It might’ve been the first time many would have heard of Indian rapper Naezy when filmmaker Zoya Akhtar made ‘Gully Boy’ (2019) on his and fellow rapper Divine’s life. However, he has been in the scene for a number of years. After the film’s release, many have been inspired by where the industry has got to with such raw talents from the sub-continent.
Naezy was recently in the British capital and BizAsiaLive.com caught up with him for an exclusive chat.
Why are you in London?
I’m in London to explore myself first of all, and to explore the city, the beautiful wonderful place. I’ve been here in 2017 for Southbank’s international tour (Alchemy Fest), which had a lot of South Asian artists including me. I toured for around a month here in different cities and I liked the environment , everything about this place. There’s so much music, happy vibes, people are dancing on the station. I randomly came out of Brixton station and saw a tape recorder there and the travelers, the daily commuters just stop by there, do a move and they go. That’s what I like about this place. Everyone is so chill, the weather is amazing. That’s why I wanted to be here again.
I think it was hectic around in Bombay, I was not able to come out of the daily routine. I wanted to think creatively, come out of my space and try something else, something different. UK music is something that always excites me. When I was here last time I had met some rappers here and saw the whole scene. There are two to three kinds of scenes here like the grime scene, and there are some rappers here, musicians, who have come from abroad. But the most important thing that I like about UK music is that they are original. They are not trying to copy the US or the original hip-hop from New York. They have their own garage music, grime music. They have their own form of expression, and that’s really where I’m coming from. That’s why I could relate to it. So that brought me here again.
I wanted to come here and just shoot some videos in these beautiful locations here and make a collaboration where England is in the backdrop, the music from the states, but the rapper is from Bombay. He’s rapping in Hindi. It looks interesting, that’s why I wanted to do it. I wanted to make those amazing music videos. The last time I was here in 2017, I managed to shoot a proper music video which later got selected as a song in ‘Gully Boy’. Whatever I do here on my own, without involving big production houses or any of the big budget banners, I do it by myself with my people in here on a ground level. We just go and shoot videos. It’s been a while here, around 10-15 days, and I’ve been working hard trying to collect material for the upcoming year.
How much input do you have in your own videos? How do you go about shooting in an international location, compared to India?
It’s mostly the same. When we started shooting videos I wanted to make sure that I shoot it. There were two reasons. First was that I didn’t have resources in the beginning. I didn’t have that many people around me or that much budget to film a proper music video. That’s what hip-hop has always been about – do it yourself, so I wanted to promote more DIY. Now when I’m in a position where I could easily shoot a nice big budget video, I don’t want it to happen because I want my people back in India, all the kids coming up, I want them to know it’s possible, it’s achievable. If I could do it, you could also do it. That’s why I go this route of everything being DIY, it gives you a different satisfaction when you do it that way. But this is my passion, this is something for myself. Apart from this, I’m surely going to make big budget videos as well when the time comes, when I feel like doing it. But right now, I go this route.
(Secondly), internationally it’s easier, if you look at it. In India there are a lot people around, so you can’t shoot freely. That was one of the reasons why I took a phone on the set, because it’s less hassle when it’s a phone. No one’s watching you. If there’s equipment everyone is watching you. So in India it becomes impossible but here there are very few people on the road.
We find locations and just it’s very interesting, shooting internationally. It sparks some kind of excitement in you. There’s different locations, big skies, long days, nice weather, nice backgrounds which people have not seen in India. I wanted them to see all of this. I’m just roaming here representing Bombay 70 in UK. It’s a different feeling, it excites me.
We sit down before a shoot and we research about whichever location is looking good. We see where the local people shoot, and we find out nice secret locations, which people have not seen. We go and do a recce a day before. We just go with a phone and shoot something, like me against the background. We click pictures, come back and write down the storyline. That’s how we go about it. It’s all the passion that drives us.
‘Gully Boy’ is loosely based on your life and the upcoming movement of rap and hip-hop in India. How much has the film’s exposure helped the scene?
I think it has helped a lot. If I’m being honest, I think the scene had already begun, it was already there with me, Divine, and a handful of rappers. There was an indie scene in India which had dropped in different genres. But when hip-hop came, it all started becoming more massive. The masses took interest. The indie scene initially was very niche, it was just for people who had an international music taste, were from the upper class background in India. They were the only ones in the music scene when it was just rock and indie. But when hip hop arrived, it brought a different audience, the masses, the real citizens who make India. They all came into the picture and started coming to our shows, watching gigs. They started buying our music and it started growing.
