Good Kid Mad City: Naezy’s Quest To Disrupt The Mainstream

Written by Uday Kapur

One afternoon in late June, I made my way across to Mubarak Complex, LIG Colony, a residential complex situated in Kurla West, North Mumbai. Ramadan, the annual month-long observance followed by Muslims worldwide had just begun and preparations were in full swing for the evening feast. Children were playing on the street, waiting for their turn on a miniature Ferris wheel that was being operated by a young man.

Boys sat at various food stalls, helping their elders prepare food for Iftar — the meal that marks the end of the fast for the day — that was to take place in a couple of hours. On the way, I stopped at a local store to pickup a bottle of water and the shopkeeper, a man in his late 50s, inquired “You’re not from around here. What brings you here?”

Naved Sheikh, an Indian MC who operates under the moniker Naezy, and one of the few who’s taken up the art in Hindi, Urdu and Marathi, is a resident of Mubarak Complex. He was born a few meters from the shop I stopped at, in a chawl, to an orthodox Muslim family. He’s nervous about meeting me here, out in the open. I was recognized and tagged as an outsider in an instant — and Naved’s inhibitions were pretty evident.

Outsiders are treated with suspicion and a youth from the community interacting with one is bound to start rumours, something Naved doesn’t need at this point. “Come with me,” he says. “We can’t do this out in the open.” He leads me down the road, and asks me to sit in an abandoned rickshaw and proceeds to draw the canvas rain sheet. He took the inner seat, positioning himself in a manner that allowed him to see whoever was approaching the rickshaw. “Okay, so what do you want to know?”

Naezy is an abbreviation for Naved is Crazy. His life has primarily been defined by his surroundings, and the people that inhabit them. “For most of my life, I lived with my mother as part of a joint family,” he says. “It’s a close-knit community, one that looks out for one another, but also expects everybody that’s a part of it to uphold the traditions that have been set by previous generations.” Naved’s father works in Dubai, and most of his uncles and aunts are teachers in the area. “We (the kids) had two personalities,” he says. “We were sharif, very well behaved kids at home, and mischievous with our friends outside.” His apprehension as he tells his story is palpable. Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call, and he whispers to his friend that he’s doing an interview. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Things are a bit difficult right now.”

At some point between 2009 and 2011, Naved was involved in a tussle that resulted in him spending some time in jail. A friend of his had been stalking a girl for a while and one day, he asked Naved to tag along when he went to follow her. “We didn’t know any better,” he says. “He thought she liked him and would like to hang out with him and I made the decision to tag along.” What they weren’t aware of was the fact that the girl had alerted the police and was under a protective guard that grabbed them the minute she walked past them.

According to Naved, the friend got off easy, as his father was part of the police force. Naved had nobody. His father was in Dubai and the cops didn’t allow him to call anybody in his family — not that he wanted to. “My family found out (about the incident) through some friends,” he says. “They told me that my mother fainted.” Naved was also beaten up by the cops. “They were out to teach us a lesson,” he says. “That was the worst moment of my life. I was naive to go along with him. After I got out, my mother worked as hard as she could to remove me from that situation, from that area.” He carelessly pointed out towards a small building, similar to the ones that make up Mubarak Complex in the distance — “That’s where we live now.”

His family weren’t aware of his activities outside of home — frequenting hookah bars, getting involved in fights, etc. — and he was very aware of the fact that the path he was following would make incidents like this a regular occurrence. “Slowly, my mother was hearing bits about what I was up to,” he says. “At the end of the day, no matter how hard we try, we can’t hide the wrongs we’ve done. And as I came to terms with how I was living my life, I realised I had a decision to make and figure out a way to leave that side of me behind.” But the solution still evaded him.

Naved was introduced to hip-hop at a community party, where he heard Sean Paul ’s ‘Temperature’ for the first time. In India, community celebrations are common and the DJs that come play at these events source their music from the latest CDs — usually comprising of songs that are popular on the charts at the time. “I was mesmerized,” says Naved. “I didn’t know what he was doing. All I knew is that it was cool and I wanted to replicate it.” Naved, along with his friends from Khalsa College who would later join him in forming The Schizophrenics (Khalsa College’s hip-hop collective), spent days listening to and mugging up the lyrics to songs by Sean Paul, Lil Wayne , Drake , 50 Cent , and more. “I liked the glamour,” he says. “It was all about eating pussy, earning cash, and being famous, and I don’t know why, but that got me hooked.”

As Naved’s obsession with the music grew, so did his thirst to discover its origins. Till that point, he hadn’t considered writing his own rhymes. “I grew out of that pretty quickly,” he says. “I began listening to the older guys — guys like N.W.A , Ice T , Dr. Dre , KRS-One and Nas . I learnt about hip-hop’s origins as a socio-political movement, and I learnt about the lives — lives which were so similar to mine — through the music. And that’s when it hit me — that’s when I realised I could write rhymes based on my life, and that what I’d been hearing so far didn’t reflect the truth.”

