Mumbai-based MC Divine gave this year’s YouTube FanFest a miss. This despite the fact that he was slotted to play onstage with bass sensation Nucleya. Divine sat out the festival simply because his latest single just dropped on the weekend and he was swamped promoting his music. The song, ‘ Jungli Sher ’, has been the first single by an Indian artiste to be released worldwide by Apple Music. It’s especially commendable since it sounds less like a party thumper than a street anthem. ‘ Jungli Sher ’ is a very personal song for Divine, outlining his life growing up in the slums of JB Nagar, Andheri, and his beginnings as a rapper.
“I wrote it a year ago, before ‘ Mere Gully Mein ’ even released,” he says. “But there needs to be a strategy to your music and I wanted to do something for my community first before introducing myself to the public with this song.” Divine, whose real name is Vivian Fernandez, has been in the game for over eight years now. Fresh out of school, he started rapping in English in the 11th Standard, emulating the flow and style of American hip hop artistes that he’d come to admire. Divine switched to Hindi lyrics eventually, wanting to be true to where he’s from and what came most naturally to him. For a while, he was a part of one of Mumbai’s first hip hop crews, Mumbai’s Finest, doing rounds at underground rap battles before going solo.
Divine only caught the country’s attention last year, when his song with fellow Mumbai MC Naezy, ‘ Mere Gully Mein ’, blew up on YouTube, earning him a place in the list of Top 6 artistes to watch-out for in 2016 by the BBC Asian Network. Soon after, Divine got signed by Sony Music, featured on Nucleya’s hit single ‘ Jungle Raja ’ from his album Bass Rani , and opened for Skrillex alongside Nucleya in Mumbai during his October 2015 tour.
There’s a naive, but hardly misplaced, anxiety that grips fans of underground artistes when they sign to major labels (in Divine’s case, Sony Music) which makes us assume that the raw spirit of the performer, the aspect most appealing about their music, would be diluted by pressure to release party bangers. Home-grown hip-hop acts such as KRSNA (Universal) and Brodha V (Sony Music India) have been upfront about their struggles dealing with major labels.
‘ Jungli Sher’ puts all those worries to rest. Over haunting beats by producer Sez, Divine raps about being raised by a single mother with his elder brother functioning as a father figure and the amount of hard work and integrity that goes into being a successful artiste. Three months in the making, the video for the song was shot by director Vandana Kataria on an iPhone 6s in over 43 locations in Mumbai. It features Divine’s friends and crew, known in the hip hop community as the Gully Gang.
‘Voice of the streets’
His first verse of the song is perhaps the strongest, simply because it’s most real, giving us a peek into who Divine really is and where he’s from. The ‘where you’re from’ stepping stone in hip hop is integral, especially if you’re claiming to be the “voice of the streets” as Divine does, not wrongly, in this single. It happens internationally too: for instance, Kendrick Lamar’s single “Alright” has become a political entity of its own, growing in symbolism every time it is chanted by attendees at a Black Lives Matter conference or by protestors at Trump rallies. Rap has always had and continues to have the power to speak for the people. In Jungli Sher ’s case, the single is a huge flip off, with a catchy hook, to what the audiences in India have come to assume hip hop is about.
In the last three years, hip hop has ascended from the underbelly of the city right into our television screens, through the Bollywood lens of rich rappers and their party anthems. “The top rappers in India, Yo Yo Honey Singh and Bohemia, they all know about the underground hip hop scene now,” says Divine. “They may be talking about their lifestyles, maybe that actually is their lifestyle, but this what our lives are like. There’s room for everybody to do something.”
After ‘ Mere Gully Mein ’ became a sensation last year, BBC Asian Network showed an interest in Divine and hosted him in a video where he freestyled over UK artiste Lethal Bizzle’s track ‘Fester Skank’. “They thought I could change the scene for Hindi rap,” says Divine.
On April 30, Divine will be performing at BBC’s Asian Network Live event in UK. In addition to the event being Divine’s first international gig, it’s the first show of such scale that any underground rapper from India has been a part of.
The future’s bright and pretty well-planned out for him with a ‘ Mere Gully Mein ’ remix slated for release featuring some big names and an album to look forward to by the end of the year. Divine’s goal is clear: he wants people to know about ‘real’ hip hop, one that actually has a message that resonates with everyone.