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49 years of Hip Hop: Sikkim Scene, Beyond Drugs and Violence

On August 11, 1973, with nothing but a pair of speakers, two turntables and a crate of banging records, founding father Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, threw a back-to-school jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York.

He helped create a historical moment that singlehandedly produced the culture-shifting genre the world has grown to love today. During his set, he decided to do something different. Instead of playing the songs in full, he played only their instrumental sections, or “breaks”, sections where he noticed the crowd went wild. During these “breaks” his friend Coke La Rock hyped up the crowd with a microphone; with that, Hip Hop was born.

In the beginning, the house of Hip Hop was built with five foundational elements – MCing, DJing, Breakdance, Graffiti, and Knowledge.

These elements were the pillars that ushered Hip Hop into the 21st century. Hip Hop as a cultural phenomenon, using these elements was formulated by DJ Afrika Bambaataa of the hip-hop collective, Zulu Nation.

The elements of Hip Hop are:

DJing (aural) – A newfound manipulation of sounds that was used to create music. The innovative breaks and isolation of the percussive beat was what gave hip-hop its initial rise. Kool DJ Herc, who created hip-hop in the 1970’s, started this new form of music. In the early days, the DJs were the stars and later rappers such as Kurtis Blow and Grand Master Flash with their ingenious rhymes gained prominence in the spotlight.

MCing (oral) – Manifested from the social conditions of African Americans at the time. This form of poetic and “verbal acrobatics” was derived from ancient African culture and oral tradition. Also known as “rapping” this element removed the veil that isolated the wider culture from the social conditions of many underserved urban communities. The rapid-fire wordplay, spoke the truth of stories that weren’t being told and gave rise to a new urban narrative.

Breakdance (physical) – Groups such as Shaka Zulu Kings, Zulu Queens and the Rock Steady Crew gave rise to B-Boying/B-Girling. Breaking can be described as “poetry in motion”. Its acrobatics style with influences of gymnastics, Capoeira, martial arts and other cultural influences speaks to the innovative wave ushered in by hip hop culture. Breaking has also officially been included in the Olympics, making its debut in 2024 Olympics.

Graffiti (visual) – This is one of the most controversial of the elements. As most graffiti artist leave their artwork in public places and “tag” it by leaving their names. TAKI 183, made this form of artistic representation famous and in neighbourhoods such as Wynwood, Little Haiti and Opa-locka; we can see this art form’s widespread integration with bursts of energy and vibrancy on buildings throughout the cities.

Knowledge (mental) – This element is the thread that weaves all the other elements together. “Knowledge of self” refers to the Afro-diasporic mix of spiritual and political consciousness designed to empower members of oppressed groups” according Travis Gosa in his book entitled The Fifth Element of Hip Hop: Knowledge.  This quote merges with the vision that Bambaataa had of hip-hop as a force for social change.  Bambaataa states that “America has systematized our minds to be into materialism”, but instead of buying into this notion, we should think about how we can give back to our communities.

Hip Hop has continued to fight for recognition since its infancy. The United States’ Senate chambers made a historical decision on July 29 2021 when they passed a resolution, S.Res.331, recognizing August 11 as the national Hip Hop Celebration Day in the United States.

To top the decision of August 11 serving as Hip Hop Celebration Day, S.Res.331 officially designates August as Hip-Hop Celebration Month and November as Hip-Hop History Month in which November 21 serves as the Hip-Hop History month. The vote was passed with unanimous consent.

The history behind Hip Hop as a movement and a culture is filled with stories of bloody violence, stories of hardships, stories of struggle, and stories of courage. The US Senate’s decision to designate two months in Hip-Hop’s name shows that it does bring people together, let alone the Senators, in a unanimous agreement that Hip-Hop makes you feel good.

