Where Hip-Hop Lives

Tracing the story of Indian hip-hop through that of Alvin Augustine, aka Nivla, legal administrator by compulsion, desi emcee by passion

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Hip-hop culture has often been adopted as a medium of expression by minority youth.

By Mansi Choksi

Nivla swills a glass of Scotch. His liquid eyes, set deep inside a face outlined with a Rick Ross beard, are staring into a mirror. Pages scrawled with aborted lyrics are flying, assorted pills tumble into an outstretched palm, a noose dangles and a steel microphone is tipping slowly, oozing blood. Nivla, sinewy in a hoodie layered under a leather jacket, is punching imaginary walls, slicing the air and yowling into oblivion while rapping in the video for his song Feet On The Ground:

Come on homie, please console me / I’m feelin’ so helpless, so sad and lonely / My thoughts control me / Man I can’t help this, this feelin’ that I’m feelin’ man,/ I’m goin’ fuckin’ crazy, man / Please don’t betray me now, hip-hop / I need you to save me.

These lyrics had been brewing in Alvin Augustine’s mind for years. They haunted him every morning when he bitterly threw on a pinstriped shirt, boarded a thundering bus from Weehawken, New Jersey, and lumbered into a clinical cubicled law firm in midtown Manhattan. The song was the tremolo in his musical struggle, a rendition of his frustration with leading a dual life: Alvin the law firm administrator by day, Nivla the struggling Indian hip-hop artiste by night.

Augustine was born to Malayalee parents in White Plains, New York. At 17, he handed his high school friends a CD of songs he’d recorded at a neighborhood studio for $30 an hour. People said he had good ‘delivery’ and told him to keep going. At 32, he’s not sure if he should still be taking that advice.

“If you’re doing something for your girlfriend and she ain’t appreciating you, at the beginning, you’ll tolerate it. After a while, you’re gonna be like, ‘I’m showing you all this love, but am I wasting my time here?’” says Augustine, who likes to emphasise the last word of every sentence. “I look at music as one of my relationships.”

Some relationships are unequal. That’s an idea Augustine is getting used to, 15 years after he denied his parents the bragging rights reserved for those with a doctor or engineer son at Indian gatherings. Instead, he chose to become an emcee, rapping about “growing up as a Brown person in a White neighborhood”. It was a time when a dozen other Indians were experimenting with hip-hop. One by one, the others grew out of it and called it a night. But Augustine is still not ready to let the sun set.

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In the mid-90s, some of New York City’s nightclubs could easily have been airdropped into Mumbai and no one would have noticed. Men bathed in perfume spewing bastardised Hinglish and women in silky dresses puckering their red lips around straws expressed collective mock horror when Genuwine phased into Aap Jaisa Koi.

This distinctly South Asian youth culture, rooted in hip-hop and Hindi pop, was at the time being carefully curated by roughly a dozen Indian deejays, emcees and party promoters. Augustine was one of them.

“The girls would go crazy. And the guys, they’d be, like, confused because they don’t really wanna dance to Aap Jaisa Koi, but the girls were swayin’ so it was like, ‘Whaaat?’ There was, like, a whole crew of us. I don’t see that kinda unity these days,” says DJ Sharad, who started the India Independence Day Parade after-parties. He doesn’t give his last name because he doesn’t like it.

Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Davis, and author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City, met a young Indian American in 1996 who articulated the appeal of the desi party phenomenon. He told her that these parties were the locus for young Indian Americans’ negotiation of a “politics of cool” and a “politics of nostalgia”.

“That is why each Friday night, I bounce my head to the latest jam, to the latest beat to be found anywhere between New York and DC… Here is where I find my catharsis. Here is where I suspect many other kids find theirs… Indian Americans have started fusing our own music, producing our own act, and writing our own stories. As with all other Americans, we draw from many traditions—African, Latino, European, Asian—but we do it to our own beats,” he told Maira. It was at one of these parties that DJ Sharad met Marco Glorious Khare, an NBA presenter, singer and model who is also an Indian emcee and break-dancer. “Look at me; I look like a Black man,” says Khare, whose father is Indian and mother is Black. He wears a Yankees cap paired with a purple tie, a solitaire flashing in one ear. His biceps burst from his sleeves and he has a tendency to wear sunglasses even at night.

Khare grew up in Harlem and began experimenting with Indian influences when he was trying to break into the community of South Asian hip-hop artistes in early 2000. When Khare was a boy, his father’s Indian friends would ask who the little Black child holding his hand was. “My dad would be like, ‘That’s my son,’ and they’d be like, ‘Oh.’”

