‘Who are you to stop me?’: the hip-hop group speaking up for India’s women
It’s not easy being a wild woman in India – as members of what is believed to be the country’s first female rap group can testify.
The eight members of the Wild Wild Women collective have had to deal with knockbacks from the men who dominate the music industry and press. They have had to cajole and fight their parents for permission to play and travel to gigs – once they’ve convinced them that hip-hop is suitable for women to perform. And they have to juggle full-time jobs with their music.
On a Zoom call from their homes in Mumbai, the Wild Wild Women are smiling, chatty, high-spirited and full of cheerful determination. They want to prove that women can rap as well as men, and give voice in their lyrics to the treatment of women in Indian society.
The group, who met at a hip-hop cypher (an improvised rapping session) in at Mumbai park two years ago, grew up in conservative Indian families, who believe the path to happiness for a daughter is education, a good job (preferably in medicine or engineering), marriage, home and children. Music can be tolerated as a hobby, but it won’t pay the bills or provide a suitable husband.
“We wanted to speak up, as women in a country where women have been kept down and forced to be silent,” says Pratika Prabhune, who struggled to win over her father who has a background in classical music. “When I was 12, I got a bass guitar and played in a heavy metal band. He didn’t approve of my rapping initially, but now he boasts about my success to his friends.”
“Whether it’s raising the children, looking after the house, looking after the elderly, the house, it’s all up to women,” says Ashwini Hiremath. “We have grown up seeing women at family gatherings with no voice, never speaking or giving an opinion.”
The audiences always say they love seeing so many women on stage. It feels like a little victory for all of us
One of the songs she wrote with Prabhune is called Raja Beta (King Son), which mocks the way Indian men like to be coddled and pampered by their mothers. The mockery is accompanied by chants in an uptempo chorus of “Don’t give injustice a chance” and “Who are you to stop me?”
While they’ve made some headway convincing family of their musical ambitions, the group’s main challenge now is to claim some space in the Indian hip-hop and rap scene, which has only a small number of female rappers, including MC Lit, MC Disha, Reble, Rudy Mukta, and Pho.
When Wild Wild Women released their debut single, I Do It For Hip Hop, in March 2021, Hiremath was shocked when she heard the reaction of a music industry executive. “Someone in the music industry apparently said ‘it’s utter nonsense to create a thing like Wild Wild Women and women don’t have the consistency to be in the industry’.”
Without a record deal, the group pool their money to record their music. So far, they have released three singles and have performed in Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru.
“Our audiences range from college students to clubs, to an all-age Christmas party, and they are not solely women,” says Prabhune. “The audiences have been incredible, they always come up and say they love seeing so many women on stage. It feels like a little victory for all of us.”
But the band have to tread carefully in the minefield that Indian society has become under the Hindu nationalist government. Any imagined slight to Indian culture or tradition could cause offence.
“I have just spent two hours with a lawyer friend going over every single word of the lyrics of some of my more politically driven songs just to make sure nothing comes across as too offensive to anyone. There is little space for social and political rap in this country today,” says Hiremath.
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She adds: “In one song, I used the word ‘bhakt’, which means a certain kind of devotee, and ‘gangster’ in the same phrase. We decided to change it. Using the word bhakt these days can enrage rightwingers, particularly if it’s clubbed with gangster.”
The rap of Wild Wild Women has a clear Indian feel, not only on account of the lyrics but because they sing in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada as well as English, flipping between languages in each song. The audience love that, says Preeti Sutar. “It makes them feel they are a part of the music. It also helps us reach a wider set of listeners and contextualises rap as a genre that can be Indian for the uninitiated,” she says.
The group plans to experiment with Indian instruments to give their music an even more distinctive sound.
The main goal of Wild Wild Women, though, is to get the voices of Indian women heard. “By putting our own voices out there, we are representing the larger audience of women too,” says Prabhune.