When hip-hop appeared three decades ago, Nepali listeners frowned upon the new genre and termed it the “music of drug addicts and weed smokers.”
After all, for decades, shadowed by India, its giant southern neighbor, Nepal had banked on its rich traditional cultural heritage or imports from the Hindi film industry for entertainment.
It took almost 30 years for hip-hop to firmly establish its roots in the country, following its beginnings in the early 1990s with cheesy tracks and sleazy music videos released under the heavy influence of American hip-hop music. Local entries were restricted to a handful of pioneers.
The negative narrative and longtime negative reality, however, didn’t stop young Nepalis from taking up the mantle. And now they boast that, since the dawn of the millennium, Nepali hip-hop has removed itself from the shackles of mediocrity and unleashed its power to society.
A nascent market
The hip-hop industry has witnessed revolutionary change. Gone are the days when rappers and recording studios depended on CDs, DVDs and disk albums. One click on YouTube upload and the song goes viral, helping both artists and the studios earn money for the next venture.
The market – around US$50,000 per month in terms of revenue for all the artists put together – is a tiny fraction of the Nepali entertainment industry. It is solely based on music concerts and online platforms. Along with such classic youth interests as love, the lyrics address politics, including corruption, and social problems such as poverty.
The market is so young that one of the earliest artists, Manas Ghale, who was a core member of the music band Nepsydaz, is still around. Not only that, in his 40s the oldest Nepali hip-hop artist, he’s still in his prime.
Ghale’s Maya Laideu was a big hit, a song asking a girl to love him, but also subtly reminding his fans to remember that he is the real deal.
As I hear this funky song
My thoughts hop like a monkey
I am climbing to the top
While you laying down like a junkie
His bluntly negative 2018 Malai Manpardaina Timro Rap (“I Don’t Like Your Rap”) electrified Nepali hip-hop at a time when listeners were yearning for something better than amateurish rap.
Ghale says that in his heyday “Nepali hip-hop was still fairly unknown to the general public. Hip-hop has evolved a lot since we started and younger rappers are coming up with their own styles and sounds.”
His criticism doesn’t mean he begrudges those youngsters their places in the limelight, he insists. Rather, as an established voice of the industry “I am making sure that the quality is consistent.”
From love to politics
Those who have followed in Ghale’s footsteps include Prakash Neupane, who is credited for releasing 32 songs so far and hopes to come out with more this year.
Neupane left his hometown Nepalgunj in the southern region and moved to Kathmandu for a better life and also to make music. “I came here for more exposure and I was right about it,” he says. He started his career at 16 with song called Aaideuna, “which was not much success. But I started getting recognized from my third song, Sunana, which helped me to grow.”
Neupane recently wrote and performed Arajkakniti, a political rap song with a catchy beat – and provocative lyrics:
I am sick
Due to the smell of this politics
By the stench of Bagmati River
By this concrete jungle
I am sick
By this dusty ring road
By that big talk
By that empty assurance
“I sang this song to make everyone aware of our country’s situation,” he says. “I also wanted the government to realize their mistake since culprits often go unpunished and rapists and criminals are walking around in daylight. And the politicians are deaf about these issues.”
Mahesh Dong is the exciting newcomer on the Nepali hip-hop scene. Within a year he has seen his YouTube channel “Dong” boom. He tries to remain humble about it. With hits like Rap Sunn Tero Bauu Ko (“Listen to Your Father’s Song”), Dong has cemented his status as the leading singer on the Nepali hip-hop scene.
Dong’s Malai Chaiyo (“I Want”) is a rap about a young man asking what he aspires to. Themes such as money and success feature prominently as it talks about the lifestyle of modern urban Nepali youth.
This and everything I need
Everything I want
I want gold
Another hot young Nepali rapper is Saurav Dewan. The 18-year-old just finished high school and has been experimenting with hip-hop music and releasing a few numbers. He, like Dong, is a part of the studio Class X Presentation, in Dilibazar, Kathmandu. Dewan is known by his rap name “Zeroo.”
Zeroo’s Timi Pani Nachana (“You Too Can Dance”) was a runaway hit and played on loop at parties. It is a song about a young man going clubbing with his friends and asking a girl out to dance.
You too can dance
Breaking your waist
Going here and there
As Nepal’s home-grown hip-hop talents grow and come of age, the country moves towards having a middle-income economy and the Nepali diaspora grows. Hip-hop, now part of the local movie circuit, is also finding its feet at parties and social movements’ events. It is homegrown, steeped in the local milieu and thrives on the hope that more of the outside world will witness a viral Nepali hip-hop scene sooner or later.