Ahmer Javed was troubled as he stepped on to a cramped little stage in New Delhi on 4 August 2019. For the past week, the 24-year-old rapper’s home state of Jammu and Kashmir had been under a security clampdown, with the Indian government deploying an additional 35,000 paramilitary troops to what was already one of the most militarised zones in the world.
Something big was going down. Social media was abuzz with rumours that the Narendra Modi-led BJP government was going to fulfill its poll promise of revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed special status to Jammu and Kashmir. That controversial law was the basis of the state’s uneasy accession to India in 1947. Its revocation was likely to lead to a backlash in the state.
Sitting in Delhi – where he was working on a music video – Javed had been stewing in anxiety about his family back home. That evening, he let it all out. In between songs, he opened up to his audience about his fears, urging them to pay attention to what was going on in Kashmir.
After the set, he stepped off stage and checked his phone, to find a series of missed calls from his brother. “I called him back, and my Dad told me that they're going to shut down everything,” he remembers, when we talk on the phone a month later. He’s been in Kashmir, cut off from the rest of the country for most of the intervening time. “The next morning, I woke up to a text from a Kashmiri friend in Delhi, saying, ‘They've done it’. I couldn't believe it.”
In the early hours of 5 August, the Indian government imposed a total communications blackout on Kashmir – no phones, no internet, not even regular mail could get through. Curfew was imposed throughout the state. By the time the government announced the abrogation of Article 370 – and the splitting of the state into two federally administered union territories – the lockdown was complete. In the debate that followed, raging across TV studios, newsprint and social media, there were no voices from Kashmir.
Feeling unsafe and uncomfortable in his adopted home, where people were celebrating the move on the streets, Javed left for Srinagar two days later. As he made his way home from the airport, negotiating checkpoint after checkpoint, the city reminded him of a ghost town.
“It felt post-apocalyptic,” he says. “And it was really scary, because I'd never seen Kashmir under such a big lockdown in all these years. I just had this feeling that this is it, this is the end. It still feels like it's the end of our legacy, our struggle, our identity. The end of Kashmir.”
The son of a local businessman, Javed grew up in Rajbagh, an affluent neighbourhood on the banks of the Jhelum river. The political strife that simmered across the city rarely intruded on his childhood. There would be the occasional curfew, and sometimes his parents would huddle in the corner of the room and whisper about “army actions”. Other than that, life was ‘normal’. The biggest problem he faced was getting into trouble at school for daydreaming. But when he was 13, an incident involving his brother came as a rude awakening.
It still feels like it's the end of our legacy, our struggle, our identity. The end of Kashmir. Ahmer Javed
“During curfew, they let you leave the home for one or two hours so you can buy essentials,” he remembers. “One day my brother had gone out with our driver to get milk, when he was stopped by the security forces. They accused him of being a stone-thrower, and forced him to chant ‘bharat mata ki jai’ (long live Mother India). He did it, but they started beating him with a stick.”
Javed’s brother was beaten for 10 minutes, until his family and neighbours reached the spot and rescued the teenage boy. “My mother was crying in the lobby at home, she was worried they’d kill him,” he remembers, the scene still vivid in his mind. “I couldn’t understand what was going on, and I was terrified. My knees were shivering.”
It was around the same time that Javed was introduced to rap through 50 Cent’s global hit In Da Club. Initially drawn in by the macho posturing and flashy music videos of early 2000s gangsta rap, he began to dig deep into the history of the art form. Hip-hop’s origins in the disaffected black and Latin communities of 1970s New York resonated with the young Javed, especially their stories about dealing with persistent police brutality. He started penning his own rhymes, recording vocals on his mother’s old mobile phone.
