, this approach more effectively situates these artists in an interconnected world. It also accords them the recognition they deserve.
The Origins of the Rap Movement
In Pakistan, the contemporary rap movement grew out of the globalization of commodified American rap. The movement’s early years were defined by the work of American artist Eminem. In fact, his albums, which made up an overwhelming majority of hip hop sold in Pakistani music stores, were central in starting the contemporary Pakistani rap movement.
From the city of Peshawar, Party Wrecker (Mustafa Khan) of the Pukhtoon rap group Fortitude describes his crew’s 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) agrees, “I was eleven years old when I heard 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 several years, Ali was introduced to rap through the movie 8 Mile, which features Eminem and is loosely based on his life. Not knowing who Eminem was, Ali nevertheless discovered the strength of beats over poetry through the American rapper’s work, and began to transform his verses into rhymes.
But if Eminem furnished the art, his productions offered little inspiration to expand hip hop’s linguistic boundaries. In a country where English is a marker of an elitism, the movement’s horizons were understandably narrow. Initially, Pakistani rappers were dismissed as Eminem ki aolad (Eminem’s children), and yo-bache (yo-kids), the latter a caricature of American slang that derided these artists for aping Western culture.
Punjabi Strikes Back
This all changed in February 2006, when the giant international music label Universal Music produced the first commercially backed album of Bay Area Pakistani-American rapper, Bohemia.
A Punjabi Christian, born in Karachi, schooled in Peshawar, and brought up in the working class minority communities of San Francisco, Bohemia’s music emerged from personal experiences, such as seeing his best friend murdered and several others sent to jail. Pesa Nasha Pyar (Money Drugs Love) was Bohemia’s second album. Like many of his peers trying to rap their way out of the ghetto, Bohemia’s music offered little departure content-wise from the glorification of violence, hyper-capitalism, and drug abuse that are the hallmarks of American commercial rap. For example, Kali Denali, one of the album’s most popular tracks, features cocaine and marijuana abuse, and hostility toward the police.
Nevertheless, Bohemia’s music stood out as lyrically groundbreaking: his rhymes and the vast majority of his hooks (choruses) were done in Punjabi.
With Universal’s distribution network, Bohemia found a ready market among Pakistanis, both in the diaspora and in Pakistan itself. With just under half the country speaking Punjabi as its mother tongue, a rapper rhyming in the language dramatically expanded hip hop’s linguistic possibilities, as well as cultural and socio-economic scope, in Pakistan.
Class and linguistic politics dictated the contours of Bohemia’s uptake in Pakistan. The Raj’s mid-nineteenth century replacement of Persian with Urdu as the official language for the northwestern part of the Indian colony combined with the Pakistani state’s own tendency to privilege Urdu over indigenous languages have created a particular dichotomy in the country. The process has marked Urdu with urbanity and sophistication, while relegating Punjabi and other Pakistani languages to crass vernacularism. Although less than ten percent of Pakistanis speak Urdu as their mother tongue, it has been established by the state as a signal of national belonging. It remains the medium of national state broadcasts, the official language of the country (alongside English), and is associated with high literature and culture.
If Urdu is the refined language of power and privilege, Punjabi is the language of the streets—and increasingly, the language of rap. For many middle class youth, Punjabi is not only spoken at home; it is also the language of slang used among friends, and the banter that takes place with fruit-sellers and bus drivers.
Bohemia’s Punjabi rap most strongly resonated with this segment of the population. His lyrics also lent themselves to the growing Punjabiyat (Punjabi-ness) movement in Pakistan, particularly in their hypermasculine narratives. If Eminem was accessible to those Pakistanis who could imagine themselves fashioned in his image, Bohemia was for those rising rappers in the country for whom Eminem was unrelatable .
Until this time, the battle-rap culture in Pakistan tilted in favor of those with a good grasp of English, that is, the socioeconomically privileged. With Bohemia’s introduction of Punjabi, the old English-language scene was no longer the only game in town. Rappers who had written in English with limited success – a vast majority of those that constitute the contemporary rap scene – now found themselves rhyming in the vernacular, drawing upon Punjabi street slang to “diss” with an indigenous punch. Yo-bache became yesterday’s taunt for these emerging hip hop musicians.
Jhelum-based rapper, Kasim Raja, whose Punjabi raps stem from a deeply personal desire to reinvigorate Punjabi identity, provides insight: “I used to visit my cousins in Lahore. In eighth grade, my cousin introduced me to 50 Cent… but it was after I heard Bohemia that I started to think that, actually, rap is a reflection of what is really true.” Billy X, who is among Pakistan’s most popular rappers, similarly highlights the linguistic importance of Punjabi hip hop. An ethnic Pukhtoon who speaks Pashto at home and who used to write his early music in English, Billy now raps in exceptionally colloquial Punjabi, “Because that’s how people speak on the street.”