It took place in 2014-2015 and it was just growing bigger when we met Zoya ma’am. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why she got excited and personally believed in the genre. She knew that this is coming from the streets, it’s a zero budget thing, it’s all talent. Unlike the rich people, who have everything set for themselves, the rappers here didn’t have anything. They started from the beginning and they made it there. She liked the story and we already had that story in the beginning. So when she came to us, my first thought was that it’s too early for us to be portrayed as inspiration in a feature film. But the concept was very nice. Initially we were very scared of our story being commercialised, ficitonalised and adulterated just for the sake of marketing, because that is what Bollywood is known for. But we had faith in Zoya ma’am because she’s very different from other directors. She doesn’t do masala films, she has a different way of filming and portraying a story. So we knew about her direction and how she works and that brought us together.
I think it all started from us meeting first, and then other rappers came in. We called her for our performance at a club in Bombay. When she came for the performance she got introduced to different rappers, checked the whole scene out and she liked what was happening. Hip-hop was taking over rock and everything else. She also liked the personal stories that we had, our personal life struggles that we faced initially. She wanted to cover it all and we just agreed to it. We spoke together and had a chat about the script, which had a lot of things that were not true in my personal life, like the character’s dad marrying someone else, the character having two girlfriends, and on a personal level it didn’t seem right to me because everyone would think I am the guy who had two parents, this many girlfriends. On a personal level it affected me, so I shared my concern with her and she told me “Don’t worry this is a fictional story, this is just loosely based on you.” This is what we said in the media, but all my friends and colleagues, they don’t understand what is fictionalised. They don’t even know the term. Creative people understand what is fictionalised, but when they see something which has Naezy and Divine written on it with the whole story, they won’t trust anyone else. They’ll just trust what they are watching. That is what happened. I got into trouble after the movie. A lot of people started catching me on the streets, complaining that I never told them about my girlfriends. My mom got questioned a couple of times in the market as well.
Career-wise it helped me and it helped a lot of other people. I think the whole scene started growing differently. Since it had all the mainstream actors in it and the big banner, everything was mainstream. It was huge, but it also had the authenticity. It was a revolutionary film altogether. It had a good balance of having a good market value as well as critics also appreciating the film. These are the reasons why it became the hot topic in India. And everyone who didn’t know about the underground scene is now aware of it. Everyone who had this misconception of hip-hop being about objectification of women, alcohol and drugs, not they know it’s not just about that. It’s about the struggle, the pain, the emotions. It’s about something creative and it could also be a part of India’s culture, because it has poetry, and poetry has always been a part of India’s culture.
The film has done so much educating. Adults like my parents, the older generation, they don’t know much about hip-hop, and this film is so educative, it’s telling them the inside story of an artist. I think ‘Gully Boy’ is something everyone can relate to. It’s not even about hip hop, it’s more than that. It’s a struggle of life. “Apna time aayega” goes for everyone, whether it’s a poor guy or a guy at the top. Everyone wants their time. That’s how it became a trend in India and is now a cult thing. The whole gully rap scene has now become a cult thing. All these brands, production houses, everyone is now interested in this style of music.
I mentioned earlier we created the scene some years ago, we had to face a lot of problems. We went there and we had to tell people that this is the kind of music we make, this is it. But now for the young kids it’s easier. They just come up and they (the audience) know that he is from Bombay, he raps, okay, we know this. We know this kind of music. It’s easier for them to come up. All of these brands, all of these venues who are giving shows to them, all of these production houses who are giving opportunities to them, they all know about the scene. So it’s helping the scene grow on a large scale, even internationally. The film got screened at Berlin Film Festival . There’s a local scene in Berlin and all those guys now know me and were calling me for a performance. How exciting is that? People have started knowing me internationally because of the film. It’s a good thing for us. For me, for Divine, for all the gully rappers, the whole Indian hip-hop scene, even in Delhi, the South. Not just Bombay, but the whole Indian hip-hop scene. Our achievement was that we collaborated with Nas, who is one of the biggest hip-hop artists in the world. He’s the Amitabh Bachchan of hip-hop. We managed to collaborate with him, so Indian hip-hop has reached some levels. I’m happy and proud about it, but we are still working hard to push it further.
