Beats Without Boundaries matches five rappers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India with five British artists for Alchemy. After meeting online, the musicians are performing together around the UK.
Journalist Arwa Haider talks to some of the artists about the project.
Bigger than hip-hop
Hip-hop culture transcends a single language. Its images and rhythms shape-shift and radiate across generations, and through towns and cities all over the world, as party music, political manifestos, experimental expression and more.
Beats Without Boundaries explores this creative scope by bringing together performers to share stories from different cultural contexts to create something new. The musicians join up for live events in Oldham Coliseum Theatre on Saturday 13 May, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton on Wednesday 24 May, Cast, Doncaster on Saturday 3 June and at Southbank Centre on Friday 26 May. The event’s British artists include hotly tipped London wordsmiths Awate and Paigey Cakey, and producer/remixer supremo Sunit Music.
The event also showcases a range of international pioneers; take Colombo-born rapper Ashanthi, who made her mark in 2006 as the first Sri Lankan female rapper/singer to sign major labels Sony and Universal Music, and who now plays to global live audiences.
Meanwhile, over in Dhaka, Bangladesh, rapper/producer Black Zang (aka Asiful Islam Sohan) sparked a creative revolution when he launched the first-ever hip-hop-based show in South-East Asia.
‘Producing and hosting the radio show allowed me to know new independent talents, passionate artists and motivating stories,’ says Black Zang, who also promotes graffiti artists, beatboxers, producers and freestylers. ‘The response was unexpected. It represents how hip-hop can connect people and share good vibes.’
That ethos is also key to Beats Without Boundaries, which highlights stars with a multi-ranging approach to hip-hop culture. This represents the first international tour for Mumbai-based Dee MC (aka Deepa Unikrishan), who raps and sings with a sweetly upbeat, insistent tone, even when her subject matter is weighty. Growing up, she studied Bharatanatyam and other dance forms, and explains that she was originally drawn to hip-hop movement, before the music also struck a chord.
‘When my college days began, I saw a lot of crews and break dancers doing amazing things. I learned the basics of breaking then,’ recalls Dee MC. ‘I really got into it when I was introduced to the whole history of old-school hip-hop. I also remember being so captivated by Travellin’ Man by Mos Def that I literally stood with my eyes shut till the entire track was over. Lyrical hip-hop is my thing – if there’s a story being told in the form of rhymes, then I’m sold!’
Dee MC’s playful, poppy rhymes are notable for tackling social hypocrisy and inequality head-on, including her catchy English/Hindi number Chaar Logo Ki Baatein.
‘One of the things I learned while understanding the essence of hip-hop is the importance of the lyrics you write,’ she says. ‘Your songs become an open book for everyone to know more about you. Whether it’s inequality or the hypocrisy of the society I live in, everything I write about comes from personal experience; my own, or those of people around me. I like writing songs that can connect with my generation.
‘My track Chaar Logo Ki Baatein is a very common dialogue used by conservative Indian parents who are too worried about what society is going to say. I like tackling topics like these with humour, even if they’re actually very restrictive and dispiriting in reality.’
Mumbai is also home to celebrated rapper Naezy (whose moniker is a blend of his real name, Naved Shaikh, and ‘crazy’). ‘I’m the flavour of the streets; I’ve a story to tell,’ he says. He recalls growing up as a ‘mischievous kid’ in the metropolis, listening to ghazals and Bollywood scores, and also memorising Western rap and dancehall hits (Sean Paul’s Temperature was a turning-point for the young Naezy).
Naezy’s lyrics have frequently dealt with themes of urban life and social change, which should definitely resonate with global audiences. Take this translation from his track Aafat: ‘What kind of society are we living in?/ Where things are costly but words have no worth/ Politicians are robbers, the world laughs at us’.
‘As a music artist, my target is the youth,’ says Naezy. ‘I want to wake them up; they should know their rights, their responsibilities, and how important they are to the future.’
Musical collaborations have always had the potential to be a galvanising force, and Camden hip-hop talent Awate argues that Beats Without Boundaries is a particularly relevant project:
‘In times when the world has become increasingly volatile and when “outsiders” who are suffering are called cockroaches by the media, acts of creative unity become rebellious acts,’ he says.
For Beats Without Boundaries, Awate is delighted to be teaming up with Black Zang: ‘I’ve been quietly working on some music from my country of origin, Eritrea, over the last few years, and the sounds and musical modes between East Africa and South Asia are quite similar, so that leaves us with quite a lot to work with,’ he enthuses. ‘Hopefully we can work on some incredible pentatonic stuff that mixes the melodies and sounds that we both bring.’
Collaborating across languages
Rapping in a variety of languages only increases the possibilities of artistic expression. Dee MC is a hip-hop polyglot, speaking four languages fluently (English, Hindi, her mother tongue Malayalam, and Marathi, which she learned at school in Maharashtra). There’s also a rich palette of samples in the mix for these collaborations. Naezy is fond of adding classic filmi scores and traditional Indian instrumentation to his productions: ‘It sounds refreshing, and pays tribute to the timeless tunes,’ he says.
Black Zang points out the relationship between language, identity and independence. ‘In 1952, we fought for the rights to our own language; Bangla came from blood and struggle. Bangla rap allows me to express our dignity and struggle through music and art. We use traditional samples to represent the culture. The aggressive flow and rawness creates a unique twist for the music in Asia. Where everyone else is talking fantasy and love, we’re talking about the real stuff.’
Beats Without Boundaries is fuelled by a universal passion and respect as these far-reaching hip-hop heads come together to share their stories and create something fresh.
‘I’ve always believed that collaborations are essential for your growth as an artist,’ says Naezy. ‘I’ve never been to the UK before, and I’m only known to a handful of people there. The music is vast, and it’s amazing. I’m super-excited.’
Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Oldham: Saturday 13 May
Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton: Wednesday 24 May
The Clore Ballroom, Level 2, Southbank Centre: Friday 26 May
Cast, Doncaster: Saturday 3 June
Southbank Centre’s Alchemy has commissioned Beats Without Boundaries in partnership with the British Council and Alchemy national partners: Black Country Touring, Cast Doncaster and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, generously supported by Arts Council England.