We are born in crackdowns, we die in curfews: The measured resistance of Kashmiri rapper Ahmer

In early July this year, Ahmer Javed, a 24-year-old Kashmiri rapper, released his debut album, “Little Kid, Big Dreams.” Javed said, “I’ve lost hope. But when I’m in the studio, when I’m working on music, I can express myself on the mic.” Courtesy Azadi Records
25 August, 2019

Growing up in Kashmir, there was one incident that moved Ahmer Javed deeply. He did not remember exactly when it happened—he recalled that he was really young and his older brother was in high school. There was a curfew at the time. During the permitted time period, his brother went out to buy milk. There were two military bunkers—now abandoned—near where they lived. His brother was stopped by members of the armed forces and asked where he was going. He told them he wanted to get milk, but they started questioning him further. “Tu hi chillata hai na, azadi, azadi’”You’re the one who keeps yelling “freedom, freedom,” right. He told the soldiers that they were mistaken—“I’ve never been out, I’m not about that life,” Javed said his brother told them. But the security personnel started beating him up. Javed’s family tried to intervene and a cousin of theirs stood in front of his brother, but he was attacked as well. Eventually, the family managed to stop the assault.

Javed was at home in the bathroom when his family got to know what was happening. “I came out, and I heard my mother cry,” he told me. “She was in the lobby; she sat down and she was crying … she was like, ‘They’re going to kill him.’ My legs were quivering. I went back to the washroom and I locked myself in. I couldn’t see that.” He only stepped out of the bathroom once he learnt that his brother was safe. He did not blame the armed forces in the area. “It’s just the kind of conditions they’ve been put in,” he said. “They don’t want that life, they’re just following orders. I know who’s controlling them.” Yet, the incident has stayed with him.

In early July this year, Javed, now a 24-year-old rapper, released his debut album, Little Kid, Big Dreams, in collaboration with Sajeel Kapoor, a Delhi-based producer who goes by the moniker Sez On The Beat, via the independent hip-hop label Azadi Records. The album is an eight-song hip-hop record about Javed’s experiences growing up in Srinagar and navigating the volatile political past and present of the region. We met, incidentally, on 5 August, just a few hours after the central government announced that it had scrapped the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Javed was visibly upset at the developments. He said he had spoken to his family the previous night, before communications were cut off, a curfew was enforced and mainstream political leaders in the state were detained and subsequently arrested. Javed was in Delhi to work on a music video for a track from the album, and was originally supposed to fly back home, to Rajbagh in Srinagar, a couple of days after we met. But his plans were rendered uncertain. In the week before the government announced its decision, Kashmir had witnessed heavy deployment of paramilitary forces and an evacuation of tourists and pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra. “My father was telling how it’s just like it was in the ’90s,” Javed said, referring to the period of peak militancy in Kashmir in the early 1990s. “In fact, it’s way worse.”

Broad-shouldered with a beard and a crisp haircut, Javed was dressed in a blue buttoned-down shirt, khaki pants and sneakers. He kept his backpack on the chair next to him. He often looked away, gazing into the distance. He had not eaten all day, and he glanced at his phone every now and then to see if there were any updates. The previous night, he had played a gig with the rapper and fellow Azadi Records artist Prabh Deep. Javed said he did not really want to perform, but felt that he needed to use the platform to speak his mind, choosing to address the crowd about the developments in Kashmir. He spoke about the communication lockdown and how Kashmiris outside the state had no information on what was going on. He emphasised that people in Delhi cheer the developments in Kashmir, whereas the situation is different on the ground, and there is an actual cost to this that affects the people in Kashmir.

In person, even as Javed discussed the relevance of Article 370 in Kashmir just hours after it was effectively nullified, he was fuming, but rarely furious. He seemed disheartened, disenfranchised. He is eloquent and had a lot to say about the politics of Kashmir and the plight of its people, but he was largely circumspect in the way he spoke—he weighed his words in real-time, measuring his sentences as he said them, a restless leg accompanying the train of his thoughts. Instead of offering complete sentences, he preferred to chop and change, to deliberate, formulate and fine-tune his comments as he went along. It seemed, from the outside, that what he felt was a seething kind of rage. “Vibe hi hai ye meri, meri zindagi hi aise hai, kya karoon main?” he said—This is my vibe, this is my life, what do I do? “Man, I’m frustrated, I’m depressed, I’m vulnerable. I… I’ve lost hope. But when I’m in the studio, when I’m working on music, I can express myself on the mic. I feel like music, for me, is holy. It has to be honest. It has to be from the heart.”