His early tracks were more like gangsta rap than conscious hip-hop, but two people pushed him towards explicitly political songwriting. The first was the emergence of Roushan Illahi, aka MC Kash, a young Kashmiri rapper who rose to prominence during the 2010 Kashmir protests. The alleged killing of three civilians by the Indian Army led to months of clashes between protesters and security forces that left over 110 civilians dead. It was at the peak of this uprising that Illahi released I Protest. Propelled forward by martial rhythms and gunshot samples, the track – which called out human rights violations by security forces – became a viral sensation in the state and beyond. Illahi would be a formative influence not only on Javed, but on a whole generation of aspiring Kashmiri musicians.
The other major influence on his music is Ajaz Ahmad Dar. After state elections in 1987 that many believe were rigged in favour of a pro-India Kashmiri leader Farooq Abdullah, many young Kashmiris joined the separatist Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front in its call for armed struggle. Among them was Dar, a college student with a penchant for poetry. He was also Javed’s uncle. Dar would be one of the first Kashmiri militants to be killed during the emergency in 1989.
“That vote rigging was the main reason for people picking up arms, because it showed that India didn’t care about democracy,” says Javed, picking his words carefully. “Had my uncle had another medium, he would’ve fought uss tareeke se (that way). But there was no other medium, they couldn’t understand anything else.”
In response, his family faced consistent police harassment throughout the 1990s – his grandfather spent four years in jail, another uncle faced torture in an infamous interrogation centre – locally known as Papa II – and his father would routinely get picked up by the police for ‘questioning’. Though he would never meet his uncle, the family legacy looms large within Javed’s music, especially on his debut album Little Kid, Big Dreams.
His early tracks were more like gangsta rap than conscious hip-hop, but two people pushed him towards explicitly political songwriting.
Released in July, Little Kid, Big Dreams is a visceral document of what it’s like to grow up in a state grappling with decades of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Javed raps in English, Hindi and Kashmiri, switching effortlessly between the three as he invites the listener into his world, a landscape blighted by decades of curfews, crackdowns and violence.
Opener Sifar charts his own journey, from a shy introvert with few friends to a confident young rapper spitting bars of defiance. The third track Uncle is a conversation with the uncle he never met, detailing the daily horrors of life in Kashmir. The second half of the track features an older relative narrating the famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” monologue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Kashmiri.
“This is like a message to him, even though he isn’t with us,” says Javed. “But still, I feel that I’m somehow in touch with him, in this world, right here, everywhere. You know whenever I’m doing something, I feel like he has his hand on me, I sort of get inspired just by hearing his stories because he was really righteous.”
On lead single Elaan, Javed raps about life in a land where “insaaf hi mana hai” (justice is always denied), with all the swagger and menace of classic 90s gangsta rap, over a beat that shuffles and prowls with unrestrained urgency. Halfway through, he’s joined by Azadi Records labelmate Prabh Deep, who comes in like a runaway wrecking ball. Over a breathless two minutes, Prabh Deep calls out everything from the recent war hysteria, to the rising spectre of communal violence, to the apparent spinelessness of Indian media. It’s a blistering attack on the state of Indian contemporary politics, delivered with a fervour that surprised even Javed.
But the heart of the album is Kasheer, a manifesto of resistance delivered entirely in Kashmiri. Javed sets the tone with the opening lines of “we’re born in curfews/we die in crackdowns”, and never lets up from there. The track has become a crowd favourite at shows in Delhi and Mumbai, despite the fact that few understand the lyrics, because Ahmer delivers it with such vehemence and conviction that translation seems almost unnecessary.
The album ends with the titular track, a rare moment of optimism on a record that is suffused with despair. It reflects Javed’s conviction that music can bring about the change in Kashmir that guns or stones could not. It’s a conviction that has been sorely tested in recent weeks, as he’s shuttled between a home state that has been turned into a prison, and a country that seems indifferent to the trauma that it is inflicting on its own citizens.
This optimism, it seems, is in short supply. “I still believe that picking up the pen is more powerful than picking up something else,” says Javed. “But I don't know, man. Right now I feel so let down and hopeless that I'm not sure it'll do shit. I'm really in a state where I don't know what to do. I'm very sceptical about music as well. I don't know what to do next.”
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