—In Kashmir, where the stagnation of uneventful times and the upheavals of tragedy often go hand in hand, remembrance of certain instances can be shaped by a particular event or a specific date. In such cases, time flows in a continuum, such that it elicits an essential question: how to map a calendar of transgressions, one piled on top of another, almost in an incremental manner, the summation of which adds up to a particular date? One such date in the recent and still unresolved history of Kashmir is August 5, 2019.
Given its colossal significance for a wide range of Kashmiris, it is etched in the wounded memory of each one of us, in parallel mode with the events that were set in motion before, during and after that day. The Indian state had—without warrant and unannounced—revoked articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, stripping away Kashmir’s autonomy and the so-called ‘special status’ that came with it. Many agree that the removal of such ‘autonomy’ was executed to give the state far more power over Kashmir than it had ever been able to exercise before. However, the only thing worse than the actual events of that day was the aftermath such events brought along a posteriori.
With eight million people locked up in their homes, all their channels and networks of communication and interaction suspended indefinitely, and without any prior notice, an environment of little to no media coverage from within Kashmir was planted by the authorities. A full and indefinite curfew was also set in place, more Indian troops were mobilized into Kashmir and internet, mobile communications, and even land lines were taken offline. Some called it a blackout, others referred to it as a lockdown, while several others identified it as an unprecedented situation that was unequivocally defined by Kashmir scholars and experts all across the globe as a textbook example of a siege—with added strategies that surpassed the traditional characteristics of one in terms of severity, tactical subtlety and outright excess.
As media coverage from Kashmir’s journalistic community and all press activities remained suspended without further notice, what followed was a series of constructed narratives and convenient projections of the situation on the ground spread by the Indian mainstream media. Such mediatized constructions aimed at covering up the negation of Kashmir’s right to protest and to be heard—while reporting that all was well and peaceful in the valley as Indian journalists were shown flying on army helicopters to cover the situation on the ground. Despite the multiple attempts to stifle dissent, there were widespread protests by Kashmiri students, activists and communities living in India and in the Kashmiri diaspora—including academics, artists, and people from all walks of life.
Meanwhile, in the Valley of Kashmir, a pin-drop silence set the tone of those days. In the void of that silence, Ahmer, who had moved back to Delhi approximately a month after the aforementioned abrogation, had taken in everything from his Srinagar streets, absorbing the conditions that had been created to silence Kashmiris as massive changes were being enforced without popular consent. Within just another month, the prolific emcee released his debut EP Inqalab, entirely self-produced. The EP consists of four intense tracks, filled with anger and rage, with a unified purpose: to cut through all the narratives of falsity and pretense and bring to light the reality of a Kashmiri population put under siege and silenced in the same breath.
Throughout the project’s eleven-minute runtime, Ahmer samples various audio clips; dialogues from the Urdu translation of Moustapha Akkad’s Lion of the Desert—Hum bees saal se tumhare khilaaf larhe hain aur Inshallah tumhari aakhri saans tak larte rahenge—to news excerpts from the Indian news channels—There is calm in the Kashmir valley...there is not one incident of violence—peddling the usual discourse of normalcy that Kashmiris had grown accustomed to over the years. The clips set the subtext to the subject matter of the EP to substantial effect, and appear to juxtapose with and provide purpose to the unapologetic lyricism that gave birth to what can hands down be considered the most iconic collection of resistance songs by a single artist in response to this particular era of Kashmiri (un)history.
“Nazara”, the first song from the project, is a reflection of what Ahmer absorbed from a Kashmir cut off from the rest of the world. With lines such as Nazi soch inki, kamron mein saare bandh / pepper gas hawa mein, bachon ka gutta dumm and Masjidon ke bahar bhi army, kya kare namazi?, the rapper showcases a lyrical detail that is only possible through lived experience, painting the picture of a dystopian Kashmir where censorship, violence and fear barricade self-expression at every corner. On the production side, the track’s hallmark are the siren sounds around which the instrumental is built, reminiscent of the anger and desperation that has plagued Kashmir in the face of a police state that governs everyday reality. Needless to say, the sound of police sirens sampled in Hip Hop tracks goes way back, from the days of N.W.A.’s 1988 track “F*ck tha Police” and Nas’ 2002 track “One Mic”—with KRS-One actually vocally sounding out the siren in the chorus of their 1993 “Sound of da Police” track—to Kendrick Lamar’s more recent (2017) track “XXX” and Jay Z’s “Kill Jay Z” from the same year. The instrumental base for “Nazara” is also defined by another sound in the mix, a series of notes played on keys and looped with a drum and bass progression, which gives the song an industrial touch to the tune of a dystopian thematic that marks Ahmer’s lyricism to introduce the EP with this first track.
In his poetic corpus, Agha Shahid Ali wrote they make a desolation and call it peace in one of the most beloved poems titled “Farewell”, and Ahmer’s “Aman” is a witness to the same verses. The only difference is that in place of Shahid’s poignancy Ahmer words are filled with immense grit and seriousness: Apne dard se thukoon tumhara zehar tum pe / jo bardiya hai tumne logon mein, ye mera farz hai! It is also the best display of Ahmer’s rapping skills, as Pakad meri inpe, fanaa karun in sab ko / jakadloon jaise zal zala, dafan karun jo ab toh are easily the best delivered lines on the entire mixtape. Immensely passionate and powerful, “Aman” is easily a classic song of denunciation that gives shape to what could not be said at a time when the entire Kashmir had been silenced.
The third song on the project, “Sarfaraz”, is not only the best song on the EP for its emotive poetic sensibility, but a worthy contender for one of the best songs of Ahmer’s career. Over an overtly dramatic boom bap instrumental laced with melancholic synths and keys, “Sarfaraz” features one of the most evocative and poetic rap verses by a Kashmiri artist. The constant back and forth between utter grief and a sense perpetual resilience is bound to leave the listener torn apart; emphasized upon by both the refrain of Aye Kashmir and the outro Tu sarfaraz hai, sarfaraz hai tu, meri jaan hai! For what it is worth, in a song that is filled with memorable lines one after another, Surkh zameen yahan lahu si jamm gayi hai / bepawah, behaya, duniya toh sochuki hai stand out the most. A song that comes across as a letter enveloped in love, loss, grief and hope, addressed by a Kashmiri artist to his motherland, “Sarfaraz” is a rare moment of creative influx in contemporary Kashmiri music; one that is arduous to outdo. Here, Ahmer’s lyricism takes on a more emotionally-driven tone beyond the expected anger and disillusionment that mark the EP, as the artist addresses his birthplace by name, invoking Kashmir’s spirit and resilience with a deeply-felt love for his place of origin.
The final and titular track on the album is backed by bold drum patterns and a sublimely orchestrated horn section towards the end of the song. “Inqalab” (the track) again returns to the assertive entry that “Nazara” (the first track) on the EP makes. As the title suggests, this final track verbalizes the collective aspirations of a silenced Kashmir, acquiring an overtly and direly-needed political tone that does not waste a millisecond in its precise lyrical delivery. Each and every verse in the song, much like those that precede it, crushes the imposed silence that incites the dissenting voice within the track. The final track ends with a powerful proclamation of a stern resolve: Inqalab / peeche hatna nahi / haq maang / Kisisi se darna nahi / Inqalab!
The release of Inqalab EP led to Ahmer being compared to Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame. Given the singular mastery that Ahmer exhibits in the four-song EP, this comparison in palpable given how both approach lyricism—with a critical wrath towards systems of oppression and injustice. Ahmer raps one conscious bar after another, backed with solid instrumentation throughout. As a result, Inqalab is heavy to listen to, and it provides a lot to process, much in part due to how recent the emotional baggage of August 5 is, and how it has impacted Kashmiris in the Valley and around the world. Inqalab is Ahmer’s most cohesive body of work till date, both in terms of sound and subject matter, and showcases his ability to operate as an independent creative professional, composing, mixing, mastering and doing it all apart from rapping to the beat. The EP operates in service of memory, and as such, will be carried over as a marker of remembrance for the dark time that August 5 represents for many. Above all, the Inqalab EP is made of powerful poetry, unapologetic, unfiltered from and completely opposite to the type of self-censorship that arrives with fear—and it rises from the depth of silence that was imposed on an entire Kashmiri population.
As such, it is a courageous artistic initiative, one that is accompanied by various anxieties that go beyond the content of its songs, created at a time when silence and solitude could stigmatize anyone into shutting up and sitting down. It is then that the young Ahmer rose up and decided to take on a creative project of his own making, knowing well the type of repercussions that could have been faced given the overall air of fear and paranoia that reigned throughout. It will not be surprising to see Inqalab finding its way into academia as a research interest and as a topic of intellectual inquiry. If that in itself is not enough, Inqalab can easily considered the kind of music release one wants to own on vinyl—just so it can be appreciated even further as a piece of music that, in its resistance and opposition to a time imposed, made a history of its own, rebelling verse for verse against the unmaking of our history by those who wrote its script at gunpoint.
About the Authors
Kashmir Music Live
Kashmir Music Live is a small idea that has yet to manifest itself. Its purpose is to create a community of people in Kashmir that are passionate about music and are willing to give the musicians the credit they deserve. Consider following KML on Instagram. Link: instagram.com/kashmirmusiclive
Amjad Majid is the editor and founder of Inverse Journal. He previously worked as a teacher, IT consultant, and research scholar in China, Spain and the US. He is currently working on an art criticism book after having published papers and book chapters in publications from China, India, USA and Canada. His writings have been featured in art catalogues, books, international exhibitions, biennales, art journals and magazines, with translations in Chinese. In his work beyond Inverse Journal, Amjad develops independent projects as a web developer and IT consultant in the creative industry. His interests include literary theory, Spanish and Spanish-American literature, contemporary art, cultural studies, hardware assembly, and information technology.