Srinagar: With her hair tightly tucked in a pony and clad in a loose, long denim shirt, Mehak Ashraf from [India-held] Kashmir comes across as just any other young girl from Srinagar. However, in the twinkling of an eye, an expression of utmost concentration appears on her face, as she transforms into a confident rapper, and sings:
Mehmood-ul-Hassan whose two sons were killed
On spot, it is full of oppression
Cries mother, father and sister, they are living in oppression
Their loved ones are no more, now they are living in depression
In Kashmir, it is a policy of alienation and deprivation
Mehak is not a seasoned voice, but is only 19, and articulates the suppressed feelings of the next generation that feels itself isolated and alienated from the mainstream.
Mehak is known as [India-held] Kashmir’s first female rapper, a voice for the people’s struggles and political consciousness in a valley that has been torn by turmoil for the past three decades. Mehak’s songs are full of anguish and despair that the gen-next of Kashmir feels about the unabated violence and killings of Kashmiris.
I’m from Kashmir, they take us for funI saw a big killer with a gun
Saw my friends body in a slum
I miss him, I need him, I love him, I’m sorry, I miss Tasleem
Glad his death wasn’t glorified on film
My valley smells like death alley
Death angel aiming at another individual
Darkness mess up any individual’s visual
She has emerged in a nascent hip-hop scene in [India-held] Kashmir, where so far only male musicians have garnered a following. Over the years, rappers such as MC Kash, Ahmer Javed and Muazzam Bhat have garnered a following, while singers such as Ali Saiffudin and Zeeshan Nabi are feted and idolised.
To break into this male bastion has been far from easy, but Mehak has taken it all in her stride and continued to sing on. Her young audience appreciates her and that fires her up. She makes her own videos in a very creative way.
Hailing from the old city of Srinagar’s Hazratbal area, the teenager popularly known by her stage name Menime is pursuing her Bachelors in Arts from Srinagar’s Women’s College.
Her tryst with rap began in 2016, when the political unrest over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani ensued in the valley.
“I was in Class IX at that time. Due to the situation, the schools had been shut for six months. It was during those endless days of curfew and strike, I happened to come across the songs of Eminem.” Her rapper name — Menime — is her idol’s name in reverse.
Besides, she is also inspired by the music of other artists such as Nicki Minaj, Drake and 50 Cent.
Eminem’s story impressed her. “Eminem had a troubled childhood and failed multiple times during his school. His story really moved me. Besides, he never talks about sex, drugs or girls in rap. His music reflects the societal problems and struggles of the masses. This motivated me to sing and write rap songs,” she says.
A quick rise
Mehak was first noticed in 2016 by RJ Sameen of Red FM radio channel, who wanted to give budding singers who sang hip-hop or traditional music a platform to perform on the channel. He was immediately intrigued by this young teenager who sang Eminem like a pro.
He recommended her to a local band AHM Dexterity and its Kashmiri record label created by two local youths, who heard Mehak and offered her to join them as a vocalist. Since then, there has been no looking back for her.
No sooner did her rap make a presence on social media, that Mehak’s gender drew attention from various quarters and butted heads with the more conservative elements within her society.
“Yes, I have faced a lot of criticism, especially from men and religious quarters who consider rap and music to be an ignoble pursuit for a Muslim girl. Others compared me to Dhinchak Pooja, and suggested I am rapping just to earn attention.”
She faced opposition even from her parents, who thought it was “inappropriate for a girl to shout and sing like this.”
But Mehak remains unfazed and says, “I take criticism, good or bad, head-on and make myself better with time.” Her parents eventually realised her love for the art form and support her in her endeavours now.
For Mehak, one of the important dimensions of rap is the element of storytelling as resistance to established ideas, of relaying suppressed truths that need to be heard.
“I have learnt on my own through YouTube channels and reading extensively about rap music. There are two-three verses in a rap. A verse in a rap comprises 16 lines. It takes a long time to think of the chorus, intro, outro, beat and different rhyming words,” she says.
She believes rap is a potent voice for the marginalised and a form that offers the chance for forceful voices to lend a public narrative to suffering.
Through her art, she aspires to inspire others of the younger generation to take up music and render their lived experiences through it. Her firm belief is that music offers an effective form of peaceful resistance that can transcend boundaries, and create an impact.
At the moment, Mehak wants to expand her fan base on her YouTube channel Menime.
“I have composed 15 songs so far and given three stage performances. Production and recording is a challenge. There are few good recording studios here and each session of recording takes around 1,500-2,000 [Indian] rupees. For a student to arrange this sum every time is a big deal. So whatever pocket money I get, I spend on that,” she says.
She has also found innovative ways to add music to her vocals.
“There are several applications through which I add my music — voloco, inshot, videosuite17, rapfame. I record vocals first and then add the music via the apps,” she says.
Asked if her singing has any impact on her studies, she replies, “It doesn’t affect my studies, as I write songs only on weekends and practise daily for an hour. However, my studies have been badly affected due to the shutdown after the August 5 decision last year to revoke [India-held] Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the lockdown imposed due to Covid-19.”
Other than rap, Mehak is also an avid nature and animal lover. She is planning to compose some songs on climate change and animal abuse in the future.
“The environment is always the least prioritised issue in a conflict zone. Besides, I am also interested in rescuing animals,” she says.
— By arrangement with The Wire, India
Published in Dawn, ICON, November 29th, 2020