Dubai: Rapper Bohemia opens up on disillusionment with desi hip-hop, the need for real education, and Kanye West

The pioneering artist spoke his mind on a visit to the Khaleej Times office recently ahead of his show in Dubai



Photo: Ehaab Qadeer/KT
Photo: Ehaab Qadeer/KT
by

Enid Grace Parker

Published: Mon 17 Oct 2022, 10:15 AM

Last updated: Mon 17 Oct 2022, 5:29 PM

“It’s sad what has happened to hip-hop music,” lamented Pakistani-American rapper Bohemia during a visit to the Khaleej Times office on Monday, October 10, ahead of his Halloween show in Dubai.

This was just one of many outspoken statements made by this trailblazer of desi hip-hop music who dropped his debut album Vich Pardesan De in 2002.

At a time when most celebrities veer towards political correctness, it was refreshing to strike up a conversation with 42-year-old Bohemia (real name Roger David).

Sporting a $3000 Balenciaga outfit, shades, and a nonchalant swagger that belied the hard-hitting topics he touched upon, the rapper leafed through a copy of City Times, shooting us a few relevant questions before we could kickstart our own set, an early indication perhaps of his later references to the importance of reading and education amongst youth.

Bohemia - whose hits include Same Beef (featuring the late Sidhu Moosewala) and Meri Jeet - forged a strong connection with rap music when he moved to California from Pakistan as a teenager.

His first album Vich Pardesan De firmly established him as a pioneer in Punjabi rap, but the outspoken artist says he’s not too thrilled about the way the genre has panned out.

“I came up with that term ‘desi hip-hop’; it’s my invention. But today when you search for that word, you don’t see my philosophy, you don’t see my mentality or my imaging.”

He also shared that while listeners’ reactions to his latest album I am ICON were encouraging (they thought it was “well perceived”), he was “less than happy with the business side of things”.

‘I wanted the kid to think’

Could this disillusionment be part of the reason why he distanced himself from his record label, Kali Denali Music? In a recent tweet, he posted a picture of a skull with the words, “Kali Denali Music 2002 - 2022”, leaving fans to speculate as to whether the label had shut down.

While he didn’t comment on this, it’s clear Bohemia intended for his music to be much more than a trend or a catchy money-spinner. It was meant to inspire kids to find their voice, their originality.

“I brought the pen and the paper; I wanted the kid to think, pick up a pen, write his/her story and share that with the world and have a voice. Rap music was created in America by Black youth during the Civil Rights Movement. Why? Because the white man wouldn’t give them the voice. They were suppressed. They were degraded as human beings. The kids rebelled. They came to courtyards and screamed what was on their minds. That’s what rap music was; it was a revolutionary music.”

His music was meant to unite and not divide, Bohemia said, calling out post-colonial mentalities that he feels still exist in the subcontinent.

“I was there to give, and I gave my blood and sweat. The reason I named it desi hip-hop (I could have named it Pakistani hip-hop) is that you could be any desi; now I see kids talking about ‘oh, I am a Pakistani rapper’, ‘oh, I’m an Indian rapper’. The Queen may not be around, but she’s still ruling you and brainwashing you. You’re still her slave. And that’s sad. My music was rebellious; it was to wake you up, out of all of that. It did not happen.”

‘Music is obviously not working’

And if Bohemia comes across as a tad anti-establishment, it’s probably for good reason. Many musicians have in the past spoken out against record companies being exploitative.

“I think big companies should no longer be allowed to use kids’ pictures with no shoes, runny noses, to collect money. Because that kid is me. I was that kid in Karachi, in Peshawar, with no shoes, running around. Now that kid is this - (points to himself) see that? Wearing a $3000 Balenciaga outfit. That kid is no longer a picture for you to sell and make money off of - that kid now speaks.

“I just feel drained by the monopolies of these companies and this old way of thinking. They don’t want kids to have the platform. And it’s sad. I’ve experienced that. My new album is called I am ICON (In Control of Nothing). I think at this age, I am leaving everything in the hands of God. Music is obviously not working. I’ve tried it.”

Despite his misgivings about the future of desi hip-hop, few would argue with his seemingly audacious assertion that he’s the “king of his genre”.

“I didn’t just become the sole pioneer, the inventor of this thing by accident. I’m not just another artist.”

He credited himself with introducing rap to Bollywood music, and was critical of certain trends that, according to him, marred the genre’s authenticity.