49 years of Hip Hop; what kind of an impression has it made in Sikkim. Artists from the field explain

August 11 2022 marks the 49th birth anniversary of Hip-Hop, and in these 49 years the culture has spread like wildfire and we can see the cultural implications of Hip-Hop in Sikkim. Little kids can be seen rapping, or beatboxing, or breakdancing to Hip-Hop tunes in the state, even if there is little knowledge about the culture and history of Hip-Hop.

This is a well-known fact that Sikkim has been plagued with mental health issues, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, youths opting for violence, and youths opting to take steps in the world of crime, the social evils that plague the youth in Sikkim and all around the world are endless. However, many Hip-Hop artists and communities that belong to different elements of Hip Hop have said that the culture has helped these artists distance themselves from the anti-social elements that plague society.

Sikkim Chronicle spoke with some of these artists from Sikkim who have created an ecosystem for the sustenance of this culture in the state, and how the culture has given back by helping them get off drugs, crime, violence, and even helped them cope up with family issues.

Suman Younghang of BRSTP Dance Crew, of the first Hip-Hop Dance Crews in Sikkim says, “We started doing Hip Hop dance before even knowing what it was. We saw movies like Step Up, Stomp the Yard, Battle of The Year, and shows like Legion pf Extraordinary Dancers, America’s Best Dance Crew, and events like Red Bull BC One, which showed us that people like us were doing crazy stuff with their bodies. It was a time when we were teenagers and we were getting influenced by all kinds of things.”

The group has involved in many charities, have been endorsing the “say no to drugs” narrative for 12 years in Sikkim and have spawned studios like Upside Down in Himachal Pradesh and Legion of Love in Namchi and Gangtok. Their main focus is to spread the Hip Hop culture and its positives to youngsters.

“We were getting influenced by all kinds of cultures that came in the form of music, Punk, Rock, RnB, Rap, etc., and we liked things that were said to be cool, but all of us friends who formed the dance group were mainly influenced by the dance group known as the Jabbawockeez, who just wore white masks and danced like gods. They also endorsed peace and love and always professed “no drugs” policy which we then made our goal.” Younghang adds.

He further adds, “it is easy to give into drugs, to violence and all the vulgarity that the mainstream media shows but to be disciplined, to show love, to battle instead of fighting, and to acting like gangsters, to sweat instead of drinking and smoking, to talk about your dreams instead of tripping on drugs, and to talk about building a community of positive progress instead of fighting is the way forward.”

Similarly, Anish Mukhia, a Graffitti artist from Sikkim says, “people still don’t know what Hip Hop actually is, what the elements of it are, how it came to be in the mainstream out of so much struggle and adversities. I have worked in many cities in India for the most part and what I have seen throughout my travels is that, as a graffiti artist, there is always a risk of being called vandalisers instead of artists.”

Talking about what graffiti means and how he started it, he says, “art is art, whether you draw on canvases that sell for millions or on dirty walls that earns you jail-time, it is a way of expressing and it is addictive. One you start expressing your innermost angst it is that, just art. In Sikkim I love that artist are given projects of beautification and you can see that on the walls, you can see them on flyovers in MG Marg and the best ones are in the Roll House alleyway, but then again, graffiti artists have no clue about it and the ones that get the projects are mostly in favour of the authorities and political parties.”

He adds, “there are many graffiti artists who first make their art in small memo pads and drawing books but never get a wall where they can throw up their art. If you see the work in Kolkata, you can see that there are never works that promote violence but work that has meaning, works that endorse feminism, gender equality, peace and love. However, in Sikkim, youngsters are mostly into the flex culture, showing their money and worth but that is not art, it is just hedonism.”

“I want to tell all the newbies getting into any element of Hip-Hop to first learn about the history, the culture and the sacrifices that the founders made so it can be reveled in the mainstream.” He concludes.

Puja Gurung, the managing director of Legion of Love, a small community of about 20 Hip Hop and street dancers in Sikkim says, “I have been teaching dance since I graduated college and have just recently got into Hip Hop, and after travelling out to see battles and showcases and to take classes, after taking online workshops and after exploring the culture in India and after learning about it from the people abroad, I have learned that what we used to think about it was wrong.”