When he showed up for an after-party DJ Sharad had thrown, he didn’t like what he heard. “I went along with one my boys who is Indian and we met up with some of his friends there. And they’re like, ‘Whoa, okay, you comin’ to show love?’ and I’m like ‘Naah, I’m actually half-Indian.’ And they’re like, ‘You’re half Indian for the day, huh? You trying to get Indian girls?’”

Most desi parties operated on high levels of testosterone. It was not uncommon to watch men roll their sleeves and come to fisticuffs without much more provocation than an accidental push, says DJ Sharad. According to Maira, desi youth turned to hip-hop fundamentally because it was key to marking their belonging in the multi-ethnic urban landscape of New York City. ‘And for many second-generation Indians, hip-hop style connoted a certain image of a racialised hyper-masculinity,’ she writes.

By the mid-2000s, the crew began to fall apart. Many gave up and fell out of love with hip-hop. “Guys got older. Guys weren’t makin’ money, guys parents said, ‘Yo, get married and get a job,’” says DJ Sharad, who has a paunch, a bald spot, and wears rimless spectacles, but compensates with heavy use of words like ‘dope’, ‘hawt’, and ‘rollin’.

The quitters left with a stinging bruise. None had won airtime on Hot 97, the New York City radio station with the slogan ‘Where Hip Hop Lives’. For Indian emcees, Hot 97 is some kind of musical moksha.

“We didn’t make it on Hot 97 because we kept sayin’ we do Indian hip-hop. But hip-hop is not a Black thing, not a White thing, not a Brown thing,” DJ Sharad explains. “Fat Joe didn’t say he was doin’ Latin hip-hop, Eminem didn’t say he was doin’ White hip-hop. These guys were just doin’ hip-hop. To say ‘We do Indian hip-hop’ is to completely pigeonhole us. Music is a universal language right? That’s the way to get to Hot 97.”

DJ Sharad retired from the console too. He partnered with Khare to found DJUSA in 2003, “an elite team of seasoned entertainers with years of experience in event production”. DJUSA’s “complete event production services” include providing assorted ottomans, “intelligent lighting” and LED dance floors, and its “complete entertainment services” is a catalogue of DJs making peace signs and funny faces (four of the 18 DJs are Indian).

“You’re not gonna pay bills doing college shows and lookin’ cool and coming out with music only Indian people listen to,” DJ Sharad says.

He is sitting in the driver’s seat beside Khare in a black Honda with tinted windows, chrome lights and Lord Ganesh peering from the dashboard.

“Lookin’ cool is important, man,” Khare interjects. “Hey, I used to pride myself in wearing Timberlands.”

“You still wearin’ them now, no one wears them right now.”

“No, we bringing them back. Jay-Z wore Timberlands the other day.”

“Yep, then it’s a good look.”

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It’s 25 March 2010. LQ, a nightclub in the Radisson Hotel in midtown Manhattan, is crowded with abundant women squeezed into satin halters and men in tawdry Ed Hardys with gelled hair. They are standing around a makeshift stage barricaded with speakers. The crowd is only spasmodically visible when the spotlights above pulsate to the beat of a dhol. An invisible voice finally bellows, “Raise your hands for Nivlaaaaaaa!” The crowd erupts, mobile cameras are whipped out and one giddy young woman with shiny flat hair and a livestrong bracelet lets out a remarkable shriek.

“LQs, y’all with me?” roars Augustine, in a checkered blue shirt, leather jacket, a Yankee cap and aviators. He is waving a bottle of Poland Spring water. People are jumping. “Then make some nooooise.”

Put your hands up, oh, oh, oh / Put your hands up, oh, oh, oh

“I got a question,” Augustine barks. “Where’s all the Punjabis at?”

That night Augustine shared the stage with Sean Paul, the Grammy-winning dancehall and reggae artiste. “It was a pretty big deal,” he says. One advertisement for tickets said: ‘You will get to smoke weed with Sean Paul while eating mango with Nivla’. “Okay, the last part is not true. If you are in the NYC area and want to check out the event, call me.”

It’s 3 May 2013. Augustine is in Bryant Park, only a block away from his office in midtown Manhattan. This is where he comes to eat lunch on his own, to escape the drudgery of refreshing an inbox full of legal documents that need review.