With lyrics in their native tongue, these new rappers owned their product. Their rhymes found a vocabulary that could more easily represent their own experiences. Jawad from DirtJaw highlights the new cultural space introduced by Punjabi via Bohemia’s music: “I heard Bohemia and realized that rap is not just about bad words for girls and showing off – it is an art form.” Rapping in Punjabi brought new content to Pakistani rap, furnishing a Punjabi idiom that was familiar to the Pakistani experience.
Rap with a Local Flavor
Kasim Raja’s track Black Hoods Black Sheeshay illustrates the increasing salience of indigenous themes to Pakistani hip hop’s creative trajectory. While the track celebrates braggadocio and automotive culture like commercial American rap, its rejection of alcohol is a radical departure from the substance abuse promoted by Eminem and Bohemia himself.
The productions of Shahzad Meer, also known as Rapper Meer Janweri, from the Sindhi city of Thatta provide an especially powerful example of local influences on Pakistani hip hop. Drawing on a history of linguistic nationalism, Shahzad raps exclusively in Sindhi. He explains his motivation: “When you arrive in Thatta, the ricksawallah (rickshaw driver) has an Urdu song playing, maybe a Punjabi song, maybe even an English song, but never a Sindhi song. What has happened to the rich musical tradition of Sindhi?”
Shahzad’s reflections on the ricksawallah’s playlist follow a trajectory of Sindhi language rejuvenation against the Urdu-ization of Pakistan by the state. From Pakistan’s birth, Sindhi’s subordination to Urdu, a politics inaugurated by the country’s formation, was met with immediate and active resistance. Early tensions between Urdu speaking Muhajirs (post-partition migrants from India) and the indigenous Sindhi-speaking population came to a head when the “One Unit” scheme ensured Sindhi would not be officially recognized as a provincial language. Animosity continued despite the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a Sindhi nationalist, as Pakistan’s leader, and led in subsequent decades to violent riots and fatal clashes.
In a national milieu riveted by violence, Shahzad is quick to supplement his ethno-nationalism with pacifism. His track Piyar Jo Siphai takes pains to advocate ethnic harmony. Nevertheless, linguistic revivalism remains the purpose and subject of his art.
Shahzad is sensitive to the porous boundaries of language, and the presence of Urdu words in the Sindhi vocabulary. As a result, his rhymes often retreat into carefully cultivated “pure” Sindhi. “Pakki sindhi – jaise kehte hain juttaan wali Punjabi,” (“Proper Sindhi, just like people say proper ‘true’ Punjabi”.) he says. The phrase, which is rendered in hardcore Sindhi , recalls Jutt Punjabi – a way of speaking Punjabi that is relatively free of Urdu influences.
Shahzad’s rap also attempts to resurrect Sindhi culture. He sees his music as continuing the long Sindhi tradition of Sufi poetry. While other Pakistani rappers, like BillyX, rap about topics deeply taboo in Pakistani society – such as sex and intoxicants – Shahzad seeks to reinvigorate a more traditional subject matter. Even though the medium itself is foreign and modern, Shahzad sees no tension in combining it with old cultural tropes. He likens it to wearing Western dress when going to school; the medium does not compromise the message.
The Cultural Specificity of Pakistani Rap
Shahzad’s deeply indigenous rhymes are not a marginal phenomenon. Entire rap discographies from Pakistan are rooted in, and can be made sense of, only through the country’s national and local cultures. From Karachi, rappers Ali Gul Pir and the Young Stunners crew, illustrate the specificity of the art form.
Pir’s hits caricature such recognizable Pakistani characters as the inappropriate rickshaw driver, the corrupt Pakistani politician, and the son of a Sindhi feudal lord. Fully comprehensible only to those familiar with Karachi’s vernacular, Pir’s feudal lord track was so popular that he was soon rapping the tune on commercials for Pakistani cellular service giant, UFone.
The raps of Young Stunners crew are equally embedded in locality. Twin tracks, both immensely popular, denounce Karachi’s elite and the city’s middle class youth in slang that is barely comprehensible to non-Karachites.
Rap is a local art form in Pakistan. Euro-American narratives that laud Pakistani artists for being progressive and radical must also acknowledge that Pakistani hip hop is a product of the global sale of commodified rap culture. Like their Western counterparts, Pakistani musicians have cultivated an art that is deeply sensitive to their own realities. Far from culturally-appropriate replicas of bygone American rappers, these musicians are creators of an entirely new movement, 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.”