“I used to think that Hip-Hop was a culture of thugs who wore loose clothes, and of criminals who always had guns hanging by their big pants. After learning about the history, the sacrifices, and the atrocities the founders faced to bring Hip Hop to where it is today, I think it is safe to say that it is a culture of love and not what people think it is.”

“I would want to suggest the youngsters to stay away from the bad elements and focus on what will bring them peace, health, and love.” She adds.

Sudarshan Rai, also known as SR, is one of the most prominent rappers from Sikkim, who started rapping since he was in the seventh standard. A dancer at his core, after he got an ipod as a gift from his father, he went to a local cyber-café to upload music into his ipod where he first heard the song “Run This Town” by Jay-Z, Rihanna and Ye, after which he developed a taste for the genre, and as time passed, he started listening more and then writing the lyrics down. Never knowing that he would ever be a rapper, he kept on going on listening to artists like Eminem whom he found as one of the inspirations, and then getting into rap battles, and in due time he became SR the rapper, someone who has gained many viewers and listeners of his work.

He says, “I used to dance since I was a kid and the music that I got interested in, Hip Hop, helped me in that as well. I started rapping just for the fun of it, and never knew that I’d ever rap on stages, and studios, let alone get paid for it. In due time as I was rapping for fun, my peers and close ones started telling me to write more and that I had substance.”

“I started connecting more to it and started understanding Hip Hop, I started researching and gaining knowledge. I have spent 12 years now in the rap game, and when it all clicked was when I started understanding it, I was like, ‘dang!’ I can use this to tell my truths, to express and to do something substantial.” He adds.

“Hip-Hop became like freedom to me, I could say what I felt, stuff that I could not tell anyone, things that were deep buried in me. Hip Hop is freedom for me, I can say whatever I want to in my songs, I can be me, it keeps me creative, and I earn from it at the present moment. It has become my truth and my lifestyle, the way I write, walk, and talk, it has all become Hip Hop, it is my lifestyle and my personality.” He further adds.

Talking about the negative influences of Hip Hop that breeds, drugs, gang violence, hate, vulgarity and objectification SR says, “Rap started as a rebellion, it was a music of the rebels, the way Afro-Americans (who are the founders of the culture) were discriminated. It was a music against racism and cultural discrimination, and I think the people in Sikkim and people who aren’t from the core culture have misunderstood it.”

SR shares, about how in Sikkim there still is a misconception of the Hip-Hop culture, even amongst artists that causes artists to slip up into the dark side portrayed in the truths of countries like the US where people of colour (PoC) have been subject to inhumane conditions, be it slavery or racial profiling, or supplying drugs to minority neighbourhoods, and how they spoke their truths using Hip Hop, and how the same lyrics and the same lifestyle doesn’t necessarily apply in Sikkim.

“People in America sang “screw the police” because the police were discriminatory against black people and there was racial violence, the way minorities got into drugs and were brainwashed to revel in the bad elements like gang violence, crime etc. They started the rap scene and all the strong lyrics to protest against it and to tell their truths, but I think that has brought about negative influence, but I think the more you know about it the more knowledge you have the more it will help you understand the positives to it,” he adds.

“They are giving us their reality and some of us have misunderstood it. We should tell our truths with Hip-Hop not live other people’s lives. Hip Hop has evolved as we all can see, the way Old School and New School has separated, in earlier days it was hardcore and now it has created so many sub genres in itself, just talking about rap, we have, Trap Hip Hop, Drill Rap, Mumble Rap, RnB Rap etc.”

In my perspective I think that the rap styles and videos that showcase fun, party scenes, booze, sex etc., have been getting more exposure than the ones that hold real meaning. I am not saying that it should be totally discarded because more genres there are the more horizons to explore but in Sikkim, I guess the way forward is to tell our truths rather than flexing artificial stuff.