Back in 2014 when the scene was just starting and you entered it, did you think you’d be here now, five years later?
I didn’t. It’s all blessings. It’s hard to believe it. If I look at my life, if I hadn’t made that one song on the iPad, if I hadn’t been that angry about my life, if i hadn’t gotten that one thought of “I want to express this anyhow, I need to put it out”, I wouldn’t have been sitting here at all. I would’ve been somewhere working in Dubai with my father who’s a soil engineer in a 9 to 5 job. But right now I feel so good and happy that I’m doing what I wanted to do. It’s my passion, this is where my heart is. When I first stepped on the stage, the whole energy that I got from the audience, this was way back in college in 2012-2013, that feeling that I got on the stage was the same feeling I got when I was here in 2017 backstage at Southbank Centre. I just broke down. I was just thinking backstage and wondering about my previous life. I just got in my emotions and started crying thinking damn, this is the moment, we’ve come this far.
It’s all the positive energy and I feel blessed about it. I have so much gratitude and I think when you follow your passion there’s some sort of energy that you can’t explain helps you, it just drives you. Maybe somebody’s prayers, it could be anything. I feel blessed that I’m here today and I feel optimistic about my future. There’s a long, long way to go, this is just the beginning. We are still just starting but now we have good optimism. We see the scene and we feel good about it. In 5 years we are here and we feel good about where we can take it in the next 5 years. We see a destination and it’s limitless.
Your lyrics appeal to the youngsters and you want to make sure there’s a message in your music. What motivates you to do that?
I’ve been a youth as well, so I know how it feels when someone tries to teach you. It just doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to sound too preachy in my music, but what I have always tried to do is make something which has a message but at the same time is cool. It should sound cool, it shouldn’t be too preachy. It shouldn’t take you to a church or in a classroom. It should still be played in the clubs. The main reason behind me putting a message is – I’ve learnt this from other musicians. It’s not like I’m the only one. I’ve learnt this from artists who are in the States or here in UK as well. I’ve seen them, I’ve read their lyrics, I’ve researched about it, and what I felt was that there was so much improvement in your daily life if you are making meaningful music. It’s benefiting the world, so why not benefit the world while being benefited at the same time? You’re working, carrying your passion and still benefiting the world. This thought drives me crazy to make something which is beneficial for everyone.
I know I speak the language of this youth, I speak the language of the streets. So it’s very clear when I say it because I’ve been through what they are going through. I’ve wasted my time on the streets hustling, doing nothing. It took me nowhere. It’s not productive. It’s not going to take you anywhere if you keep partying, if you keep selling stuff, keeping hanging around with your girls, it won’t give you anything except joy. But if you want to build something for yourself and for your life, if you want to be a serious guy, if you want to control your family, move ahead in your life, I think that’s the kind of music I’m making. It wakes you up to whether you’re doing the right thing in your life of not.
There are a lot of people who could relate to my life story and my struggles , so I just want to make benefit out of anything I work on creatively. I’ve been criticised because of the type of music I make. There have been issues even when I’m trying to wake people up, trying raise a voice against anything wrong which is happening in the system. I face a lot of problems for raising my voice but I still keep going because I’m not going to stop.
I see myself becoming an activist in the future years because India is a dramatic country. There are hundreds of things happening every day and the mainstream guys are blindfolded. They just see the media and they believe it, like all the people I mentioned before who go the theatre and believe what’s been shown. So if they believe what I’m showing them and if I’m telling them the truth, if its helping them to develop, if its helping the scene the environment the society, then I think I’m doing something good. And it all starts from me, so I’m also conscious and aware to keep improving. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be the guy who says things without doing them. It’s all about balance. Slowly and gradually I might also put my hand on the market as well and make a few bangers for the market, because people have different moods. They won’t listen to me at all on a Saturday or Sunday, so I want to make those songs as well. I want to be known for this stuff but I’ll make those songs to get more people to listen to me, to get a bigger audience for live performances.
I have seen artists like me in the UK and US but there are few artists like me in India. I think by watching me as an inspiration, a lot of new artists are coming up. They know exactly what I am doing. I’m happy about it. I have good hopes.
You left the scene for a while a few years ago. What pushed you to come back?