“You cannot make even one Bollywood movie without rap music (now). The only person I considered close to being that much of an innovator was Kishore Kumar. After Kishore da, it’s only Bohemia that has done anything impactful to actually bring education to the youth! For example, we had this trend called DJs, right? So kids would buy CDs and just mix them together - they call that music. The chords would clash, the tempos would clash. My dad put me on a harmonium, and I can play you any Jagjit Singh ghazal. I can write my music on a staff bar for an orchestra. That’s what my father told me music was. Not this DJ trend that spoiled the entire industry. I see my trend now, taken to the same level, which is just this wash and rinse idea.”

‘All I did was read books’

Like the rap music that inspired him as a teenager, Bohemia embodies the spirit of a revolutionary. But has the disruptive element of his genre been destroyed?

“I’m devastated. I thought I was going to show them the light and we were going to unite and the world was going to bow down to us. Because as a little Pakistani kid, I’ve seen us only do that - conquer, when it comes to sports, art, creativity history, resources.”

He also feels he wasn’t given the kind of respect and recognition he deserved, from music establishments that had ill-qualified people running them.

“There were things that happened that were highlighted out of proportion. I believe that was done by design… I’ve worked with all the biggest companies in India, with VPs who have gone to school for interior designing! And you are running a record label! As a kid, all I did was read books… just to learn how hip-hop music became so big. How a guy like Jay-Z - who has to sell drugs on the street - goes to Def Jam. He becomes the president of Def Jam, and then a billionaire, a guy who is helping people.

“I thought my industry was going to treat me like Jay-Z. What went wrong is that when I spoke my mind, they got scared. When I exposed my wit, they were like, ‘oh, he is here to take our jobs’.”

‘Kanye is very much okay’

It’s impossible to talk about echelons of power in rap and not bring in Kanye West, who is currently on a headline-grabbing spree. Bohemia has some controversial opinions on the subject of Kanye’s outbursts (the rapper was diagnosed with bipolar disorder), and mental health. “Kanye is a billionaire. He is very much okay. I would suggest you stop thinking that he has any problems. He was friends with (fashion designers) Jerry Lorenzo, Virgil Abloh (RIP); Demna Gvasalia looks up to him, Karl Lagerfeld likes him, Coco Chanel likes him (laughs). I mean, it’s fascinating what he does. To be in Paris and launch Yeezy on a runway, to work with Adidas, to sign a deal with Gap, that takes education. So I think our kids need to understand the fact that he’s a marketing genius.”

Bohemia comes from an impoverished background in Pakistan and believes limited or no opportunities can contribute to growth of mental health issues to a great extent.

“The mental health issue in America is a luxury. We have resources and blessings in abundance. So we get depressed! Do you want to know what depression is? You want to know what real life is? It is to be a kid in Peshawar, in Choti Lal Kurti, where there is no plumbing, there is rarely electricity, the houses are made of mud. My auntie is cooking chicken’s feet and she’s making soup of that. She doesn’t have the rest of the chicken. That’s where I’m from. My dad became an alcoholic. I’ve seen my family members die from drugs. My cousin (who was in my Ek Tera Pyar music video) is in jail for a murder trial. I can go on and on. Kanye never experienced what I experienced.”

‘Education needs to be promoted’

Despite his cynicism, Bohemia sent out a message to kids about education and cautioned them against becoming just another brick in the wall.

“Read! They don’t want you to read, they want you to scroll. Education needs to be promoted. And by education I don’t mean things that schools do. I was bad in math. I’m not stupid, but I was put through this pressure of ‘what’s your grade in math’, ‘oh you got an F in math’?

“That’s not education - it’s just a systematic way of making a kid obedient and feel that he’s secondary. I think education needs a new face, a phase, almost, which I’m so blessed I got in California. I went to libraries, took books, and never returned them. Don’t tell anyone (laughs).”

Video courtesy Bohemia's Instagram

He also gave a shout out to being back on the road after the pandemic, and performing in the UAE again.

“It feels like I’m breathing again. I write my own lyrics, I play all my own instruments, I compose all my music; I’m such a hands-on artist. I design my own CD covers in Photoshop. So the ultimate satisfaction is when I interact with my listeners, and when I’m on stage. Given what the world went through in the last few years because of the pandemic, artists such as myself suffered the most. Not just economically, which is a big part of it, but, also, for me to breathe and actually know that what I’m doing is good for people, is to perform. A lot more people know about Dubai now, and it’s because of Burj Khalifa. And I always like to remind them that, hey, I’ve been visiting before Burj Khalifa was built. It’s a place I have a big fascination with, and I love what the city is doing for the world, for our future.”

The Biggest Halloween Night in Dubai featuring Bohemia will take place on Saturday, October 29 at The Agenda. Tickets on Platinumlist.


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