Nepal’s road to rapYou might not know it, but Nepal is in its golden age of hip-hop. More artists than ever before are heading to the studio, to Youtube, and to the battle arena to create and showcase their skills. Nepali hip-hop—called Nephop by fans—is receiving a lot of online attention from Nepali fans at home and abroad, promoting a new generation of artists, many who have gained exposure through the online series Raw Barz.
You might not know it, but Nepal is in its golden age of hip-hop. More artists than ever before are heading to the studio, to Youtube, and to the battle arena to create and showcase their skills. Nepali hip-hop—called Nephop by fans—is receiving a lot of online attention from Nepali fans at home and abroad, promoting a new generation of artists, many who have gained exposure through the online series Raw Barz.
Raw Barz was created in 2010 in part by rapper Yama Buddha and was inspired by similar battle leagues in North America like Toronto’s King of The Dot. The competition has two rappers prepare verses to playfully insult each other, using familiar rap stereotypes. In its five years of existence Raw Barz has offered a platform for emerging artists but has faced criticism for representing Nephop in a bad light, by using cheap and vulgar jokes where poetry and music could be.
Raw Barz, however makes up only a small portion of the genre in Nepal, and while it is a relatively recent phenomenon, hip-hop has a history in Nepal that spans over two decades. The music finds its original roots in the 1970’s Bronx; a poor neighbourhood in New York City. At some point in its evolution, people started picking up the mic to rhyme over these beats and a new style of music was created. Since that time, hip-hop has gone through countless incarnations and has emerged onto the global scene in ways that would never have been imagined by the pioneers of the genre. It has become a powerful tool for artists to speak to and about their communities, in a way that is more direct and instantaneous than other modes of expression. It has typically given a voice to the disenfranchised of the world, who embrace the art form, while adding to it their own unique cultural flavours.
To get a sense of how and when this music of an American subculture reached Nepal, I interviewed two pioneers of Nepali hip-hop from the last twenty years: Girish Khatiwada from GP, and the host of the Nephop show on Kantipur FM, and Nirnaya Shrestha, also known as NSK. From our conversations, I learned that hip-hop was brought to Nepal by young Lahures working in the British Army. Girish knew people in Dharan in the early 1990s who would break dance to cassette tapes of Grand Master Flash. Later on it would be the children of Nepalis working and studying in the United States that would introduce the genre to Nepal. While hip-hop in America was initially created by marginalised people, it was imported to Nepal by people of privilege. For instance Girish’s first introduction to hip-hop came from a cousin whose parents worked in the Nepali embassy in Washington and Nirnaya first discovered hip-hop while living in Logan, Utah in 1988 where his father pursued a PhD. As Nirnaya explained, “Rap had just gone from being underground to becoming mainstream music. Logan is where I started rapping. MC Hammer had just taken over the music industry and at the time my friends used to call me the ‘Nepali Hammer’”.
The first hip-hop song in Nepal was Meaningless Rap released by Girish in 1994. The song was so named because Girish, who struggled to understand the obscure slang they were using, presumed the lyrics were meaningless rhymes. After the single’s moderate success Girish was approached by a local record label to produce a full album. The result was the team of Girish and Pranil—known by their moniker GP. Where the instrumental parts of American hip-hop were produced by sampling older songs, GP would sit with the audio engineers listening to their favourite American songs, imitating the sounds they heard on a keyboard, while incorporating traditional Nepali folk sounds into their new music. They did all this, while in class ten and without their parents’ knowledge, out of fear of reprisal. After producing the album, GP went on a hiatus to focus on their studies and honour their parents’ expectations of them. In the meantime another rapper emerged to fill the void.
Nirnaya Shrestha (NSK) released his debut For You All in 1998. He thought songs could express his views on life and society, more effectively than a speech or other public address. While NSK was first known through his FM radio programme, he became widely recognised through his music videos and hip-hop fashion. As one long-time fan and rapper David Tashi Lama said, “He had authentic New York Yankees baseball hats and basketball jerseys from the US. Most of us in Nepal had never seen fashion like that before.”
With the success of Nephop, Nepali folk and pop artists started to experiment with rap music by incorporating short rhyming verses from featured rappers into their singles. The result was what is now being called the remix era. As NSK suggests, “Songs like Din Pani Bityo—a fusion of rap and Nepali folk released in 2003—made an impact to the grassroots level to help people understand what the music was. Once that song was a super hit, the music industry took a huge turn and changed.”
The remix era brought acceptance of rap music to the wider Nepali audience, and was followed by the arrival of the mixtape. The next generation of rappers, empowered by the internet, started downloading instrumental tracks of their favourite rap songs, and recording new lyrics over them. Using premade beats made the genre more accessible for would-be rappers, but it has come at the cost of a distinctive Nepali sound. Girish, who produces his own instrumentals, expressed a need for more original production in Nepal, while NSK voiced a similar hesitation of the trend: “Our DJ is the madal and the damfu. It is what distinguishes Nepali music from others. Hip-hop is all about telling your story using the elements you have. We don’t need to copy what is not ours. We should play with the elements but never forget where we come from.”
Hip-hop may have been imported from the US, but it has been gradually woven into the Nepali culture and projected back to young Nepalis abroad. The music has gone on to inspire some rappers like UK-based Yodda, to produce their own music, building a fan base back at home, and creating an ongoing discourse between cultures. Behind the music, is a driving desire to see Nephop gain international recognition, and to become a source of national pride and identity. What makes this particularly inspiring is that far from gaining fame and recognition from the rap game, they are regular people, using music as a service to the nation, both to inspire the youth and to represent the country worldwide.