I got used to the connection you have with your listeners, that relationship. Hip-hop is a different form of music. It’s not pop or rock, it’s a lot more communicative. I talk to my listeners, literally. I speak to them, and I get replies as well. There’s a connection between you and your listeners. Wherever I go, everyone knows me because of my lyrics. It’s too personal between me and them. They know me as a person, so it’s a connection, a relationship. I started missing this relationship. When I was not doing music it almost felt like I was living in a cave. I was living, but I was not living. I wanted my life back. My life is hip-hop, rap, music, creativity and art. This is my life, I can’t stay without it at all. I like writing stuff and presenting it in front of people. That’s what an artist likes. I realised that I can’t be without it at all, it’s impossible.
Plus, when I came back, my first show was for the ‘Gully Boy’ music launch. Ranveer, Zoya, they all knew it was my comeback after a year, so they made it a special moment for me. I got the best slot in the whole ‘Gully Boy’ music launch. There were several rappers performing there but I got the final slot. The lights went off and it was a special entry for me making my comeback, and when I said “Bantai bachchi bamai!” (“Brothers!”) on stage and the light came back, I could literally see people screaming, shedding tears, going out of their way. They were so emotionally excited to see me back. And I shared the same feeling, seeing hundreds of people all mad about Naezy. It made me realise that I won’t leave this ever, I can’t go away for this long. I can’t irritate my fans like this.
A lot of people started telling me “You shouldn’t leave the scene at all, it’s very important for you to be in it. It balances the whole scene. If you’re not here, it feels incomplete.” So I also realised my value, the value of the scene, and the people. They realised my value, I realised their value.
I took a break and I realised hundreds of other things, that is why I came back. Now I have gratitude for all of these things. I’m more bothered about things, I’m more focused. I need to do this. It’s the only thing I’ve wanted in my life and I’ve got it. I should be humble and should find this very precious in my life, should have some worth for what I have.
Did you work on Ranveer Singh’s rapping skills with him during ‘Gully Boy’ ?
In 2015 when the scene first broke out, I did my first Bollywood song, which was lipsynced by Ranveer Singh. He was in the music video. He got the script, which required him to play a rapper from the gully, and he needed to have the same expressions and rap this fast. He got really excited because he was already a hip-hop fan. He saw this (opportunity) and he imitated me in the video. He was rapping like me and trying to speak that language. He loved it so much. He never knew he was going to act in ‘Gully Boy’ at that point in time, but he was already in that zone. He knew what we were doing. So when Zoya came to him, he got super excited. He told Zoya that he already knew these guys. Zoya told him that she was going to bring something exciting to him, and he said, he already knew all this.
We had a chat about this (‘Gully Boy’) and we started becoming close. We started hanging out together. He started learning our language. I wasn’t available on set because of my break, so all of the young rappers helped with the dialogue writing. Ranveer is so smart, he could learn sitting back home just by watching videos. He could learn our actions, our hand gestures, personalities, our behaviour from our interviews and videos. There’s no need to sit him down and teach him, he knows everything. He juSt did good research, and whenever he needed to know a certain way to go about certain things, he asked us and we cleared his query.
We spent a lot of time together in the studios, just chilling backstage, here and there. I really like his vibe; he’s too cool, sorted. He’s just too funny, energetic. Wherever he is sitting, his presence makes the whole place happening. Me and Divine are very serious people, to be honest. Whenever we used to chill with him, it was a good balance. We would be sitting quietly, serious about life, and he would be making jokes and just being too happy. It’s a good balance between us and Ranveer and I respect him as a person, as an artist. He’s the perfect guy to do ‘Gully Boy’. He’s the perfect actor to play the character of Murad. He’s been doing good recently. I appreciate him as a friend as well, i’m happy about him.
The rappers in the film were portrayed as underdogs. Is that how you would describe yourself?
I think the movie has been realistic towards the end of the film, unlike other fictionalised accounts. The whole story of how me and Divine came together and us becoming someone is not the real story. Since they fictionalised this, they could have fictionalised the ending too, with Murad becoming a rich superstar. But I like how Zoya ended the film, it was very realistic. This is what’s happening in our lives. We haven’t become too huge, we are still doing our hustle and it’s still going on.
The struggles that she had shown were a bit fictionalised because she wanted to make it cinematic, she wanted to add drama. Half of Bombay’s population are living in the gully (streets), so it’s not real in terms of the struggle that she has shown in terms of money or poverty, it’s just a manner of making it more dramatic. It was impossible for a guy like Murad to come up. Now it’s possible because people have watched it (‘Gully Boy’) and now they know how to deal with it.
