The film everyone has been talking about is recent release Gully Boy, which has been a
massive critical and commercial success.
Ranveer Singh’s character in the story of an aspiring hip hop star rising up from the Mumbai slums has been inspired by explosive rappers Divine and Naezy. Their names may not be immediately familiar to people, but the influential artists came from humble beginnings to establish a now flourishing Indian hip hop scene and a movie that has been clocking up big numbers.
They recently teamed up with rap legend Nas for NY Se Mumbai, which is a frontrunner for best song of 2019.
This is the story of the two rappers who inspired a movement.
Naezy, real name Naved Shaikh, grew up in the Mumbai underbelly in the Kurla West suburban slums. He would regularly get into trouble, including run-ins with the law – as a
young boy, he smoked cigarettes, cut classes, got arrested and was involved with criminals.
His parents tried everything to keep him out of trouble, including moving to a better
neighbourhood. It looked like Naezy was heading for a life of crime until he heard the Sean Paul song Temperature as a 13-year-old. He started performing it before moving onto rap icons like Nas, 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Big L, because he connected with their experiences of being from marginalised communities.
Like other Indian hip hop fans, the youngster started to rap in English and tried copying the American accents, but later found his own voice when he started writing songs in Hindi and Urdu peppered with Mumbai street slang. He wrote about politics, social issues and real experiences in his own life.
Then in 2014, he put out the music video Aafat on YouTube, a freestyle rap he produced, performed and shot himself. The success of the edgy, no-budget song kickstarted the 21-year-old’s rap career and he followed it up with more independent releases.
Meanwhile, in a separate part of the bustling city, another unknown artist named Divine was carving out his own path.
Divine, real name Vivian Fernandes, who also had a troubled childhood, lived in the Andheri suburb of Mumbai. His family breaking up due to an abusive father when he was 12 meant Divine was brought up by his grandmother in difficult surroundings. The absence of the internet meant his first musical experience was hearing Konkani language songs with his grandmother and listening to hymns at church.
He risked his life riding the top of suburban commuter trains and started hanging out with the wrong crowd, who indulged in petty crime including drug dealing.
Everything changed for the rebellious youngster after he saw US rapper 50 Cent’s picture on a friend’s T-shirt. This led to him researching the American rap scene and the artists who inhabited it. The tracks by 50 Cent, Big Pun, Big L, Rakim and KRS-One became his gateway into the world of rap. He related to the personal struggles they rapped about and started writing his own rhymes about the same issues.
Then Abhishek Dhusia (Ace) and Amey Patkar (AP), founders of the rap crew Mumbai’s Finest, introduced Divine to the small but passionate Indian hip hop scene in the Mumbai slums, where aspiring artists assembled and often had rap battles.
Dharavi became the hub of this emerging subculture. In 2013, he set out to make a name as a solo artist and released his first English solo single, Voice Of The Streets. He then followed it up with Yeh Mera Bombay, in Hindi and English rhymes.
Then for his third song Meri Gully Mein, he connected with emerging artist Naezy and everything changed. The 2015 release became a super hit and opened uploads of doors for the artists including live bookings, a record deal and more.
They also caught the attention of director Zoya Akhtar, who decided to make a film based on their life and experiences. Both rappers came on board as creative consultants, including introducing authenticity into lead start Ranveer’s role and mentoring the actor for 10 months.
Gully Boy becoming a huge success has now brought them to the attention of the world, so expect to see a lot more of them in the years ahead.