Roadside Rap! Singing about India's sewer survivors

Updated: Jul 26, 2020, 07:50 IST | P Vatsalya | Mumbai

A young anti-caste rapper, out with two fresh singles, is asking Indians why they choose to back Black Lives Matter when the state of sewer workers in their country doesn't move them

Sumeet Samos is an anti-caste rapper and a presenter for French Radio Live
Sumeet Samos is an anti-caste rapper and a presenter for French Radio Live

What makes a 27-year-old from Tentulipadar, a village in Odisha's Koraput district, rap like his life depends on it? If you ask Sumeet Samos, he will tell you it's exactly that.

The post graduate in Spanish and Latin American Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU] uses hip hop to advance his anti-caste critique, rooting the lyrics in his lived experiences as a Dalit man and following in the footsteps of politically conscious hip hop greats like Tupac Shakur. It was when the writer first heard Samos spit these bars in Ladai Seekh Le (2018): "Mar ke bhi jina hai, hum ladai seekh le," (we need to survive a thousand deaths, let's get used to resisting) that they knew they were onto something different. "I wrote Ladai Seekh Le in the aftermath of Dalit scholar Muthukrishnan's death. Everyone around me, including people who were friends with him, were in despair. I wanted to reinvigorate their tired spirit," Samos remembers, speaking about the song that first made people
notice him.

Samos is a presenter for French Radio Live, a series of events that take him to various parts of France and Mauritius, where small gatherings of people, ranging from school children to seniors, are made familiar with discussions on caste and its ramifications in India, including reservation in education and jobs and honour killings, using videos, maps and illustrations. Backed by journalists Aurelie Charon and Caroline Gillet, it is a platform for artists, activists, poets, writers to share their uniquely personal stories.

"I didn't fully understand hip hop till I set foot in JNU. I used to hear the likes of Eminem, Nas and Biggie Smalls. I used to write too, but I lacked rhythm. I began reading anti-caste literature and interacting with people from Ambedkarite and left-leaning groups. I started out by reciting my poems for friends and at local protests. For instance, when Najeeb Ahmed disappeared under mysterious circumstances [in 2016], I knew I had to say something." His journey started with penning his thoughts on Facebook. A rant he posted about the alienation he experienced in academia resonated enough for him to wake up to 6,000 views the morning after.

Excited by the reach of social media and its revolutionary potential, he decided to combine his lived reality, academic background and experience in activism (as a part of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association) with hip hop. This potent mix makes his songs sound like protest anthems and powerful declarations, instead of run-of-the-mill rap tracks about machismo and money.

While others may rap about beautiful women, owning property and cars, Samos raps about the lack of resources for the marginalised, land grabbing and institutional murders of Dalit scholars. His songs represent a counter-culture, not entertainment. "I am aware that my music is not mainstream. I don't go to music festivals to perform, but I never turn down an opportunity to perform on an academic campus or at a protest. I have performed at over 100 events all over the country. I ensure that my lyrics are not complex and that my references are accessible," he says.

His latest tryst with hip hop has resulted in the release of two fiery singles, Fighter and Jaati. His brother Rohit shot the videos and a friend from his basti, Pranay Khosla, helped with the editing. "In Jaati, I call out the hypocrisy of Indians who will support Black Lives Matter, while staying mum on caste-based atrocities [in India]. People who believe that caste is a thing of the past, I want to ask them what they have to say about the person who is cleaning their gutters?" questions Samos. "Fighter, on the other hand, is more of a personal journey. For me, anti-caste politics is about realising the potential of Ambedkar's words and recognising the intrinsic value seared within all human beings."

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