Take some Indian mythology and put it to a beat, and you’ll get today’s topic – Hindu rap. Listen to the segment here:
(NB: The tracks are now included in the audio here, due to changed agreements between community broadcasters and the music industry. Yay!) The tracks were ‘Ganesh is Fresh‘ by MC Yogi and ‘Siva Siva‘ by Yogi B and Natchatra.
Rap is effectively words spoken rhythmically, and ostensibly has its roots in Africa. It is often linked with hip-hop however the latter is much broader than rap – developing in New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop became a generic lifestyle or culture, including graffiti, breakdancing, as well as the grooving beats of hip-hop music. Both hip-hop and the style of rap are gaining popularity in India, now being common features of Bollywood films.
MC Yogi is not Indian, however – he is a Californian yoga instructor, “a working class mystic,” who draws on a huge range of influences to engender a spiritual experience through his music. He reads the Bhagavad Gita daily, apparently, and his music is deemed to be “devotional music.” In his own words, “it’s a sonic trip, a journey toward the self, toward what yoga masters call the Supreme Soul.” Yoga (etymologically related to the English ‘yoke’) means more in Hinduism than it does in the West. A yoga is a discipline, a path to the divine – and the physical, stretches-and-exercises-type yoga that we know of draws on only one such path. Thus MC Yogi can say that his goal is “a full, authentic, transformative yoga experience … on the dance floor.”
Others are also trying to spread their messages using rap, such as Yogi B & Natchatra. They are Malaysians of Tamil descent, and are leading figures in the Tamil rap scene. They sing in multiple languages, including English, and their outfit is not overtly religious. The track we played, however, certainly is: it takes the form of a long prayer, effectively, singing the praises of a number of Hindu gods. The song focuses on a certain depiction of Shiva called Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (shown above). Through his dancing Shiva is attributed the power to both destroy and create the world. Quite an appropriate god to dance to, then?
Some Hindus disagree. While there is no worldwide, official institution of Hinduism, there are obviously people who are more conservative than others. On one site, Hindus were responding to tracks like these, saying rap was “more suited for a political statement” than praising the gods; one commenter even suggested that Hindu rap was a “desecration of the divine.” It is interesting that a style of music is accredited such symbolic power, the ability to make the sacred profane, to reduce the glory of the gods to such a degree; while others, like the artists, clearly see no issue here, and see their music styles as their own ways to glorify the divine and spread their message. It is impossible to make blanket statements about religions. As confusing as it is, attention must be paid to individual contexts, and the ways that individuals contest the meanings of the symbols they use on a daily basis.
We’re off to Japan again next week to chat about Zen and its influence on certain jazz artists. Namaste!