In these past few years, India has found itself grappling with socio-political crises never seen before. With a right-wing government determined to squash dissenting voices, art is becoming increasingly political. Be it music produced by a well structured industry or a budding artist aiming for change; music around us is becoming overtly political. A commercial industry like Bollywood has often shied from challenging the status quo but with the recent success of Zoya Akhtar-directed Gully Boy, cultural activism has started to become mainstream. Not only did the film receive several awards but it also revealed an underlying fact that the young generation cannot be kept quiet. If you ask them to shut up, they will turn their words into notes and tunes. Bop to it or turn it off, that’s your choice.
Music unlike our usual corporate professions guarantees much more freedom and agency which naturally draws in those on the margins of a society. In the case of patriarchal India, women from different socio-economic backgrounds are increasingly finding their voice through music. While India continues to ask its women to stay mute, here’s looking at musicians who are doing the complete opposite.
1. Pragya Pallavi
In 2019, Pragya Pallavi created history by releasing the first LGBTQ+ themed album titled ‘Queerism’ right after the decriminalisation of Section 377. An openly queer artist, Pallavi identifies as a gender fluid lesbian who is excelling in multiple crafts at once. Trained as a Hindustani vocalist, Pallavi is an avid fan of Jazz, R&B, Sufi and folk music and has created a satisfying blend of these genres in their album. The LP ‘Lingering Wine’ is a sensual jazz influenced song portraying two women in a same-sex relationship.
Pallavi’s music is distinct not only because of its choice of themes but also the difficult yet smooth blend of both Indian and western genres. ‘Queerism’ is a treat for the LGBTQ+ folks in India and a milestone that will inspire various other artists to come forward with their stories in the coming future.
2. Ginni Mahi
Hailing from the small town of Jalandhar, Ginni Mahi is a Punjabi folk, rap and hip-hop singer. She took to singing when she was seven and has since gone on to garner unprecedented popularity on YouTube as well as in her community. Her single ‘Danger Chamar’ released in 2015, portrays her flaunting her caste with jeeps and muscled men in the background.
The song is powerful and the music video visually stunning. According to Mahi, this song was made in response to one of her college mates asking about her caste, thus an attempt by Mahi to highlight the ever present caste system in India. She continues to make songs that provide a hard-hitting commentary of our caste system and wishes to sing as a playback singer in Bollywood in the future.
3. Meri Zindagi
India’s first all-women rock band, Meri Zindagi is raising awareness on a spectrum of issues through their songs. Based out of Lucknow, the group’s journey to recognition hasn’t been easy. After facing a lack of resources, using bowls and spoons as substitutes for instruments, the group is now the first all-women rock band in Uttar Pradesh that makes music about social evils like female foeticide, child marriage, female education, domestic violence and gender inequality.
Since 2010, the group has released two albums and has performed over 150 shows. Over the time, they have received invitations from organisations like the State unit of Mahila Samakhya, UNICEF, BBC Media Action, Breakthrough, and WaterAid India.
4. Sofia Ashraf
An Indian rapper and singer, Ashraf has time and again made songs calling out corporations and the environmental damage they do neglecting their social responsibility. In 2008, her song ‘Don’t Work for Dow’ criticises DOW’s failure to compensate victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in India. Ashraf doesn’t mince words when it comes to exposing the ones with power.
In another of her 2015 hit ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’, she addressed mercury pollution in Kodaikanal from a thermometer factory owned by Unilever. The song went viral forcing Unilever to release a statement on the issue. Apart from rap songs, Ashraf has also sung for the movie ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ and Tamil movie ‘Maryan’ under A.R Rahman.
5. Dee Mc
Deepa Unnikrishnan popularly known as Dee Mc has been making waves in the Indian hip-hop scene for a while now. A self taugh hip-hop artist, she aims to dismantle patriarchy through her music. A genre that is heavily male dominated, Unnikrishnan has not only managed to enter in the scene but also make a reputable place for herself. It was at 19 when she began writing lyrics and taking a keen interest in music. Her seven-track album, Dee=MC2 covers a range of topics, for instance the song ‘Rang’ talking about skin prejudice to others discussing our country’s sensitive socio-political climate.
Similar to many of her contemporaries, her journey to fame hasn’t been easy. Till today her parents are reluctant to embrace her career. After surmounting these initial road bumps, Dee Mc has now made a name for herself in the industry and continues to make hard-hitting music.
This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to this list are welcome in the comments section.