Indian Classical-Hip-hop Fusion: Musical Protest against Classism

Fusion is the amalgamation of two or more things into a single entity. In terms of music, it refers to the blend of different genres to create a new form of sound from familiar elements. Incorporation of the sitar in The Beatles' track, Norwegian Wood helped establish Indian Classical Music to mainstream popularity in the west. The popularity of fusion music took over during the sixties after the Beatles' trip to India and acquaintance with Sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar, who is said to have taught George Harrison how to play the instrument. The current generation of rising fusion artists dabble in everything from metal to jazz, folk, soul, and R&B. A result of parents wanting to imbibe Indian culture and tradition at a young age, usually by introducing them to Hindustani or Carnatic music along with the influence of western pop culture through globalisation. 

Classical music around the world has always been elitist and a luxury offered only to those belonging to the highest socio-economic class. When it comes to classical music in the west, it is said to be made by 'middle-class white people' for 'middle-class white people.' There is this belief that the more education provided to the masses, the more they will be inclined to delve into classical music. Though knowing the intricacies of what is being played does elevate the experience, the mere association of education in order to enjoy classical music is a representation of classist ideals. Music itself cannot be considered classist. It is its listeners and propagators who choose to ostracize certain sections of society in an attempt to preserve their culture from being 'tainted' by foreign elements, similar to the concern shown by people with an anti-immigration stance.

This kind of behaviour is not exclusive to the west. When you bring it into the Indian context, caste also has a role to play. Practitioners of Carnatic music, another name for classical music in the South, always came from a privileged background. Even today, the Carnatic music sphere is dominated by Brahmins, upper-caste Hindus. The few non-Brahmins to challenge this, such as Yesudas and film composer Illayaraja talked about how they had not been able to freely move in their teacher's homes when compared to their Brahmin counterparts. T.M. Krishna, a well known Carnatic musician, has been especially vocal when it comes to the Brahmin communities' exclusionism and in making South Indian classical music more inclusive by bringing in Dalits, a community that continues to be subjected to the horrors of casteism and prejudice. 

Unlike Carnatic music, which has mainly been confined to the four South Indian states, Hindustani music originated in the North and expanded its influence to the west. Elitism in this sphere is also a concern. "All our great musicians played in palaces and the common man never had a chance to listen to them. Hindustani classical, thus, became music for the elite," Pandit Ravi Shankar told PTI.

"You cannot force it on the masses but when you compare it with the popularity of Carnatic music you have to see that there are more people acquainted with the latter as it was performed in temples," he added.

Hip-hop or rap music was developed in the 1970s by inner-city African-American and Latino Americans. It has always been used as a powerful tool of dissent and in highlighting the various social injustices inflicted on marginalized communities by those in power. Political hip-hop has received wide criticism for the promotion of pro-black and anti-establishment sentiments. Public Enemy was a New York-based rap crew said to be one of the first artists to politicize hip-hop. Other notable artists like 2Pac and Meek Mill are responsible for carrying this movement forward. Kendrick Lamar's 2015 hit Alright became an acclamation to the Black Lives Matter movement and an embodiment to hope against the face of adversity through racial discrimination and criminal persecution. Hip-hop, however, has had a complicated relationship with the LGBTQ+ community as a result of homophobic slurs present in the lyrics. In recent times, artists such as Frank Ocean, Lil Nas X, and Tyler the Creator have been more outspoken about their LGBTQ identities and made the genre more inclusive and accepting. 

Starting off as an imitation of American Hip-hop about two decades ago in India, the genre has now become a voice to call out systemic oppression and corrupt governments. This voice is multilingual and powerful. Sometimes referred to as gully rap, 'gully' being the Hindi word for street or hood, it aims to empower local communities and give them a sense of self-identity. 

Hip-hop has always been a tool of the underprivileged, using lyrics to lift themselves up from the place they've been so evidently kicked down to. The juxtaposition lies within how classical music has been a tool of those usually belonging to a higher social class aiming to keep everyone else ‘in their place’ by exhibiting some strange sense of superiority that clearly doesn't come from the raw concept of music itself. When you put these two together, the result is explosive. It is a form of musical protest, democratic and radical. It is a necessary invasion, looking to bring together two worlds that were never supposed to meet. An example of this is India 91 from Gully Boy, a film about an aspiring street rapper based around the lives of rapper duo Naezy-Divine. Another example of an artist who drew inspiration from traditional Indian art forms and infused it with aspects of their own musical journey includes Indian hip-hop artist Brodha V. This can be seen in tracks like Aigiri Nandini and Aathma Raama which combine devotional music with rap. Sri Lankan-Canadian artist Yanchen brought the Mridangam, a percussion instrument exclusively used in Carnatic music, to hip-hop in I Know with Shan Vincent de Paul.

This blend of music is revolutionary, calling out classist ideals that are still so prevalent today. A parallel can even be drawn to Lil Nas X's Old Town Road which is a mix of country music, quintessentially a genre belonging to white Americans in the south, with hip-hop. As a member of the black and queer community, the mere existence of the song is an example of changing tides. Music is art. It is a form of self-expression and independent of social class and caste. The fusion of different kinds of music from all over the world is a reflection of the kind of harmony we as humans should strive for. 



Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4