Hip-hop entered Javed’s life when he was in his early teens—as it so often is with artists of his age in India—with the rapper 50 Cent’s song “In Da Club.” He had never been particularly interested in academics because he felt that there was a clear agenda in what was being taught. “They’re going to only let you read the books theywant you to,” Javed said. “I never wanted it, it wasn’t for me. I always felt it was pushed down my throat.” He said he was introverted, limiting himself to a few friends. But music helped him find a purpose, an outlet to express himself. In time, he began, along with his friends, to write his own material. “I tried to pen down something, came up with a few lines. Uss time ke hisaab se”—at that point of time“it was whack!” he laughed.

His initial interest in the form, sparked by that song, led him down the history of the sound. He learnt of hip-hop’s underlying spirit of resistance and rebellion by the black and Latin communities against the oppression they faced in the United States. “It’s about sending a message, about speaking up—that was also important in my life,” Javed told me. “I did my research about the genre and what it’s all about. How the black community in the ghettos used to speak up against the atrocities they faced—police brutality and stuff. I could relate to that part a lot.” The rapper Roushan Illahi, who uses the moniker MC Kash and is considered a pioneering figure in the Kashmiri hip-hop scene, was a formative influence for Javed. In Little Kid, Big Dreams, Javed acknowledged Illahi’s impact on his life through a minute-long skit titled “Roushan,” about the time that the police raided Illahi’s studio, on suspicion of him being associated with separatists.

Little Kid, Big Dreams was originally supposed to be entirely in English. But after several conversations with his producer Sajeel and Uday Kapur, a co-founder of Azadi Records, Javed decided to rap in Kashmiri and his Urdu-inflected Hindi, while throwing in the occasional English phrase or flourish. Javed credited both of them greatly for helping with the creative process of working on the album—about holding on to his Kashmiri roots, while also using Hindi as a way to reach out to mainstream audiences, to inform them of what is happening in the Valley.

“You have to know where you want to reach with this,” Javed recalled Sajeel telling him, which led him to ponder about his vision for the record. He realised that it was a mix of three things. One was his own journey: “Me being that kid who was introverted, shy, but he had his music. It became his friend. He felt complete with it; that’s that little kid right there.” The second was conflict, and how Kashmiris cannot get away from it. “We are connected with it every day, we will be there with it, and we’ll die within that conflict. It’s there, you can’t rinse away that conflict from me.” And the third thing he said he is trying to push through this record is the culture and language of Kashmir. The language, especially, is something that he feels has begun to fade away, and thus the decision to use Kashmiri on several of the songs, for reasons both stylistic and ideological.

Javed’s rapping style is a reflection of his personality. The subject matter of Little Kid, Big Dreams is loaded, and it is intensely personal. The struggles of his fellow Kashmiris, the strife in the region—it is indelibly connected to his self-identity. But Javed chooses a more superficially laidback approach. His style is not directly confrontational—it is often a laying-bare of facts and stories, urging the listener to make up her mind, rather than guiding her urgently to a conclusion. The music resonates and intensifies upon repeat listens, it lends itself to introspection and careful thought. A perfect example of this is “Elaan,” one of the standout tracks from this album, which features a collaboration with Prabh Deep, who raps in Punjabi. Prabh spits out rapid-fire verses with a rage that is visceral and palpable. It is directed anger—a primeval, flaming kind of madness.

Menu chayedi azadi nakli soch toh
pyo di ponch toh
Kashmir di fauj toh
Menu rok lo ya thok do
Meri awaaz twaade toh zyaada bulandh
Lok Sabhavich jinaa marzi bhonk lo

(I want freedom from fake thinking
from your father’s reach
from Kashmir’s armed forces
Stop me or kill me
My voice is louder than yours
You can bark as much as you want in the Lok Sabha)

Javed, on the other hand, has a far more inward, searching style of delivery. It is not flaming, it is simmering.

