Feyago — the independent rap artist from Kolkata — is on a mission.
The over-100-concerts-old musician wants to take folk rap in India to the next level.
With that aim in mind, Feyago is hosting a new web series called Hip Hop Homeland North East which takes viewers to the seven sister states and explores the hip hop scene there.
No one could be better suited than Feyago to the task: The rapper has won honours like the VH1 Soundnation Award for which, he defeated several heavyweights from Detroit and Brooklyn.
The producer, director, rapper, and now series host, talked to Firstpost about his inspirations, struggle to be heard, and the future of rap in India:
Feyago, how did you start your career as a hip hop artist?
I was studying in the UK but then decided to drop out of university to pursue music. I moved back to Kolkata, my home town, for a fresh start. I was lucky to have a good response at the very first gig I performed at.
What makes the hip hop scene in the Northeast so different from the rest of the country?
Hip hop started off as a moment in the late '70s in America as an outlet to sing about the oppression the African-American community was facing there. The Northeast in India faces a similar state of oppression. It is invisible to the media so we do need people to talk about these things. There are so many stories to be told, things that need to be said, so many things to be rapped about. The social and political oppression that these people face here is amazing.
There are two reasons why rap music is so popular here:
As I mentioned before, to talk about the social and political oppression that these people face. Rap and hip hop have historically been used as tools to talk about oppression. The political climate is such that if you are not rich, you are completely forgotten. The people don't know how to demand their rights, it's not anything like mainland India.
The other reason is — and I am not saying this because I grew up in Darjeeling — is that people here (in the Northeast) love music. It's not like mainland India, where I would have to introduce each song and cover before I perform it on stage. I have done more than 100 shows, if you also count Nepal and Bhutan. The people there just know music. They know their beats and rhythms.Especially the music scene in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Shillong is really advanced.
When I did the Ziro Music Festival last year, I used to stay next to a little girl who used to live in a thatched hut. She could barely afford to go to school, but here she was listening to Imagine Dragons, Will.I.Am and Lorde. I think one of the reasons is that these people are more musically inclined is that they are more in tune with Korea as compared to the rest of India.
What are your impressions of the musical talent from the Northeast?
Though the musicians here might be talented and they might be fond of music, there is no value for their art. It's not like Mumbai, art here is not expensive [sic]. But there are people who are extremely passionate about the music they are making. These kids who are rapping and making hip hop music are real kids who work for a living. They are not the sort who are really well-off and are playing at NH7 because they convinced their parents to buy them a drum set or a guitar.
I know one kid who actually makes sandwiches for a living and practises his rap songs in his free time. They are talented people but the exposure is really low. In Hip Hop Homeland, we try to bring out their stories and shine the spotlight on them.
What do you think about Bollywood's influence on the rap scene in India?
The problem with mainstream Bollywood is that you need to come up with content that caters to someone driving a Porsche and someone who is driving a bullock cart. You need to sort of dumb it down and make it generic.
The other thing about Bollywood is we don't have anything contemporary to show the world. The state of rap in India is very embarrassing because people here pick up on that stereotypical image of long t-shirts and reverse caps. India lacks in having music with the 'cool' contemporary factor. Everybody wants to be rapper these days.
You mean the dance music that passes for rap these days? A la Honey Singh or Badshah?
The thing is, Honey Singh is a very talented person and if he was allowed to write his own songs, he would have gone the distance, but the problem here is they bring in other writers and he is just a puppet. I think he needed to happen so everyone knows what hip hop is. The reason I can now say I am a folk rapper is because Honey Singh has put rap out there. People care about rap in India because of the likes of him.
He is essentially like the corny Ramsey brother horror movies of the '70s. Those movies needed to happen so that people can open up to the genre of horror and pave the way for better horror movies that we are seeing right now. I think that's how people will open up to the idea of rap. Rap is in its nascent stage and people are just getting to know more about it. There is a long way to go till rap is popular in India.
What about the underground rap scene in India?
While mainstream rap is not very popular, the underground scene is slowly gaining momentum. There are kids engaging in rap battles on the internet, in clubs and even in the streets. These kids know their rap gods and follow them passionately because of the exposure they get on the internet. It's nice that people want to produce real honest content by embracing their own style. Like I'm trying to bring folk rap into prominence.
Tell us more about folk rap.
The genre of rap that I am doing is called folk rap. I'm a producer too, and I'm trying to make music that uses a lot of traditional instruments. Sadly music production here is not very popular either. The music used for rap has very generic beats and sounds like any other music beat.
I get my inspiration from Bob Dylan and old school jazz music for folk rap.
I'm trying to use instruments like the sitar, tabla to produce this music. Also, I'm trying to use instruments like ektara and dotara, and collaborating with Bengali folk singers to produce new sounds. Many of my new songs also have this instrument called the theremin. What I am trying to do, along with touring the country for concerts, is look for new instruments to blend with the music I am making.
After winning the VH1 Soundation Award, you must have been flooded with offers from mainstream production houses?
Yes, there were offers from various entertainment groups but why would you want to take up a Korean track and produce the same in Hindi? I would rather let my content be real. I've survived as an independent artist for so long, and I'm fine with it. You have to have some integrity towards what you do, right?
On that note, here's Feyago's song featuring the haunting vocals of Pema Deki: