Underground Hip Hop in Sri Lanka

The Roots

What started out as a subculture in the Bronx by the children of Jamaican immigrants is now a cultural phenomenon both globally ubiquitous and locally nuanced – thanks to the internet. Regional identities and trends in Hip Hop have been influencing and feeding-back onto each other, driving its evolution forward, dominating mainstream sound over time.

Despite being a uniquely American art form, Hip Hop has always been global, drawing from a wide cultural web. There have been explorations of Islam through the lens of Black Nationalism. Legendary acts such as Wu-Tang Clan created a unique vernacular drawing liberally from Far Eastern culture via Kung-Fu flicks and Taoist texts. Speaking or reciting poetry over drumbeats, specifically, and music, in general, is native to most cultures including our own, if you’re willing to consider hiti kavi. It makes sense that cultures across the globe have come to identify with it almost naturally.

Hip Hop liberalised pop music from structural and economic constraints, specifically from expensive equipment and musical training. Early Hip Hop tracks were samples arranged into ‘soundscapes’ structured to a beat, with emcees speaking over the beat, reflecting the urban environment from which it sprouted. Hypothetically, anybody who can speak can rap, you don’t need to know how to sing, making for an egalitarian art form that is easy to adopt.

Born at a party and still partying in 2016, Hip Hop has always been fun while being politically charged, (prime example: Public Enemy’s “Party For Your Right To Fight”). The struggle against oppression, disenfranchisement of the youth and inner city strife are frequent topics. Such lyrical content makes Hip Hop globally relatable protest music, a medium for socio-political commentary appealing to minorities and the disenfranchised. Although mainstream Hip Hop is extremely decadent, the alternative scene has been a potent force, propagating itself rhizomatically (from its roots underground), contributing to discourse on identity and authenticity in personal, social, spiritual and political contexts.

The Local Scene
The scene in Sri Lanka has always been in flux – a few crews emerging and disappearing. Today, there are rappers among spoken word poets, Sinhala #selfierap stars and crews like Kingsouth’s Ilangai Tamilan and Drill Team, bringing colour and vivacity to the Tamil and Sinhala scenes. Shaze Tempain has been prolific, releasing three Sinhala rap mixtapes direct to Soundcloud, though nowhere to be seen on the mainstream. Prasa KG forges an idiosyncratic identity in his Sinhala rap and flow, openly skeptical of the ‘bigger picture’. They talk about their struggle and indulgences – nothing overtly profound, but it is real, specific, immediate.

On the English spectrum, collaborations between the Musicmatters collective, a group of experimental and jazz musicians, and weirdo rappers such as Toc Toc Bayah push the scene into avant-garde territory, exploring spiritual and existential anxieties through the mist of decadence and apathy.

OJ, a Tamil Hip Hop OG, hides out in Nuwara Eliya, working a 7 acre farm while scribbling raps under his table lamp. With a love for the language, his style is particularly tailored, with lyrical imagery and unique flows. He’s an example of the state of flux, where he disappeared from the scene for 8 years before remerging at the very first KACHA KACHA in ’15.

Producers like Bo Sedkid, Tomcat and Magnum, STONAPATHI and Kingsouth keep it fresh, providing beats influenced by electronic music, ethnic, trap, jazz and sound art. With edgier sounds, Bo Sedkid is setting the tone for emerging artists.

like Imaad Majeed, Q, ZEN and Minol. On the live scene, Pettah Interchange saw Tomcat and Magnum throw down live beats and raps, all in the midst of a rave. We’ve heard political satire on STONAPATHI’s ridiculous beats bumping at the late Castle Hotel. Clearly, there are new waves on the horizon.

The #selfierap phenomena, a social media trend of uploading freestyles via selfie cam, surfaced female rappers that were otherwise not to be seen. 44 Shawty and Witecapper have their own followings, now, but there’s a long way to go for actual representation of women in Hip Hop in Sri Lanka, though singers like Q, ELSZ and Hania have collaborated with the scene.

There are cultural factors at play here, but efforts like Hashtag, more inclusive events and perhaps a dedicated platform could catalyse change. Besides working through systematic and cultural constraints limiting female participation, there is a serious need for these male dominated scenes to check their chauvinism and foster environments for females to feel comfortable enough to contribute freely.


The Remix

Kacha Kacha is a point of confluence for underground rock and Hip Hop scenes. Organised by poet and rapper Imaad Majeed, this independent, crowd-funded event hosts fellow poets, rappers, singer-songwriters, inspired by events like Musicmatters Festival’s Hip Hop and Grunge night at the old Charcoal Café. It brings together people of seemingly disparate groups for the love of expression, crooning away at the tensions crackling through our country’s history.

The Galle Music Festival saw its very first Hip Hop performance this year with OJ, ZEN and Toc Toc Baya, performing in Tamil, Sinhala and English on a special collaborative version of Krema Diaz’ Ballad of Wednesday Nights. Bands like the Galle-based Krema Diaz were birthed out of beach parties, island travel and a love for house and techno, MC’ing over DJ sets to sauce up or perhaps soursop the vibe, lyrics peppered with beach town culture and its contradictions.

These alternative scenes have been bubbling into each other, becoming more inclusive, each a node and a platform for the other. Big Ears is one such platforms dedicated to experimental and improvised music. Some nights have seen Hip Hop flirt with Psychedelia. Musicians like Sarani and Uvindu Perera, Sum Suraweera, Isaac Smith and Isuru Kumarasinghe, each coming from varied musical backgrounds, have also been involved in developing alternative Hip Hop sounds with projects like Amoral Compass, Diaphanous Veils and Sketch City Saturday.

Within the context of our post-war art scene, there is cross-pollination across mediums: visual, musical, theatrical and literary. The alternative Hip Hop scene is definitely a part of this. The urgent need for the proliferation of varied platforms for the arts is being recognised, as each scene sees eye to eye, works together and fills the vacuum that has been left unaddressed for so long. This is hopeful and beautiful. It will be interesting to see the outcomes of such intermingling.