ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN NOVEMBER, a small crowd milled around a mini boxing ring set up in a restaurant garden in Jhamsikhel, in upmarket Kathmandu. They smoked cigarettes and spoke in undertones, heads nodding and feet tapping to the breakbeat thumping through a stack of speakers. At a signal from the smart, clean-cut compère, someone killed the music, and two nervous young men were introduced to the people in the audience, most of them in their twenties. The compère tossed a coin to decide who would attack first, and a hush descended over the garden. Onlookers from the street stopped to stare, unsure if what they were seeing was completely legal.
This was the finale of the second season of Raw Barz, a rap battling phenomenon which has gone viral in the Nepali-speaking parts of South Asia, injecting the Nepali hip-hop scene with a confrontational new finesse and energy. The battlers looked like the East Coast rap pioneers of thirty-odd years ago, wearing low-slung jeans and strutting about with an in-your-face, crotch-grabbing swagger. But there was a South Asian element to their style too; when things got heated and the protagonists were toe to toe, gestures more resonant of a tea stall adda emerged; forefingers extended, nostrils flared, the battlers resembled head teachers scolding errant pupils.
The weapons in this battle were insults, disses and jibes, which had to rhyme and keep to a loose metre. Their targets were the contestants’ opponents—their family and ancestry, dress sense, and, most importantly, claim to be battling poets. Combatants were expected to be bilingual, and the organisers had established vague laws governing what kinds of insults and curses were permissible. Still, the language used would have made the battlers’ parents swoon. Clumsy rhymes and lame insults were rewarded with silence, and rappers lacking charisma and bravado soon lost the attention of the crowd—the ultimate judge in these contests.