1st January 2020

By Asra Haque

LAHORE: It’s a cold, sunless afternoon and the interior of the Amna Shariff Studio in Lahore’s bustling Gulberg is enveloped in darkness. Switching on the electric lights makes not much of a difference. Outside in the courtyard it much easier to see.

Both Maanu and Rozeo seem unfazed by the biting chill, perhaps because of the excitement their work elicits in them whenever they recite a line or gesture with their hands to the rhythm of a beat. The music playing on their speaker is splayed out in bits and pieces on their laptop screen – barely any instruments are needed when code can simply mimic the sound they require.

“It’s a fire album,” Rozeo says of the duo’s upcoming collaborative work Shahi Killaz, using the same colloquialisms that may have died out among SoundCloud rappers in the West but are just picking up here among South Asian musicians.

When asked if there was anyone track in particular that they liked the best out of all, they couldn’t choose. “They’re all great tracks, it doesn’t make any sense to say ‘this one is so-so, you can skip this one’. We can’t choose,” Maanu chuckles.

So what is Shahi Killaz about?

“It’s about self-expression,” he says matter-of-factly.

There’s nothing transformative, nothing transgressive about it. All this album is trying to say is what these two young men want to say about who they are, and it doesn’t get any more complicated than that. On the surface that is. There’s also a spark of lyrical genius that excites the wit, of a fine understanding of rhythm and beat that echoes without pause in the mind after the first listen, and an earnestness in the voices spitting these rhymes that is almost infectious.

It’s rather surprising to hear then that Maanu doesn’t consider himself a ‘pure’ rapper. He would rather categorize himself as a hip-hop artist with enough lyrical competency to cross over into rap territory.

Rozeo on the other hand knew he wanted to rap when he first heard Eminem at the age of twelve. Prior to their eventual meeting, the two were already making music, distributing it online on every social media the average Pakistani would have any working knowledge of, doing live gigs and performances for scores of audiences, guest-starring on podcasts and producing music videos. And it was during one of Maanu’s performances where Rozeo was in attendance that the duo was born.

“He was performing cGPA and I thought to myself ‘man, I need to work with this guy’,” Rozero recounts what Maanu jokingly refers to as their ‘love story’. “I met up with him and he said he couldn’t right now because he had exams coming up.”

And the rest is history.

But is the album meant to just remain an exercise in self-expression? It’s not as if these two don’t recognize their own talents, confident that they’re set to taking the Lahori rap scene by storm.

“The rap scene differs from city to city. In Karachi, it’s a totally different game but in Lahore, rap hasn’t really taken off yet. It’s practically non-existent,” Maanu explains. “What we’re trying to do with our album is to ‘define’ that scene.”

Rap music has its roots in the African oral tradition, where stories, legends, and morals would be transmitted to coming generations through oration in the absence of a written script. Historians, academics, and even rappers themselves agree that rap music had evolved from this tradition, and reflected a uniquely African-American experience.

Even in post-civil rights America, African-American populations are not offered the same resources and opportunities as white Americans, and are therefore sequestered in low-income neighborhoods and ghettos where they are more exposed to urban violence and decay. These inequalities, and the ire of African-Americans against a system that perpetuates these inequalities, were inherent to golden-age rap music.

The same cannot be said for most modern-day styles of rap. Once the genre became mainstream, once people from all across the globe were listening to this music, either because the social-political commentary hit close to home or because it oozed style in a way they had never heard before, it was only a matter of time before it sprouted a multitude of sub-genres. From diss-tracks that use clever wordplay and entendre to put down a rival, to mumble rap where the delivery personifies the anxieties of the millennial generation, rap music is ever-changing in the modern age.

The genre is seeing a similar evolution in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis who listen to and admire rap agree that their first exposure to the music was through Eminem (Rozeo, unsurprisingly, quoted the Academy Award-winning performer as his inspiration).

But it was in Karachi’s underclass neighborhoods where rap wasn’t something that you just listened to – young men brandish the same devil-may-care attitude, embrace the thrill of life while surrounded by violence, and vilify the powerful for daring to look down upon them in their music. Many understand that in Pakistan, at the very least, rap was born in the streets of Karachi and that was where it found success.

Lahore is a different story. It’s a city of the ghosts of decadent kings and princes, of monuments declaring military strength and celebrating artistic perfection, of old haunts where the country’s intelligentsia convened and conversed, of families with at least one noble in their ancestry. It’s a city that stands opposed to the concrete jungle with canopies of telephone wires, to the fast-paced lives of a people steeped in the decay of modernity that is Karachi. The city rarely offers the same experiences that seem so essential to rap music the way it was born in Karachi – it’s a vacuum and though there have been attempts to fill that vacuum, none so far have been successful.

Maanu and Rozeo however are confident they will not just plug this void, but also finally launch Lahori rap into the mainstream. Their lyrics are not concerned with sociopolitical commentary, their style does not scream “downtown”. There’s a distinctly Lahori identity that the two have wholeheartedly embraced, and want Lahore’s rap scene to embrace as well.