Pura bachpan jung mein pala hai
Dehshat ka samma joh geebat se bara hai
Harna mere khoon mein kahan hai
Junoon ye gawah hai, main maut se lada hai.

(I was brought up in war
The season of terror and slander
Losing is not in my blood
My passion is witness, I have fought death.)

On “Elaan,” the interplay between the two contrasting styles—united in their emotional heft and sense of injustice—offers a thrilling experience to the listener, backed by Sajeel’s menacing groove on the drums.

The fact that Javed shifts between languages adds a lot of dynamic movement to the music on Little Kid, Big Dreams—as he said, with no hint of outward bluster or conceit, he has always had a strong sense of rhythm and flow. It is true. While a lot of rappers in India excel at rapping over the beat backing them, allowing the instruments to add momentum shifts and dynamics to the music, Javed’s style heads in a different direction. He tends to use his voice to tease and play around with the beat.

Perhaps it is due to the natural cadences and whims of Kashmiri as a language but, especially in the hooks of songs, Javed often hits the off pockets in the beat—most memorably in the track “Kasheer.” To explain: the standard beat in music, a 4/4, has four counts per bar. So, a listener will generally count each section as one-two-three-four and repeat—the same points at which you would tap your foot or bob your head. If you speed up the tapping to maintain the rhythm, you can—within that one bar of four foot-taps—manage 16 taps, which is how you would normally count beats in music. Between the conventional foot taps, the one-two-three-four, lie a host of “pockets.” Rappers often emphasise and stress words or syllables on the first or third taps. Javed, on the other hand, has an innate ability to leave restful pauses and hit the pockets that lie in between the taps. It triggers a poetic dynamism to the songs, with unpredictable rhythmic dips and rises. There’s a charming freedom to the cadence.


Aijaz Ahmad Dar, a prominent name in Kashmiri insurgency, has been a looming presence in Javed’s life. The armed insurgency in Kashmir was triggered by the elections in 1987, which were rigged and prompted protests across the region. Dar was killed not long after, in 1989, and is seen as a martyr of the Kashmiri resistance. Though he died long before Javed, his nephew, was born, his politics and his self-belief have had a huge impact on the young rapper. According to Javed, he was one of the first militants to be killed, amid one of the earliest insurgency operations in Kashmir. “It was very hard for the people who were standing up,” Javed told me. “The uprising happened after the vote rigging took place. Before that, people were non-violent, but then the idea of democracy was killed. They thought, ‘This is the way now. We have to pick up arms.’ They were fighting against the system. Their idea was clear: it was independence. It was Azad Kashmir. They knew that neither the people to their east nor the west”—referring to India and Pakistan—“they both want land, that’s what they care about.”

The third song on the record, “Uncle,” is a tribute to Dar. “I still don’t look at him in that way,” Javed said, referring to Dar’s life as a militant. “I look at him as a family member.” Javed’s family is not affiliated in any way with the movement for an Azad Kashmir. In fact, the family has consciously resisted publicising Dar’s legacy and even kept his uncle’s story from Javed when he was young. “We just wanted him to rest,” Javed said. “I was also hesitant. I didn’t want to bring up Uncle either, but I felt that this is a part of my life, so I need to. I want people to at least remember.”

“My father told me there will never be another like him,” Javed said. “That’s how strong he was as a person—it really takes a lot for a person to give up everything for a cause. I don’t care who understands it, I don’t give a damn now. I know what he stood up for.” His death took a toll on the family, both emotionally as well as in terms of the fallout, including coercive actions by paramilitary personnel such as the Border Security Force. “We had BSF breaking into our houses at 2 am, through windows, out of nowhere. Over suspicion, my father has spent a lot of time in jail. An uncle of mine was made to drink piss in jail. My grandpa has spent a long time in jail.”

Javed emphasised that these sorts of accounts were not unique to his family. “That’s the thing, man. I’m not here to tell people this has happened to me. I’ve heard really gruesome stories, bro. People need to see the whole build-up to this frustration wouldn’t have existed had the system worked enough to give justice to the innocents who were killed, who disappeared, who were raped. It wouldn’t have built up to this.” He seemed to have lost his patience with the nature of public administration in Kashmir. “Now, even if you bring up all your facts, all your saboot”—evidence—“you still won’t be termed as truthful. It’s a fight that, for me, is useless.”

