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Politics, Shillong & Shree
Shree Ujjwal Sen, aka Shree Sen, hits the system where it hurts the most. Unlike many artistes, young and old, who would tread the safe way to stay afloat in the highly competitive creative waters, Shree is candid. The young rapper’s lyrics have a rare political tempo that has the potential to outrage the men in power.
However, after years of hiatus, Shree is back with Streets of Shillong. Though the extremist of yesterday has acquired a moderate view through his music, the messages and political innuendoes remain, albeit subtly.
Streets of Shillong, which was released on September 15, is part of the studio album Integrity and portrays the essence of the hill city’s street life. This time, Shree has a social cause in mind. He says the objective of the album is to raise fund for differently abled children and old age homes in Shillong and other parts of the North East. And the musician has a group of like-minded friends in the city who are helping him in this social mission.
Shree’s association with music, especially music with a cause and to make people aware of the political and social churnings, goes back to his college days in Bengaluru.
Born and brought up in Hailakandi in southern Assam, Shree moved out of the state in 2002 to pursue higher studies in Bengaluru. But music remained a constant factor in his life. Metal was the genre that Shree was into. He also had a music band but it did not last long due to circumstances.
“I got influenced by UK-based groups called Senser and Asian Dub Foundation. They were into heavily political rap and hip-hop and were progressive groups. They influenced me a lot because I come from a Communist background. So their tracks, which I heard on MTV in the early nineties, had a deep impact,” said the 37-year-old musician over phone from Bengaluru.
Staying in Hailakandi provided Shree little resources to follow up with the bands but after moving to Bengaluru, he made sure that he explored more of the groups’ music. He also got in touch with one of the groups through email.
“There were other groups too like Akala, Skinnyman, Foreign Beggars, Skepta, Public Enemy and Bones Thugs n Harmony from the UK and the US whose lyrics helped me a lot (to evolve as a musician),” he said.
In 2004, Shree felt the urge to use his talent in music to make a strong statement. It was then that he started rapping in Bengali, the first time ever in the language. He also released the first album, Bishakto (Poisonous), a collection of bilingual rap songs. The songs were pointed and hard-hitting: “Chari’dikey suni chit’kar, hotey pari na hotey shanto/sob big’go bayk’ti dhormey’r nam’e niya chalai a raj’jo (I cannot be at peace as I hear cries everywhere/all those learned men run the state in the name of religion).
“People liked the album. There were some downloads too. Even those who did not understand the Bengali part of the rapping were interested in the English parts of the songs,” he said.
Shree was still in college when he released this album. But by 2006, he had to take up a job but music never took a backseat. Through 2008-09, Shree was also busy doing shows in and out of Bengaluru. He got the chance to participate in the second chapter of a hip-hop show in Bangladesh, “the biggest in South East Asia”. In fact, he was the only rapper to participate in the event.
The appreciation in Bangladesh encouraged Shree to continue his creative work despite a busy schedule. In the meantime, he wrote a song for Anna Hazare’s movement, India against Corruption, called ‘We Want An Answer’, for which he got an award from CNN-IBN. His album also won in Bangladesh and was released by a record label there.
Things were going good for Shree until he hit a trough. The rapper says his lyrics were always heavily political and against racism and other forms of discrimination, women empowerment, dowry and casteism. “I think people stopped liking because it became monotonous. They did not like to hear about the same problems over and over again. That was a difficult time for me,” confessed the artiste and added that though he had a job at Technicolour, music shows started drying up.
But things turned worse. The company shut up shop and Shree had to depend on freelancing without sparing much time for music. It took some time for Shree to get back to rhythm.
“My intention was to reach out to more people. I loved talking about subjects like discrimination and social menaces as well as political stuff but people don’t talk about them much now,” he put it rightly.
As an artiste Shree had no other option but to evolve into another self. He resumed his music career and started working on the album Integrity. “I started from Meghalaya because this is one place from where I got immense support despite being the fact that I am not from there. Also, Meghalaya is close to my heart since childhood.”
Shree said the friends he made in Shillong came out of their way to help him after they heard about his intention. “It was then that I realised that if you are ready to take the extra pain and work around it sincerely, there is nothing that you cannot achieve,” he added.
Streets of Shillong has been shot in several places in the city like Police Bazar, Laitumkhrah and Bara Bazar. The video focuses on the simple daily life unfolding on the streets of the city. In other words Shree wanted to portray reality and not the razzle dazzle of Shillong’s facade. “I wanted to show Shillong from my point of view and I also wrote a script for the video though it was not directed by me,” explained the man “from straight out of North East”.
The video features a Khasi Bloodz singer, bikers doing their stunts, a youngster flaunting his BMX skills, the common man’s jadoh shop, church and the regular Maxi cabs — all constituents of the life in Shillong.
“My accent is local/I am a Sylheti and Khasi/Love to speak the language as the blood flows inside me,” sings the rapper in the video.
Shree is collaborating with artistes from other states of the North East, like Manipur and Mizoram, to bring Integrity together. He plans to release the full album by the end of this year or early next year. The artiste also has a target for the funds which he wants to raise through the album. “We will select a few institutes and we are planning to donate Rs 1 lakh to each state. Red FM is also helping us to promote the album and raise fund. We will release one song every month,” he said.
The album also has a track, What About Us, which portrays the life of a day labour whom Shree met in Bengaluru four years ago.
Shree says the album is unique in several ways. One song, Rage (of the Rebel), has 10 official languages like Khasi, Manipuri (Metei), Paitei, Jaaw, Nagamese, Khokborok, Bangla, Mizo, Bodo and Assamese in the second verse, “which the first time ever”.
Talking about the album, Shree said it is a mixed bag because “I don’t want people to get bored”.
“There is a lot to look forward to in the album. It is motivating,” Shree described Integrity.
As the conversation swerved from the Streets of Shillong to the political corner, Shree said it would be difficult for him to say whether he would resume writing scathing political lyrics.
“I started my career with political stuff and I would be known as the rebel. But at the end of the day one needs peace of mind… I will not give up my signature (style) but I will try to put it in a lighter way so that people listen to it. Earlier, I would only speak about an issue. Now, I will try to suggest a solution. If I am not giving any solution to a problem then I am not doing enough,” said Shree, the “messenger and artiste”.
From the first album Bishakto, which was highly political, to Integrity, Shree has come a long way from being an angry young man to a reasonable citizen. If darkness was all he saw a decade back, it is light that he sees at the end of the tunnel and that justifies his comeback to music.
Shree believes every citizen has his or duties to perform. “We cannot complain about the government not doing anything. We have to take the initiative too,” said the rapper who is also working on another Bengali rap album called Kobigaan, “which is mildly political”.
~ Nabamita Mitra