Straight outta Karachi: Pakistan's surprise hip hop hub - GulfToday

Straight outta Karachi: Pakistan's surprise hip hop hub

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Rappers Mohammad Omar, right, and Wasim Masih perform in Lyari, Pakistan. AFP

Haunted by gang violence and poverty for decades, Lyari was once considered one of Pakistan's most dangerous areas, but those grim realities also inspired a generation of artists and spawned a burgeoning hip hop scene.

With its close proximity to the sea and history of smuggling, the largely ethnic Balochi neighbourhood in Karachi stands apart for its history of violence and lawlessness even by Pakistan's standards. 

Heavily armed gangs and political hit squads exerted iron-fisted control over large swathes of Lyari, squashing economic growth while residents battled with the fallout, including rampant drug abuse and poverty.

"Lyari was a notorious place because of the gangs and the war. It was almost impossible for outsiders to even think about entering," explains resident and new rapper Mohammad Omar.

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Eight-year-old rapper Waqas Baloch, centre performs in Lyari. AFP

Showing reality

Hip hop became a global phenomenon, but the genre initially failed to generate much traction in Pakistan where music fans tended to listen to pop, Bollywood soundtracks or traditional Sufi music.

"In other cities and provinces, there's rap but it's mostly about beautiful women and luxury cars," says producer Qammar Anwar Baloch.

"We are showing reality."

This artistic expression with a bass line first burst onto the nation's airwaves in 2017 following the release of the hit song and video "The Players of Lyari" by the Lyari Underground.

"The young people in Lyari represent one of the first times in Pakistani history where kids from the working classes are contributing to the music that upper classes listen to as well," explains writer Ahmer Naqvi.

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Qammar Anwar Baloch speaks during an interview in Lyari. AFP

"They're using this moment to sort of assert their own place within Pakistani society, to not be content with being on the margins," he adds.

Digital underground

For years, their voices and stories were largely invisible in Pakistan.

With little performance space available Lyari's rappers have largely turned to the internet to share their clips of their songs, which generate millions of views online.

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Writer Ahmer Naqvi speaks during an interview in Lyari. AFP

"I want to highlight the issues in Karachi and my own area in Lyari," explains eight-year-old rapper Waqas Baloch, who released a video under the moniker Thousand earlier this summer.

For cleric Jameel Ahmed who runs a madrassa in Lyari youth interest in music and personal expression is a welcome relief after years of tough times.

"It is far better than drugs, booze and other such menaces. Music is helping them stay away from such things," says Ahmed.

He adds: "Now, their minds are opening up."

Agence France-Presse

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