“Uncle” is structured as a conversation between Javed and Dar. “There were a few things that I wanted … I wished I could discuss with him in person,” Javed said. “I felt that, through this track, I could immortalise him. A little. Just. It’s still not the justice I want to do to his story.” The middle section of “Uncle” sees an older relative of Javed reciting, in Kashmiri, a translation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—the famous “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” quote, where Macbeth rues the futility of the future. “That’s where he realises that life has no significance,” Javed said, explaining why the scene resonated with him. “All I could see was Kashmir, and it was burning. With people in power who are going to do anything for it, who are not going to give up their power. Just like Macbeth did. He killed people just to get to that place and he still wasn’t satisfied because there was going to be another one to overthrow him.”

These ideas form the heart of Little Kid, Big Dreams. Of course, there are also songs about his own journey—the opener, “Sifar,” for instance, is autobiographical, and Javed admitted that he himself felt “zero” at everything until music came along. The titular track, which closes the album, acts as the lone ray of sunshine in a record that swivels often between despondency and hope, resilience, resistance, rebellion. Javed and Sajeel decided to add the positively sunny guitar lines and the “chota ladka, bade sapne”—the Hindi translation of “little kid, big dreams”—refrain as a way to counter the serious tone of the rest of the record.

According to Javed, the track that set the wheels spinning for the narrative of Little Kid, Big Dreams is “Kasheer,” which, in Kashmiri, means “Mother Kashmir.” It’s a hard-hitting poem of protest—“It was basically me venting,” he said. It begins with the chilling line: “Crackdown’nas manz zaamit/ curfew manz maraan/ Haqoomat yi haptan hunz/ nindrah karaan—“We are born in crackdowns/ and we die in curfews/ We are governed by bears/ who hibernate.” Instead of sticking with a single narrative, Javed decided to confront the powers that be in Delhi as well as those back home. “We are not meant to be slaves,” the song continues. “We are not those people. You can’t control us.” The hook on “Kasheer,” in fact, is one of the most powerful moments on the record; by his own admission, it is one of the most important pieces he has written: “Yi? Asi na yi soori qabool/ Yeti na chalaan kah asool/ Kemsundh yi soori qasoor?/ Soni yi soori fitoor, soni yi soori fitoor/ Yah chu Kasheer!” It is a section of the song where Javed’s considerable gifts as an aesthete who understands sounds and rhythmic exchanges within short phrases of music, as well as his intensity and honesty as a lyricist, collide effortlessly.

He translated the hook for me: “We will never accept all this. There are no principles at work here. Who is to blame for all this? I guess, this is our obsession then.” The song goes on to address the insurgency of the 1990s, and how that era of turmoil affected the citizens of the Valley. “I take them back. To what my parents have seen. They used to drag us out of our homes. They used to talk with guns.”

The song also talks of the rights of people. “We have to beg for justice. These people, they take away our rights and still we don’t fall. If we tell them the truth, they’ll just label us ‘Pakistanis.’ That’s what they do.” Like much of the album, “Kasheer” is a rallying cry, a voice of protest amid the chaos.

With its rich history and culture, Kashmir has so many stories to offer that Javed said he could write another ten albums about it. On Little Kid, Big Dreams, he felt the need to interject the politics of the narrative with his own personal journey—in part because it is an introductory record and he wanted to reach out to people who could relate to his stories.

Javed admitted that he has pulled his punches on this record. He cited the example of Illahi—MC Kash—again, and how his protest songs landed him notoriety and pushed him down to a point where he was rendered voiceless. Javed was not ready to go down that route just yet. “These are the issues I wanted to talk about. Koi bol nahi raha tha”—Nobody was saying those things, Javed told me. “I haven’t gone full out man, and honestly speaking, I don’t want to either. I’d rather be factual, I’d rather be smart. I don’t want them to end me just now. Although my heart wants me to. But I don’t want to get done with this so early. I know that it isn’t going to change shit back home, but, as a citizen, as a son of that land, I have certain responsibilities that I’m trying to fulfil.” At the moment, it is grim, and Javed is struggling with a lot. But deep inside, he retains a hope for a better tomorrow, and he wants to use his music to spread that message far.