In January 2014, he released ‘Aafat’ — a track that he wrote and recorded on an iPad that had been gifted to him by his father. “I was frustrated,” he says. “I was stuck in a college that had no reputation, studying a course that served no purpose. I had no future.” ‘Aafat’ was explosive — an emotional outburst that resonated with a diverse range of people (on the Internet) across the country — reaching 171,868 views on YouTube (most Indian independent music videos plateau at 50,000 views) and moving beyond class barriers, religious differences and the like. It represented the anger felt by a majority of the country’s youth with the lack of economic opportunities provided by the system, and the amount of sacrifice one had to make in order to satisfy traditions — traditions they did not agree with.

‘Aafat’s’ success provided further opportunities for Naved. It was followed by Raastey Kathin and a collaboration with Mode7 — Raffael Kalby’s solo project. In October, he was approached by filmmaker Disha Rindani to be the subject of a short film. Titled Bombay 70, the movie won the Silver Gateway of India award at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI). In the movie, Naved’s aunt describes the community’s fascination with his art. “We never expected him to emerge as a poet,” she narrates. “We noticed that he spent a lot of time writing in a notebook and then one day he showed us the video (for ‘Aafat’).”

His growing profile in the underground community meant that he was garnering attention from Bollywood as well. He wrote for and performed ‘Birju’, the lead single off Ajay Chandok’s Hey Bro , and followed it up with this summer’s definitive hit ‘Mere Gully Mein’ in collaboration with Divine and Sez . “When they (Hey Bro) called, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to showcase my skills,” he says. “But I grew disillusioned with the project and just finished it for the sake of exposure.”

Bombay 70 detailed Naved’s ambitions in Bollywood and the impact he hoped to have on the youngsters in his community. “I want to create aatank in the industry,” he says. “Look at what Kendrick Lamar has done for hip-hop? ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has started a positive dialogue — and that’s what missing from our mainstream industry. Artists like Honey Singh , Raftaar , etc. — they’re great musicians, but what are they talking about? Are they really the best MCs that we can produce? I love their work as producers, but when it comes to having a voice, or original thought, they’ve failed us. I will never compromise on my lyrics, because that’s the one thing that separates me from them. That’s the only way I’m going to influence people and leave a legacy behind. If that gets diluted, then there’s no point. There are no role models for kids like me, and I want to fill that void.”

To Naved, whether he admits it or not, Bollywood represents a medium that’ll help him achieve his ultimate goal — to earn respect from his peers and convince them that his work in the industry can help push the community forward. “More than anything, I need to convince my community that we’re not limited to the options that the system has provided for us,” he says. “If we have the talent, and the work ethic, we can achieve a lot. We can create a better future for ourselves and inspire the next generation of kids.”

Naved’s phone rings again. This time it’s a family member inquiring about his whereabouts. The responsibility he shoulders is clearly weighing on him. “I’ve told them I’m going to stop doing this,” he says. “They don’t approve. My parents are supportive, but when the community starts putting pressure on my mother — telling her what I’m doing is haram — it becomes difficult to convince them that this is the right path. Right now, my father is trying to convince me to take up his job in Dubai, but I don’t know how to persuade them about this — about hip-hop being the way forward and how it’ll help the community. The only way I see that happening is if I shirk my responsibility to my family and run away from home, but am I ready to leave behind the people that gave me everything?”

Hip-hop has always been, and will always be, a voice for the voiceless. It, as we have seen in the mid-90s, acts as a force of nature in breaking down racial, cultural and political barriers. In Mark Ford’s 2012 documentary titled ‘Uprising: Hip-Hop and the LA Riots ’, KRS-One details the way in which hip-hop transformed mainstream American culture and made African American culture ‘cool’ — “While they were hitting us with tear gas, batons, etc. we were hitting back with our words. But we weren’t aiming our words at them, we aimed our words at their kids. Who won in the end?”

These artists — the ones that helped push hip-hop into the mainstream and changed its landscape every time the genre found itself in a rut, are hailed as hip-hop messiahs. In his piece titled ‘Notes on the Hip-Hop Messiah’, Jay Caspian King puts forward the expectations that the title places on an artist’s prospective work.

Naezy yearns for that title. His sole aim is to follow in the footsteps of artists such as Tupac, Notorious B.I.G , Eminem , KRS-One and the likes. He wants to disrupt the mainstream and bring his reality — a reality that encapsulates a dearth of economic opportunities for the youth, a failing education system, a culture/class divide so striking — to our doorsteps. He wants to free his community from the rigid norms that have been placed upon them, and show them the good that his art can do. But will he be able to do that? Everyday, he weighs the pros and cons of the situation and struggles with the implications his decision might have — a decision that will decide not only his future, but that of people close to him. The only thing stopping Naved Sheikh from achieving all this, is Naved Sheikh himself.

This article was originally published on BorderMovement. Pictures courtesy Fahama Sawant.