But my story was different. We used to live in the slums, but it was a good house. If I were to sell that house, I could buy a bungalow somewhere outside Bombay. My father works abroad, my grandparents were all good teachers, so we were always in a good position, unlike the house Zoya has shown. We didn’t have that much drama in my family, everything was sorted. The one thing that was similar was that they didn’t want me to become a musician, because it’s not permissible in Islam. Since they also had a different perspective of hip-hop, they don’t want me to become someone who’s dancing with women, for example, because it does not go with our culture. That’s why they wanted me to stop doing rap. That was the only similar thing she has shown in the movie.
Apart from that I don’t think I’ve seen poverty, but at the same time I wasn’t too resourceful. I wasn’t privileged enough to have a studio of mine, unlike the richer musicians in Bombay. We were good middle class people, we had everything, and that’s what made it possible. My dad gifted me an iPad so that the whole family could talk to him through video chat when he’s in Dubai, and I used to just quietly take it to create music on it. The state of Murad’s girlfriend Safeena in the film was the real state of ours in India. That was the real story.
I don’t mind how I’ve been shown or the struggle Zoya has shown of ours because I could relate to it. There were my brothers in the gully who were struggling. If not me, there were my neighbours who were struggling. I’m happy about it because being represented in that way adds something to your craft. People see me in a different way. I have seen struggle, but different sources of struggle. There are many thoughts about this. Some people look at me with sympathy, but I don’t want that at all. You keep that sympathy with yourself, I don’t want it. Most of these people respect you because you are coming from this background and have struggled hard to be where you are, but there are some people who are just haters. There are different people, different thoughts, different feelings, different environments, so we have to deal with all of this and it’s quite difficult sometimes. But I appreciate whatever is happening for the scene. I appreciate Zoya’s effort. I appreciate the whole industry’s effort. It’s not slum porn. She didn’t just take all of this and sold it to the market. She bothered about us, both me and Divine. She bothered about all these kids who are coming up. Even Ranveer has opened his own label now called ‘IncInk’ for the new upcoming musicians. The all bother about the scene.
I want to make a song right now, which is about how Bombay and India are thinking all this “bantai” language is so cool and fancy, but I want to show them the real side, like how Zoya did. I want to do that in my songs. I want to make a song about how all these rich guys think this is all so cool, but they don’t give a damn about us. These people are struggling out there. They don’t have proper education. Why is it impossible for a slum guy to become a gully boy? Because of education and resources. If I had no iPad, if my dad didn’t work abroad, I wouldn’t have been studying in a convent school. I wouldn’t have been getting all this education, internet access. All of these other people, my neighbours, they go to municipal schools. They don’t have proper education. They do 9 to 5 jobs or do some mechanical work or become a clerk, go to banks, call center jobs. These are their professions and they can’t even think of doing something better than what they are doing now. So how would it happen? If we pay attention to what is happening to the slums, the hoods of Bombay or even all over India, the system has ignored us for a while. I’m trying to bring everyone’s attention through my music, that’s the whole motto.
What’s happening next for you?
Good things are happening now. After ‘Gully Boy’ a lot of people took interest in us and we are making all use of it. We can’t stay behind. My management is pitching me as ‘Gully Boy’ everywhere. Because of it we are getting international shows. Something is planned in Australia in a couple of months.
I’ve shot some music videos here. I’m collaborating with some brands as well. It’s looking like a good year, and since I wasn’t here last year for performances, this time I’m here and I’ve added a couple of band members like an MC, a guitarist, maybe a drummer. I’m improving on my set, making it tight, balancing it with some commercial songs, some songs everyone could dance to with some serious ones as well. Some songs everyone could sing along. I’m making a good set and I’m going to tour with it. There are video launches that I’m planning. I’ll launch some videos online, then do a tour around them, then repeat that until the year ends.
I have dreams about making a good studio album, so I’m waiting for the right moment and the right people. I’m meeting a lot of people, some new labels, who understand me as a person and an artist. It’s very important for them to understand what my vision is and how I want it to be. I’m waiting for the right time to come up with a good studio album, that is the main approach. But until then, we are doing some singles and tours.
***Naezy is exclusively managed by KWAN with curation and marketing support by Big Bang Music which has released and distributed his recent singles Aafat Waapas and Dhoond Le.***
BizAsiaLive.com thanks Naezy for taking the time to meet and talk to us.