This month, a documentary about Mumbai rapper Divine (a.k.a. Vivian Fernandes), one of the most-streamed Indian independent artists on Spotify, aired not just on Red Bull TV but also Discovery, which reached homes across the subcontinent. “Gully Life: The Story of Divine,” directed by Mumbai-based Akshat Gupt of Supari Studios, is the first of a few documentaries that shine a light on just how much India’s hip-hop scene has grown.
It helps that Divine (and fellow Mumbai rapper Naezy, a.k.a. Naved Shaikh) became recognized names following their participation in the Bollywood hip-hop film movie “Gully Boy,” which came out in February. The film’s director, Zoya Akhtar, and lead actor, Ranveer, Singh are among the first to appear in “Gully Life” to speak about Divine, which places the rapper square in the middle of India’s current pop culture.
With a record label (Gully Gang Entertainment) and his own festival (Gully Fest), Divine’s entrepreneurial streak gives him an edge over contemporaries, and he’s built a strong career even without the world of Bollywood music. “The industry is a jungle and it’s the survival of the fittest,” he says. “If it’s not that, it won’t be fun. That’s what makes life exciting.”
After all, there are plenty of rappers — from Honey Singh to Badshah to Raftaar — famous for their work on Bollywood songs. “Gully Life” touches upon all the relevant names associated with Divine, including the first crew that he was part of, Mumbai’s Finest. Also seen in the documentary are Mumbai-based rappers such as Enkore (who released his album “Bombay Soul” last year), Naezy (who collaborated with Divine on their breakthrough song “Mere Gully Mein”) and Divine’s own Gully Gang crew, including DJ-producer Joel D’Souza (JD), rapper D’Evil and more. Other rising producers include Sez on the Beat, Karan Kanchan, Phenom and Stunnah who integrate elements or samples from traditional Indian music styles without forcing them.
The independent rapper in the same category as Divine and Naezy is Emiway Buntai, a YouTube artist with over 6 million subscribers. Although the flow and lyrics are not drastically different from the Western norm of partying hard and winning over women, Emiway’s recent beef with Raftaar and his 2019 song “Machayenge” are proof of his massive following, with over 340,000 Spotify listeners and a prolific approach to music videos, which shoot past the million mark within a day.
The success of these rappers has made the voice of lower and middle class India much more prominent. Mumbai’s long-standing low-income locality of Dharavi has birthed its own hip-hop culture, from b-boying crews to graffiti artists and multi-lingual rap groups such as Dopeadelicz and 7 Buntaiz, while the city has also birthed one of the most important protest crews in the country, Swadesi. They rap in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and sometimes Gujarati about political exploitation and corruption, including one (“The Warli Revolt”) that results in displacement of the local Warli tribe.
Further north there’s Punjabi rapper Prabh Deep rapping about rampant drug abuse among the youth (“Class-Sikh”) and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, plus Hindi-Haryanvi duo Seedhe Maut’s solid flow, heard on their album “Bayaan.” Both are signed to indie label Azadi Records, which also released Kashmiri rapper Ahmer Javed collaboration with Sez on the Beat, called “Little Kid, Big Dreams.” From the northeast are the hard-hitting bars from Khasi Bloodz and Cryptographik Street Poets, who don’t shy away from taking on the central government’s heavy handed policing and ignorance of the region. And in the south, there’s the affable, slick Brodha V, while MCs rapping in regional languages All OK, Street Academics, Madurai Souljour, Arivu and others.
Yet Mumbai remains the central hub, and Divine and his label are ready. “Right now there must be some guy in his room writing a song that is going to change the game,” he says. “I’m very excited to see what the game is offering.”