Ahmer Javed’s story is not a singular experience, as it is also the story of countless people residing in the valley of Kashmir whose lives have not been the same ever since the annulment of Article 370 of the Indian constitution on August 5, 2019. Although born in a relatively privileged world, the rapper was not exempt from witnessing the horrors going on in the valley from an early age. He went on to establish a career in hip-hop for himself, and eventually came to the realization that as an artist it was his responsibility to bring to light the terrible situation of his motherland and voice his protest against the rampant violence and destruction meted towards it.
Azli, the rapper’s second full-length album released via Azadi Records, describes itself as “an acute aural experience of a psychotic breakdown”. Going in, I held no expectations of what to take away from this record. I was approaching an artist for the first time in all his glory, in a very intimate re-accounting of a reality that he has lived through; a reality that is the real-time experience of thousands of Kashmiris alive today. Being a politically outspoken artist in the 21st century is nothing short of being courageous. In India, a sect of its youthful hip-hop scene has held the flag of protest and freedom high for future generations to follow in their footsteps. Extending another hand to support that flag is this 11-tracked album created in collaboration with several other artists in the scene as well as one of the most prominent voices from the pool of artistic discourse in the state – poet Madhosh Balhami.
The young artist is ruthless in his delivery, rapping in Kashmiri and Hindi, and carefully selecting his words to paint a vivid picture of the hell in front of him – taking you on a trip through the nightmare that has become the life of those living in the valley. In a couple of songs (“Kalkharab I and II” made in collaboration with Tufail and Akillar respectively), his tone is sardonic, as he rubs it in the face of those who have tried to malign his name through vicious smear campaigns – something that every emerging artist Kashmir’s hip-hop scene has had to face one way or the other. The album also incorporates Balhami’s self-readings of his poems (“Skit I” and “Skit II”), attuned to the core narrative of the album.
Carrying the baton from Little Kids, Big Dreams, “Intro” connects the dots between his previous EP and Azli. The pilot track establishes the mood of the album – one that ranges from abhorrence and derision to acceptance and finally hope. These emotions become palpable with “Gumrah” which acts as a metaphor for the artist’s unstable state of mind. His verses are full of self-pity and lament, almost to the point where he feels forsaken by those around him. In “Nishaan” and “Janaza (Interlude)” he portrays the collective helplessness experienced by those stuck in this vicious cycle through his words and the accompanying instrumentals. “Rov” (created in collaboration with Faheem Abdullah and Hyder Dar) marks a stark shift in the tone of the record, crooning about the pain and loss suffered by countless Kashmiris who have been a victim of the ongoing strife. The melodic vocals juxtaposed with impactful rap verses entail a kind of sentiment only experienced by those who have been on the receiving end of such violence. It’s almost as if you can feel the anguish churning in your stomach firsthand.
The acceptance phase of Azli’s narrative is brought forth by “Takabur” (featuring Qafilah) and “KUN”. Ahmer is pensive and contemplative, trying to process everything that has been going on in the valley that has transformed it into a slaughterhouse. He is desperate yet hopeful in his approach in these tracks. Fluttery and aggressive, his verses hold in them a burning desire for change, freedom, and victory. The album draws the curtains with “Shuhul Naar” which is by far the most intriguing track on the record. The song incorporates schmaltzy folk vocals alongside fiery rap verses to convey itself and also sheds the limelight on the rich musical repertoire of the valley. Musician Junaid Ahmed contributes his vocals to the track, singing about the collective trauma experienced by the people, to finding salvation and inner peace amidst the turmoil. It is both hopeful and gut-wrenching, signifying the dichotomy that is Kashmir – with its magnificent natural beauty and endless struggles, as it remains to be a story that serves as an example of resilience and indomitable spirit.