Move over Eminem, meet Menime, Kashmir’s first girl rapper

IND171204BT002Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Hip-hop and rap music were born out of the struggles of black communities in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

Borrowing a page from them, a female high-school student in conflict-torn Kashmir has become a rapping sensation in the conservative, Muslim-majority region, controlled by India, where girls are sometimes not even sent to school.

Emcee Mehak Ashraf, 17, says she is using the politically charged genre to shed light on the repression she and her fellow Kashmiris face every day under Indian occupation.

“Rap is my way of expressing resistance," said Ashraf, who goes by the stage name Menime, an anagram of the American rapper Eminem, one of her biggest inspirations.

Menime, the region's first female rapper, is a shy and gangly girl often found in a gray and purple hoody. She says she began scribbling lyrics when she was 12, after listening to Eminem and reading about the plight of her region in local newspapers.

Now in high-school, she says she sometimes eschews homework to create 'rhymes', often writing about feeling trapped and the sweet freedom that is just hovering nearby, just as she did when she was younger.

“A bird in the trap is also sad, it also wants freedom, so bad! It wants to fly high in the sky and tease the people passing by..,” she wrote when she was 12.

The dizzying speed of her rhymes first drew attention from local radio producers – but not for the reasons she'd hoped for at the time.
"I told them (radio producers) that I’m a political rapper and my songs depict the reality of Kashmir," said Menime, recounting an appearence she made on Kashmiri radio in 2016. "They didn’t want me to touch politics."

Not wanting to forfeit the rare opportunity, she dutifully performed hits by the likes of her idol Eminem and rapper Nikki Minaj.
"But I decided not to perform there again," she said. "All my life I have seen the brutality of Indian occupation. I want to be a political rapper and have my voice heard."

Her appearance on the program didn't go unnoticed: She was quickly contacted by the rap duo A.H.M Dexterity, who were interested in having Menime join them in founding a triad of political rappers.

"She dazzled me with her rapping skills," said Aamir Ismael, 23, also known as Emcee Ame. "That too at such a young age."
Emcee Ame entered the rap game as a lyrical activist in 2010 when over 100 protesters and bystanders in Kashmir were shot dead by Indian soldiers during an anti-India demonstration. Thousands of others were wounded and hundreds blinded by pellet-firing shotguns, a weapon human rights groups have deemed lethal.

"Some choose to throw stones at the occupation – we choose rhymes," said Emcee Ame. "Mehek is the latest addition to our artillery."
Since joining A.H.M Dexterity, Menime has become a sensation in the Muslim majority region where rap as a genre still remains on the fringes of mainstream music. She gained significant attention after releasing a freestyle video online that poignantly discusses the turmoil in Kashmir.

"We are creating a platform for the artists, especially women, to help them be heard," said A.H.M Dexterity's other member, Mir Imaad, 23, also known as Emcee Husteer.

"Unfortunately, we live in an occupied state, we don’t have resources and we get no sponsorship,” he added. “But we want hip-hop culture to grow to the level where it can become a huge market in Kashmir."

It's a lofty goal in Kashmir, where outspoken dissenters are silenced and pro-independence groups often spar with Indian forces who have been permanently stationed in the region for seven decades, say locals. Some 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 1989, while another 10,000 have been forcibly disappeared by government forces, according to the rights activists and pro-independence groups.

Menime's family feared a similar fate for their daughter when she revealed her passion, but ultimately gave in to her wishes. It'll likely to be a more difficult task to win over the hearts and minds of others, said Amjad Majid, a Kashmiri art critic.

“Kashmir has given birth to one of its first speed rappers," he said. "What worries me is how all this will play out in Indian media, which seems hell-bent on portraying Kashmiri culture under a homogenized tint of conservatism in order to disconnect it from the rest of the world."

The Indian media is wildly unpopular in Kashmir, where it’s seen as an extension of the state.

"They label our martyrs as terrorists," said Menime.

That's not going to stop her from following her passion: "I can only laugh at them," she added.

But the Indian state has been known to close down rap concerts, which they view as too controversial.

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore recently, police stopped a show amid accusations that Kashmiri rapper Roushan Elahi’s lyrics were "anti-national." Elahi was among the first rappers to rhyme about the atrocities in Kashmir that ensued during the 2010 protests against the Indian military.

Despite the constraints of the state, Menime could stand to benefit from the support of local Kashmiris, said Najeeb Mubarki, a journalist and political analyst.

“But what is also relevant is how the state will react, since its default mode is crushing, if not criminalizing, all and any forms of dissent and resistance to its brutality in Kashmir,” he said.

Menime worries about being targeted like other rappers in Kashmir, some of whom have been forced to go underground after their music has been labeled seditious.

“Such threats may scare me – but nothing scares me more than my mother’s scolding," she said with a smile.

“I feel really weak when I see deaths and destruction," she added. "It’s rap that gives me courage though.”

Photo: Dec 4, 2017 - Srinagar, India-controlled Kashmir - A H M Dexterity band poses for a group photo in Srinagar. Kashmir's new generation is engaging with global cultures, especially with the hip-hop scenes from around the world, including those from the U.S.
Credit: Baba Tamim/ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: 12/29/2017

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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