The drugs, the violence, the sex and the objectification is just a small part of Hip Hop, it is way more than that, there is a bigger side that is positive and spreads positive messages. The way mainstream Hip Hop (or commercial Hip Hop) has influenced people here, and the youngsters who are so impressionable take the wrong things to it, again just a portion from so many who take all of the things in from Hip Hop.” He says, talking about both sides on the influence of Hip Hop.

Speaking about the way forward for rappers in Sikkim and talking about how to address things like drug abuse, violence, and objectification he says, “I think people here should be authentic to themselves, not to just take in one side of it because evolution is inevitable and it is something an artist should understand by themselves”

“The way forward is that artists like us should be conscious now about what messages we are sharing to the masses, and the message should be of positivity and not all the negatives that only bring distress to the individual, community and the society.” He concludes.

Manish Rasaily, a Hip-Hop producer, and founder of the group called Rusty Crowns, an independent record label and a collective of rappers from Gangtok, shares how the group came to be, “we started this in 2017-18 when me, rappers Ocean, UC, Frenzy etc., came together never intending it to form as a group, but started doing our own work and came together to give it a name, Rusty Crowns.”

Talking about the scene in Sikkim and the struggles that Hip Hoppers have to face, Rasaily says, “It is common knowledge that this artform isn’t really prioritized in the state, but with strides that many have put it is evidently growing, slowly and steadily. Looking at the scene now, we can see many producers all over the state, when in the past there were hardly 2 or 3 producers who didn’t even produce Hip Hop but produced music pertaining to the Sikkimese culture, gospels, traditional music etc. Hip-Hop producers were rare when we first started.”

He adds, “we can see now that producers and artists in Hip Hop have doubled and tripled and that shows growth, but we should be wary enough to use these talents in a proper way in the future so the scene gets spread more and so that an industry itself can be created in Sikkim.”

Talking about propagating positivity, he further adds, “the main thing is that the artists should be able to get the message of positivity, and the concept of Hip Hop, not just the negative but all of it. Looking at Sikkim, the concept is going like more you flex, the more audience you garner.”

He says, “In Sikkim, even the artists who have just worked here and made a name in the state but have not really gone anywhere out to make a name have a tendency to think of themselves more than what they really are, I am not saying one should beat themselves down but they should be wary of reality.”

“There’s a concept that the budding artists hold, apart from the artists who have been doing it for long and who do it for the love of Hip Hop, but the budding artists hold a concept that only art that sells violence, block stuff, drugs, and sex becomes famous, which is not true, even meaningful art blows up,” he shares pointing out the perspective of Sikkimese Hip Hop artists.

It is not just artists like V-Ten, who are flexing, abusing, and professing all the wrong things but are garnering audiences, they are in the limelight to people who think that to attract audience one has to go about and do “tamasha”, then there are artists like Dong who makes real authentic music that attracts real Hip Hop lovers.” Rasaily shares striking differences between flexing artists and artists who create songs that speak truth.

“We are artists and we are a medium that deal with masses and we share messages, so for the way forward, the message that we share should be positive as per my viewpoint, that we should be talking more about enlightening, about education (of academics, art and survival). Artists who are already working to bring Hip Hop forward are paving path and I think that path should be paved with positivity.” He adds.

Another budding producer from South Sikkim, Dawa Tamang also known as “voxonthebeats”, the founder of DaThrob Music, an independent record label, who has been producing since 2013 but has been working since a couple of years with the label speaks to Sikkim Chronicle on how he sees the culture and what he faces as a producer.

“Working with Hip Hop artists in Sikkim, you can always see who the cream of the crop are, even if all of them have potential, there’s always a matter of skills and hard work in it. When we created a song “Khoya ho” with established rappers like ‘V-Freak’ and ‘Mistake’ from Namchi we pulled in some new youngsters who were all about flexing and drugs in their lyrics, we let them slide thinking it’s just lyrics,” Dawa shares.

