divine at midem

The film Gully Boy has been a huge hit in India, and it’s also reflected the emergence of an exciting new independent hip-hop scene in the country – something journalist Amit Gurbaxani wrote about for Music Ally in September 2018.

Gully Boy is inspired by real-life rappers Divine and Naezy, and Divine (aka Vivian Fernandes) was on-stage at the Midem industry conference this morning, to share his views on Indian hip-hop.

He was joined by Priyanka Khimani, founder and partner at law firm Anand & Anand & Khimani, and Kataria Chaitanya, business head of Gully Gang Entertainment. The moderator was Outdustry MD Ed Peto.

Divine talked about his original discovery of hip-hop, through 50 Cent, which sent him on a discovery journey through the classics of US hip-hop, even though at the time he only spoke Hindi. “We started speaking in English because of hip-hop!” he said. At the time, he said there wasn’t really an independent rap scene in India.

“What I heard on TV was bullshit to me, actually! ‘This is not hip-hop’. I was in that phase where it was all about lyrics – I’m still in that phase actually – and the message that you’re saying, and how you want to give back. When I discovered what was happening back home: there was a scene, but not the scene we have now,” he said.

“It was more that Bollywood used to use hip-hop as a filler… for 45 or 50 seconds. There were no artists coming out with singles or videos that meant something to the scene and to hip-hop. But I think that’s happening now.”

Divine talked about the tools he used to get his own music out into the world in his early days. “I went out and I shot a video with my friends on a phone, because I didn’t have access to cameras at that time. We shot the video on a phone and we put it out in the world,” he said.

At the time, Divine was rapping in English, but it wasn’t until he made his first Hindi hip-hop song that he “really started connecting with the people… it was the local language and the local slang that we use… That is what changed the game: we started using our local language.”

That’s what he sees as special about the Indian hip-hop scene now: tracks and artists are emerging from across the country, in their local languages, rather than being concentrated just around the biggest cities.

Divine did sign to a major label, Sony Music, but earlier this year launched Gully Gang Entertainment, to go it alone. “I wanted to do things on my own, and do it better I guess!” he said, of his move to independence.

“I was shooting my own videos anyway, and I had my own style of rap… I thought why not go out alone? Sony was good, it was not bad. They were there, but I thought that I could just go out there and be on my own, get more opportunities and work with more brands. Brands is where the game changed for me: I worked with Netflix, with Budweiser and Red Bull. These guys are who are bringing in the money for me.”

Khimani said this is an important trend. “It’s been a whole lot of firsts,” she said, noting that there has been an effort to move away from the prevailing “works-for-hire” model in the Indian music industry.

“We’ve deviated from the works-for-hire model very consciously, because we see the long-term value in the music that Divine’s creating… You’ll see a lot of sync deals happening with a lot of brands that he works with,” she said. “The key aspect is that instead of just simply doing a works-for-hire transaction, we licensed the songs out and allowed Divine to keep the rights with him.”

“We work with brands who fit with us culturally, who fit with Divine and his music,” added Kataria, who launched Gully Gang Entertainment with Divine.

“I try to make songs with brands that make sense, first of all. I’ve done movie tracks, but I’ve worked with movies that made sense to me. Gully Boy made sense to me, because it was partly inspired by my life… and it was a Bombay movie,” said Divine. “My main motive is to bring hip-hop properly in India.” Not least to offer inspiration to the next generation of Indian teenagers: “You can do any art-form you want, whether it’s dance or hip-hop”.

He’s keen for Gully Gang Entertainment to continue the collaborative nature of the Indian hip-hop scene, working with an array of younger artists to realise their influences. “It’s not Bollywood that defines our music.”

Kataria talked about the ambitions. “Content is something that’s a big part of it: we’ve been producing videos ourselves for the longest time. Why not do that at scale now?” He added that merchandise has been “neglected” in India, so that’s also high on the company’s agenda.

Khimani said that “it’s been a very conscious decision to know when to say no. That’s one of the most critical aspects… we only associate with brands that we feel very strongly about, and who we feel has a connection with him and his music”. This will extend to other artists working with the label: “How can we not make this another routine brand endorsement or branded-content transaction?”

The team is being built from people who Divine grew up with. “That’s the strongest part about me: these are guys who are my friends and who believe in me and my music,” he said. “My job is to keep calm and keep him out of trouble, so that’s what I do!” added Khimani.

The session ended with a discussion of music-business literacy among Indian artists. “Unfortunately it’s still a market that has yet to become more aware about copyright in general, especially when it comes to hip-hop. It’s a genre that’s establishing itself,” said Khimani.

“It’s very important for them to be educated in some way: to realise what are the different layers of rights that are available, and how you go about protecting this… It’s also the artist’s responsibility to educate themself… to understand the intricacies, and what’s truly valuable.”

Divine had the final word, on the prospects for Indian hip-hop and its artists: “The sound is very fresh, it’s very new and it’s very promising. And it’s coming from all corners. It’s the best time, so let’s see where we go with this!”

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