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How the forgotten people of Lyari in Pakistan are using hip-hop, rap to speak truth to power

Hassan Cheema
Hassan CheemaJan 25, 2017 | 12:11

How the forgotten people of Lyari in Pakistan are using hip-hop, rap to speak truth to power

The history and roots of rap are difficult to pinpoint. Like any art form its history does not conform to a linear chronology, which is deemed suitable for an easy historical narrative. If you were to trace its lineage you could go back anywhere from African slaves in the colonial United States to Afrika Bambaataa and the formalisation of hip-hop culture.

What is obvious though is what it has represented for most of the past four decades: it's been the sound of the oppressed, the voice of the voiceless.

It's not a surprise that hip-hop culture as a whole has permeated immigrant and working class pockets throughout the world. Beyond its spiritual home in the inner cities of the United State, it's now the go-to art form for North Africans in France and Netherlands, Turks in Germany, and for desis in Britain. And that final bit is what makes the belated rise of rap in South Asia as surprising as it is.

Over the course of this decade, on the coattails of Yo Yo Honey Singh's success in Bollywood, rap has become the go-to genre for "party songs". But what it has represented in the rest of the world - a chance to speak as a representative of an oppressed culture - hasn't been common in India or Pakistan. This, despite South Asia's history of oral traditions, particularly with rhyming poetry, making the ground suitable for any such artists.

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Patari, an audio streaming platform in Pakistan, launched Patari Tabeer earlier this month.

Surely, in the land of Bulleh Shah, a land which prizes poetry and oratory, speaking truth to power in such a way would have found early believers. But that's not really been the case. Instead it's been restricted mostly to urban upper classes and to the aforementioned "party songs."

Or perhaps it has been, and the mainstream never knew about it.

That certainly seems to be the case in the aftermath of Patari Tabeer. Patari, an audio streaming platform in Pakistan, launched Patari Tabeer earlier this month. Tabeer is an attempt to tune local audiences to Pakistani sounds.

The first release for Patari Tabeer, the Sibbi Song by Abid Brohi (featuring Somewhat Super), has taken Pakistan social and traditional media by storm. The story of an errand boy in a small forgotten town who raps in a language that's been mostly absent from the Pakistani mainstream will always make for a great narrative.

Yet it's the third release of Patari Tabeer (to be released this weekend) that shows how important this platform can be. The song, titled Lyari Players, is by a group who call themselves the Lyari Underground. And as the title of the song and the group suggests, to understand the song you have to understand what Lyari is.

(You can listen to the song here.)

Lyari, a town situated on the western edge of Karachi, is a world unto itself. Historically the inhabitants of Lyari were among the first settlers of Karachi. By the end of the 19th century the population of Lyari was already in excess of 20,000. And the vast majority of these, as appears to be the case now, were Baloch.

The past century has reshaped Karachi though. The influx of immigrants (referred to collectively as the Muhajirs) from across the Radcliffe Line at Partition created a cosmopolitan city. The Afghan Wars beginning in the late 70s brought immigrants from up north too. To the point that much of the past decade has seen a rivalry between the newly arrived Pashtuns and the settled Muhajirs froth to the surface, ranging from political elections to gang warfare.

Throughout it all Lyari has remained somewhat separate from all this. In the imagination of the rest of Pakistan it is a Baloch slum filled with violence and drugs. A quick google search would reveal page upon page of news reports on gang warfare in Lyari, but with little reference to what the town itself is.

The ethnicity can't be ignored here - in the long line of peoples that would feel hard done by the state the Baloch compete for the top spot. Add that to the fact that even in a city which has often been caricatured as having a persecution complex, Lyari can claim persecution from the rest of the city, let alone the rest of the country. Left to their own devices, a forgotten town for a forgotten people, Lyari might not even exist for the patriotic Pakistani.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by the fact that despite the vast majority of print and television media being based in Karachi the only references you are ever likely to see to Lyari are tales of gang warfare, drugs or "encounters". Except, once every four years, as the FIFA World Cup rolls around, journalists go down to the slums to remind everyone of the fact that in this pocket of Pakistan football reigns supreme.

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Every four years the Pakistani middle class is informed of Lyari where, for one month the crime rate drops as everyone focuses on Brazil and Argentina.

Every four years the Pakistani middle class is informed of this settlement where, for one month the crime rate drops as everyone focuses on Brazil and Argentina. For the residents of Lyari, like so many troubled neighborhoods the world over, sports has been the escape. The history of football in Pakistan, however poor it may be, owes a lot to Lyari. Meanwhile the other great sport that the people of Lyari took over, boxing, has seen even more success. Of the two individual medals that Pakistan has won at the Olympic Games, the later one was by Syed Hussain Shah, a boxer from here.

Thus it would make sense that a protest anthem, a rap song from Lyari, would refer to its players. Their credentials would never be in doubt, but the fact that the music video begins with the artist wearing a Celtic shirt, and ends with a reference to Jose Mourinho, seems to drive the point home. Between that we see a kid at the barber's shop reject the Justin Bieber haircut for the Cristiano Ronaldo one, as shots of grassless fields remind one of the lack of infrastructure here.

The video is an ode to Lyari, a quite clear attempt at ownership of a forgotten land. But, as with the history of rap and why it has appealed to the downtrodden, it's the lyrics that are the real meat here.

Quite obviously the song is completely in Balochi. In a city where Pashto fights with Urdu, here is a reminder that the first inhabitants, and perhaps the ones who've suffered the most, still speak in the tongue that was spoken here over a century ago. But even to someone who doesn't speak the language the emotions and the passion make the subject quite clear.

The song itself isn't anything new. It begins quite simply: "The poverty-stricken Lyarian sportsmen/Either they're being finished or killed by the political parties." And it only ratchets up from there. It tells the tale  of mothers telling their children to forget football, and instead opt for driving an auto rickshaw and not feel ashamed of it. It speaks of coaches who are either corrupt who need to be bribed to get your just dues, or are as one line in the song says "drunkards  and drug abusers." It talks of the double standards in this country, comparing what sort of a football coach Punjab - the forever favourite son of the Pakistani state - gets compared to what Lyari gets.

And throughout it all it announces proudly that the one thing Lyari will always have is talent. And as is evident from the song and the history of Lyari, it will always have resilience - that most overused of words in Pakistan over the past terror stricken decade. It all coalesces into one moment, the end of the first verse quite simply ends with "Pakistan Football Federation corrupt" as the rapper shows the middle finger to the camera: a message from Lyari not just to the higher ups of Pakistani football, but to the rest of the country. And not unjustifiably so. A reminder from them all, that they're still here, even after all they've been through.

Perhaps unlike the other songs in Patari Tabeer it isn't upbeat or catchy, nor will it evoke the feel good factor that Abid Brohi of the Sibbi Song does, but the story of Lyari, from the residents of Lyari, is a necessary addition to the tapestry of Pakistan. And the fact that it is in the language of hip hop is pretty damn appropriate.

Last updated: January 26, 2017 | 17:02
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