A new indie music label wants to bring voices from India’s slums into the mainstream

Music for everyone.
Music for everyone.
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India has a long tradition of protest music, but you’d never know that if you listened to mainstream indie or hip hop sounds.

For the most part, the country’s favourite musicians steer clear of politics in their work. Some artistes, though, are breaking the mould, using music to attest to their very different experiences of living across India, from the disadvantaged slums of New Delhi to the conflict zones of Kashmir. And it’s these musicians that 24-year-old Uday Kapur wants to support and promote.

The germ of the idea emerged many years ago when Kapur was an undergraduate at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce. While researching for his final year thesis on protest music, Kapur realised there was hardly any documentation of the musical and cultural output of India’s various political movements. So, last month, after working for several years as a music journalist and at digital media management company Only Much Louder, he teamed up with hip hop artist Mo Joshi to establish Azadi Records, a New Delhi-based indie label to help underrepresented Indian artistes break into the mainstream.

“Azadi was basically born from the idea that there are a bunch of artistes who don’t necessarily get the opportunity to contribute to conversations in our cultural landscape,” Kapur told Quartz. He said that many of these artists struggle to gather the kind of attention and support that, for instance, electronic music producers receive, as promoters and venues in India are often wary of the backlash that politically-charged performances can spark. For example, the Kashmiri rapper MC Kash has often faced heavy criticism and even police intimidation at his performances because his lyrics tackle the issues of his conflict-hit home state.

“It kind of seemed like anyone who wanted to make political music had to either change what they were doing…or censor themselves, because there might be a lack of support if trouble came around eventually,” Kapur said.

Beyond getting this kind of political music heard and appreciated more often, Azadi Records also wants to combat the elitism of India’s indie music industry, which echoes the society’s stark class divisions. Some of the hottest music venues across big cities remain out of reach for both musicians and fans from less privileged backgrounds, and it’s not always about the money: Kapur himself has documented how bouncers at the door keep out those that don’t fit their ideal of a paying customer, even at gigs that are supposed to be free.

That’s why Azadi Records represents artistes such as Sun J, a hip hop musician who grew up poor in a Delhi slum. His lyrics describe the life and times of a social segment that most Indians choose to ignore and experiences that are rarely given their due when considering what it means to be Indian today.

Similarly, Prabh Deep and Sez, two other artistes on Azadi Records’ roster, have used hip hop to highlight what it’s like to live in Tilak Nagar, a low-income Delhi neighbourhood battling high unemployment and drugs.

For now, Azadi Records remains self-funded and is, as Kapur says, a very small set-up. But the founders want to turn it into a testament to the diversity of India’s music scene.

“We want to catalogue and document and put together a proper database for all the protest music that’s happened in the country,” Kapur explained. One of the goals, he says, is to make it available for educational institutions, so students learn about a side of India’s cultural history often left out of curricula.

For Kapur, the key point is promoting protest music across the political spectrum, and not just in India alone. The larger plan is to work with artistes from countries across south Asia such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

“If we can have some kind of foothold or contribute to that (regional political) conversation in any way, that will be a big thing,” Kapur said.