“The Burning Jhelum”: Young Kashmiris Using Music As Protest

In Kashmir, the relationship between resistance and poetry isn’t new.

Kashmiri musicians MC Kash, Ahmer, Mohammad Muneem.
Kashmiri musicians (L-R) MC Kash, Ahmer, Mohammad Muneem.

New Delhi: “Come gather all you young guns, throw your fist in the air. Let me see those heads bobbing with a kick and a snare. I was born in a siege. Never seen a day of peace. Blood in the streets, armored military jeeps. Patrol after patrols, checkpoint on my soul. I pray to God, may I die in my sleep.”

These are the verses by Roushan Illahi, Kashmir’s first hip-hop artist who introduced protest rapping in Kashmir, a flight from the traditional ‘Gyawun’. In Kashmir, the relationship between resistance and poetry isn’t new.

It was decades ago when legendary poet and historian Rahman Rahi wrote the poem — Zinde Rozane Bapat Chi Maraan Lukh (To Live, People Die) — making it one of the first poems to be sung, discussing the shades of conflict in Kashmir.

“To live, people die here, won’t you die as well? Or will you have the poison slowly, won’t you protest?” he wrote. While many assert that Rahi was largely silent on conflict, others say poems like Zinde Rozan Bapat were his call to the villages which largely did not partake in the protests back then.

Later, the song was remade by many contemporary rappers as well as singers in Kashmir who have written original protest poetry and made original music in volumes. However, Rahi alone hasn’t been a legendary poet debating conflict.

Bashir Dada, who wrote the famous poem Dua Khair Karus (Pray for him) which has been remade by many modern Kashmiri singers, also landed in trouble when the state grilled him for glorifying militancy through it.

“I am already shrouded but I am hopeful that you will be among the mourners. For God sake do me a favor, put me in the grave by yourself,” this is a line from Dada’s song that was put under scrutiny.

He was alleged of writing poems explaining the misery of the militant lives and their helpless calls to their family but Dada never claimed any such interpretation of this. So, the government set up a committee in nineties to examine his literary work.

In the committee, one of the members was a Kashmiri Pandit who upon reading the lyrics of the song said that it was not about the militants but explained the pain of exiled Kashmiri Pandits themselves. This saved Dada who went to draft some evergreen poems which are still being sung by tens of young singers now.

Talking about contemporary hip hop involving debates on politics, another young artist named Ahmer has been a rage among the youth. With his latest track Kun, his poetry uses a number of literary devices to invoke a multitude of feelings.

Kun also was a re-entry of Illahi into Kashmir’s hip-hop scene after years. He used to go by the stage name of MC Kash and produced initially under the label Rebel Republik. In this new track with Ahmer, he discusses the childhood of a boy born in a conflict.

“I see the bullets flying, my homies dying. Lying on the TV, justifying murder,” Kash writes. But the genesis of all this poetry lies in the conflict. MC Kash had dropped his first song while he was apparently in his teens. Wearing a hoodie and skull cap, this young boy would shoot in the streets of Srinagar discussing everyday atrocities.

His first song was titled “I Protest” where he spoke of killings and even named almost everyone killed that year in 2010 protests in Kashmir. While it does not feature anymore on his channel but his fans who have shared fan videos of it make it accessible here.

“They say when you run from darkness, all you seek is light. But when the blood spills over, you’ll stand and fight. I protest, against the things you have done. I protest, for a mother who lost her son. I protest, I will throw stones and never run. I protest until my freedom has come,” he wrote.

Kash was such a rage that years later author Sanjay Kak even titled his book on Kashmir ‘Until My Freedom Has Come’. After I Protest, a series of songs released by Kash went viral, and finally, his studio was raided, barring him from producing more Music.

Years later, many other singers like Mohammad Muneem of the Pune based band Alif and Yawar Abdal started reviving the lost legacy of the Sufi Music of Kashmir.

With a modern touch, the old classic Sufi poems found a new audience in the younglings of the valley and it was all because of singers like Muneem and Abdal. Songs like Lalnawath which received Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival award summed up the wail of a loss. Muneem says it has been intended to show that how many of us take things for-granted, until we lose them. “Be it dreams or people around us, (like) our parents or loved ones. We wish them to be born just once again so that we could cradle them.”

Speaking to Muneem, he said he felt like sharing his experiences with the world. Through music, poetry and performances. Be it ‘Kya Kari Korimol’ (What will a bride’s father do), a satire about the taboos in extravagant weddings & pressures on brides dad or ‘Zindabad vs Muradabad’, again a satire based on unseen trolls on Internet.

Along with 101India both Illahi and Muneem also produced “Like a Sufi” an experience about meeting your loved one on the other side – ‘Be Ha Samkhai’ (I shall meet you). They also made ‘Jhelumas’ which was an ode to the women in Kashmir who have lived difficult lives throughout the history of the valley.

“My boat is fragile. Who should I tell? Who will listen to me? That Jhelum is burning,” Muneem writes in the song Jhelumas.
Kash in another collab with Muneem writes, “I await you.

All the fallen in the garden of remembrance, like a Sufi. Never a slave.” He adds, speaking from the perspective of a Kashmiri mother that “the youngest son of Haleema (a mother) was born in a curfew… for sure her whole world is a conflict where machine guns roar and she can’t stop it. So, she holds him tight, never far from her sight, and prays five times a day. let her children be safe”.