“It’s a basic nine-to-five job… paperwork and stuff like that,” he says, sitting in a leafy corner away from the main street to avoid bumping into colleagues. “There is nothing about my job that excites me [enough] for me to wanna talk about it.”

Augustine keeps his alter ego concealed from his colleagues, “a bunch of older women with children,” he calls them. “I don’t want them to know. Let’s say I mess up with my job, they’re gonna be like, ‘He was probably out till 3 am drinking.’ There’s a stigma attached to hip-hop.”

Today, he took a detour of three blocks to come to the park, in order to avoid colleagues looking for company. “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think I’m just a person who sits at home on Fridays and Saturdays and reads books all night. The way I am at work… I’m all studious and all quiet, mindin’ my own business,” he says.

When he took on the role of coordinator at the law firm in 2008, his plan was to make enough money to live in New York, pay for his videos, get famous and quit. “I wanna break out of this job so bad,” he says. “But if it doesn’t happen, I guess it doesn’t happen.”

Tomorrow, he will wake up at 8 am, make himself eggs and get on the 8.50 bus at Weehawken Port Imperial. He will watch the Manhattan skyline tear past him, force a smile at colleagues and watch the clock tick to 6.30 pm.

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It became harder for Augustine to lose hope after he tasted fame. In 1998, he was trying to get DJ Sharad’s attention. Sharad had already made a name for himself by circulating mixtapes in desi communities in the tristate area. “He heard my stuff in the beginning and told me to keep doin’ what I’m doin’. He was clearly not impressed,” Augustine says.

A year later, at a South Asian Students Alliance convention in Houston, Texas, Augustine showed up with 400 CDs he had burnt himself. “By the end of the night, the CDs ended up all over the floor, broken and shattered. I was mad upset,” he says. But one of them landed in DJ Sharad’s hands. “He was like, ‘Yo, before this, I wasn’t givin’ you the respect you deserve. I wanna work with you.’”

He made it to DJ Sharad’s mixtape and began getting gigs at India Independence Day Parade parties. “The way I look at it is that if you make it, pull me up and if make it, I’ll pull you up. At the end of the day, we are here to help each other. Jealously and stuff—that can’t get in the way of making it.”

In 2008, Augustine came close, when he entered the Doritos Crash The Super Bowl Challenge, a contest that asked undiscovered musicians to submit a video clip of an original song that was ‘like Doritos tortilla chips: inspired by the musician’s passion and creativity’. The most popular artiste would have his or her song aired during a commercial break during the Super Bowl XLII broadcast, while three top finalists would win a distribution deal with Interscope Records, the label behind Madonna and 50 Cent.

Augustine didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, but his song, Be Easy, which featured Punjabi vocals, was picked up for distribution. “This was the first time this happened, from what I know, for an Indian person,” he says.

He found himself in Yonkers, surrounded by turbaned men in Safari suits and women in tie-dye saris, giving an acceptance speech at an event later reported in a Malayalee paper published in New Jersey called Escharnian. “I would just, you know, like to thank everybody in the Indian community. If it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be doin’ the music I’m doin’ or [have] gotten that distribution deal with Interscope Records,” he had said. An Indian man in the crowd had butted in good-naturedly: “Next time, you have to win.”

In three years, he felt the red carpet being been pulled from under his feet. In 2011, he agreed to be the final act at a campus event at St John’s University in Queens, NY. He was ready: beard closely trimmed, jacket crisp, Yankees cap screwed slightly to the right. But mid-performance, the organisers turned off the power. The event had overrun its schedule and the hall had to be emptied. “I was like ‘What? Why?’ They said the hall had to be emptied. I felt like the biggest idiot,” he says. “And then I thought to myself, if I was Jay-Z, that would’ve never happened.”

Memories like these have resulted in a cluttered desktop. Finished songs languish there until Augustine feels inspired to upload. These days, he says, negativity is far more familiar than he would like. “I do try to look at the larger picture,” he says. “If it doesn’t happen, you have to understand. I’m a Christian, I’m a believer in God. There’s a reason why things don’t happen for you. Maybe God’s telling me that he doesn’t want me in this industry because I’ll become a drug addict or hang around with the wrong people.”

He glances at his wrist where a bracelet reads ‘MK11 22-25.’ It refers to a Biblical verse—‘If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.’ Those words remind him to be optimistic. “But you know, if Jay-Z sees me with a bunch of other people, he’s gonna look at me and say, ‘He’s not White, he’s not Black, what’s he about’ and, in a way, it could work out,” he says.

Published in Open; September 7, 2013.