Roushan Illahi isn’t like any youth in Indian-administered Kashmir Valley. He’s special. He’s a rapper. A poet. His rhymes are as much about him as they are about the countless youth who live in Kashmir -- the world’s highest militarised zone, which also has the highest suicide rate in the world.
Born in 1990, at the peak of the armed insurgency, Roushan, who calls himself MC Kash, and hails from a middle-class family says he has seen “no fancy stuff in all the little time I’ve been alive.” At 20, Roushan is a man on a mission. He sees himself “as a storyteller who walks the graveyards”. He laughs, “I am a student who’s in love with truth. See, my father taught me three H’s – honesty, humility and hard work. That’s all I get reminded of whenever I do something.”
Roushan shot to fame in 2010 -- the year where 123 people were shot in the Valley during pro-freedom demonstrations -- with I Protest (Remembrance), dedicated to Kashmiris. The mellow beat peppered with gunshots betrays the angst felt by not only those who have lived to see atrocities by the Indian security forces over two decades, but also the future generations grapple with brutal state violence marred to a culture of impunity.
In this song, Roushan makes a reference to the “sponsored media who hide this genocide”. There is also a line about the mass rape of the Kashmiri women of Kunanposhpora village in the northern district of Kupwara by a battalion of the Indian army in the early nineties. The song ends with Roushan chanting the names of “all those martyred” in the summer of 2010.
Mostly all of Roushan’s songs depict the perils of living in a militarised society, under “occupation”. One of them goes like this, “They told me I’ll lose my dreams if I blink/Walk with my head down and get shot before I think/Kiss the soil of Kashmir and get stabbed in the back/Talk in simplicity like Gandhi and still get clapped.”
Also ‘Truth’ is a central theme in Roushan’s rhymes. In Bow to the Ground, he chants, “When truth is your weapon, you don’t have a shield. But Allah protects you and faith is all you need.”
Finally, the world can put a face to the voice and the words. Roushan’s latest video Beneath This Sky was released a couple of weeks ago. It got many hits on Facebook's MC Kash (Official) page. Despite the recognition, Roushan remains firmly attached to his past and is able to trace its influences in his work.
About his life, Roushan reveals that he has “grown up and spent my first six years in an area where the ‘Kashmiri sentiments’ run deeper than blood… where a number of mujahideen came from, where the martyrs have special graveyards (that’s the same with every locality out here in Kashmir). I’ve seen and shivered in crackdowns, cried at funerals, inhaled tear gas too many times, got used to gun shots and blasts and you can picture the rest,” he says like one of the thousands of children who have never known peace.
The environment was not conducive and Roushan’s family decided to move out. “We shifted to another place where we practically had a house and a more ‘calm’ neighbourhood. I mean nothing happened out here. No protests. We had army all around us. It’s like one of the biggest camps here in Srinagar. In a way, I got a chance to breathe in an air that never smelled of tear gas.” Recalling the past, Roushan reflects, “I’m blessed to have been brought up by such beautiful parents. They always gave me that freedom to be what I wanted to be… to do what I wanted to do. They did their best to keep me and my brother safe”.
Inspired by the slain American rapper Tupac Shakur, Roushan was never motivated to rap. Shakur was shot when Roushan was only six years old.
For Roushan, rap happened as a way of blowing steam – a mode of expression. “I would say some pretty ugly personal experiences had me contemplating, like I needed to ‘express’ myself and the way I felt about different stuff. Then I started to rhyme. Nothing happens in one day. I was a shy guy at school, never took part in nothing, you know what I’m saying? All I know is that I needed to speak out and hip-hop was the best platform I knew.”
Roushan likes to read. He also loves to write. He elaborates, “I like to learn, most importantly.” Roushan also smokes cigars and hangs around with his friends. “Manchester United. I mean, I’m 20. I got all that you see in a twenty year old. I’m nothing different, just one thing that I stood up for my people and I know how beloved truth is to me ‘cause I have seen it inspire people,” he plainly states.
But unlike any 20-year-old, Roushan has more than one icon he motivates him and that resonates in his lyrics. “See all the Holy Prophets, they are an inspiration for me. I mean you will hear the names of Moses and John the Baptist too. I derive a lot of motivation from their stories. How, they would fight for the truth. How they believed and got through.”
Roushan wants his music to play a role - educate and inspire. He adds, “Probably all I want is to make people ‘think’. Hey! I’ve just sowed a seed. People need to sit back and watch it flourish. Insha’Allah.”
This articulate and bright youngster has his own take on the several decades-old conflict that plagues his beautiful land. The resolution, he says, is simple. “Let the Kashmiris decide. It’s our land. Our soil. No Pakistan. No India. It’s we who die. It’s we who suffer. I don’t know why everybody else is blind to this basic fact. This ‘conflict’ is fought on our soil, so let us decide how to end it.”
This singer and songwriter had a couple of offers of touring from Delhi and Mumbai but nothing formulated. “I guess nobody wants riots. Don't know what future will hold for me, all I can do is work hard and stay true. But I would love to be at places and express myself.”
Roushan has also faced flack from the security agencies for his anti-India lyrics. But that has not deterred him off track, “It’s funny the way my studio got raided by the police. I mean what did the studio people do? Nonetheless, because of it, I’ve been without a recording space for three to four months now. Every other studio just doesn’t want me to be around, you know what I’m saying? Lord keeps me strong though and my mother’s blessings have kept me safe.”
The writer is an Indian journalist and the recipient of Agence France-Presse Kate Webb Prize for her work in Indian-administered Kashmir.