Dawa strikes the line between artists in Sikkim who really want to go forward, artists who have potential but there are also those who just come into the Hip Hop scene looking for the bad elements in Hip-Hop, the elements that are mistaken for being “cool”. He says, “I’ve worked with many newbies in the game and there are the lot who come in do their work, record amazing work and then leave for their jobs. Artist like ‘Mistake’ who works as a delivery boy, he comes to the studio in his off time does his work diligently and then leaves for his job.”

He adds, “Then there are some of those who we pulled in, but all I see them do is bunk school and make Marijuana their life. I always have told the artists I work with that this (negative) stuff isn’t Hip Hop and they need to work on their skills, they need to keep writing, keep recording so it’ll be helpful if they connect with good producers, and that working hard instead of passing their time in all the negatives is the only way to achieve something.”

Sonu Chauhan, a BBoy (Breaker or Breakdancer), from one of the oldest Hip Hop dance groups, “Funky Hop Crew”, who has just dropped his rap videos after his transition to rapping says, “The first time we (him and his crew-mates) saw some older kids freestyling (doing stunts, street styles and BBoy moves) at Gangtok, it shook us to the core, and we found it amazing. So, we decided to practice Hip Hop dancing, so we formed the crew after meeting Sonam Leno (now a prominent Sikkimese Beatboxer and Hip-Hop music producer) and Dinay Sunar (multiple contests and award winning dancer from the state), who are the founders of the crew.

After dancing, doing shows in and out of the state and being young boys for a while, reality settled and Sonu decided to move to Qatar to work, his dancing had taken a halt and that is when he found Hip Hop music, “After I came abroad to work, I did dance but it was not the same without the crew and we all had to pay the bills, so we all drifted to our own ways. It is when I started listening to more and more rap and my focus went there. I thought to myself, why can’t I do this as well?”

“I decided to come back and make my art here in my streets, I wanted to make art and do what I love. I started writing my own songs and have collected quite a few songs now, one of which I have recently dropped on YouTube.” He adds.

Talking about how in Sikkimese artists who slip up and make excuses to go into the negative elements knowing it isn’t what the culture is about, he says, “In Sikkim there are many who come into Hip-Hop, be they from any element of Hip-Hop, they say that there isn’t any platform in Sikkim, there is no support in Sikkim for Hip-Hop and then they dive into negative elements.”

“If you want to do something then you have to manifest it, you have to work towards giving your own self a platform, because in today’s date if you are good enough, you get recognized and if you are not, you have to work harder and give yourself that platform.

This is how I have seen artists slip up into drugs and depression, they know that doing it is bad and that overthinking about it instead of practicing what you love, which will probably give you peace, is bad and that doing drugs is bad for you but they still do it. It is up to each one of us to decide what is right or wrong” he adds.

Similarly, Bishnu Rai a BBoy from Rhenock, one of the founders of the BBoy group “The Mindfreak Crew” who have been practicing their art and performing all around the state and outside, since 2017, shares his inputs on the Hip Hop scene in Sikkim.

“I feel Hip Hop is peace and practicing it gives me positive vibes. When I practice (Breaking) I can say that it can send people in a trance while doing it. If we take Hip Hop (any element, in his case, breaking) as a game we can see our progress from level one to level ten,” he says comparing his art to the levelling up in the game MLBB.

“To the youngsters who don’t know about Hip Hop, who just see the “fun” and the “cool” sides often confusing negative elements in it. Hip Hop has its own elements, and every element has its own way, Hip Hop has discipline and respect towards its art-forms (elements of Hip Hop).”

It is evident with the testimonies of all these artists in Sikkim that they know Hip Hop has stamped a bad influence on the youth of Sikkim, most of them who are artistically inclined towards the culture. However, it is strongly suggested by all of them to know about the history and the cultural background of Hip Hop before labelling it as negative or vulgar, as it is also equally evident that all of those who really love Hip Hop have a tendency to profess peace, love, respect, hard work and discipline, which are the basic requirements to be a great Hip Hopper.

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