Welcome to the Gaana Music Festival blog! As we count down to the largest Indian music festival in North America, you can expect exclusive content here – from interviews to behind the scenes, from observations to insider tips.
His is a story nothing short of phenomenal. Growing up in the slums of Mumbai, getting inspired by the expressive nature of hip-hop, and birthing a genre which today plays in upmarket clubs around the country. Vivian Fernandes aka Divine has a fabulous story – one that even Bollywood acknowledged, making it the subject of Zoya Akhtar’s latest movie, Gully Boy, which stars Ranveer Singh & Alia Bhatt.
Gaana Music Festival is proud to bring this man – already a cult hero back home – to American shores. Get to know him a little better, with our interview.
GMF: Divine, thank you so much for this interview. So – Music artist or storyteller – how do you see yourself today?
D: I am a storyteller who tells a story through his music! Hip-hop is documenting history like books do.
GMF: So many rappers and hip hop artists have a performing name. In fact Naezy (who Divine collaborated with for the seminal ‘Mere Gully Mein’) said “Naezy” is like an alter-ego for him. Is that true for you also? Is there a difference between Divine and Vivian Fernandes?
D: DIVINE is an extension of Vivian Fernandes. He is the artistic representation of my thoughts and ideas. But Vivian as a person is a lot more than DIVINE.
GMF: Let us talk language. Virender Sehwag once very famously said, “Hindi main baat hai kyuki Hindi main jazbaat hai“. Is that why you rap in Hindi? Or why your colleagues rap in Gujarati or Punjabi…. What is so different or better about rapping in a mother tongue over English?
D: I would write my own rap but it never felt convincing till I switched to Hindi. It was only when I started writing in Hindi that I was able to translate my thoughts into words that effortlessly, that fire onto paper. I would always think in Hindi so this only felt the natural step to take.
GMF: Today there are two very clearly distinct kinds of rap in India that are popular – Punjabi and Mumbaiyya. Punjabi rap seems to be all about aspiration, but Bombay rap seems to be more gritty more real. Why do you think that is?
D: Well, a lot of rappers write songs about what they see, what they hear. Yes, a lot of hip-hop is also about violence and women and booze. But hip-hop came from the streets and life on the streets isn’t polite and clean.
GMF: You’ve always had an audience in India, but a few years ago there seemed to be no place to hear what you and other hip hoppers/rap artists wanted to say. Is the lack of spaces for real hip-hop from the streets still the real problem? Or have things changed?
D: Things are changing, there is a lot more awareness about hip-hop today, and in no small measure thanks to Gully Boy. But yes, till the time, we don’t make more opportunities accessible to up-and-coming talent, only a few names will remain in the spotlight.
GMF: You represent life on the streets. It’s been tough, gritty. So when you play at all these fancy venues… do you ever feel conflicted/awkward that all these extremely well dressed posh people are singing along to a track like Meri Gully Mein?
D: That is hip-hop’s biggest strength, especially in a city like Mumbai where the richest and the poorest walk the same road. Hip-hop tells the story of the common man that resonates with so many people, irrespective of where you were born or what kind of house you live on.
GMF: You recently started Gully Gang Entertainment. Tell us a little about that – what’s the ambition?
D: I intend making Gully Gang Entertainment the one-stop shop for everything hip-hop in India. It will have its own record label, Gully Gang Records, where not only will I release my own music but also of other, exciting hip-hop talent in India; I want to do more live music IPs like Gully Fest all over the country and help give emerging talent a bigger platform. I am so excited about the hip-hop talent in this country, and I want to do everything to push the genre.
GMF: We cannot NOT talk Gully Boy. Everyone is raving about it. We know it’s a great movie, but do you think it’ll stay just that – a great movie? How do you think it’s going to affect the hip-hop scene in India overall?
D: With Gully Boy, hip-hop has been brought to the attention of the masses. What the movie will help us achieve for hip-hop is still unfolding.
The cathartic track from the movie based on Divine’s life is now a catchphrase across the country, adorning everything from Powerpoint presentations to cheap t-shirts.
GMF: You were already massively popular before the movie, had your own loyal fan base… Has being a part of Gully Boy changed your life in any way? Especially musically?
D: A lot of people might know my story, and my music after the movie came out. Let’s see how many of them buy my debut album!
GMF: Your music is all about the reality around you. And that reality seems to have changed a little now. Specially post Gully Boy. You’re roaming in different circles…Managers, Hindi movies…. how do you manage to stay true to who you are and create the kind of music that people relate to? Will you resist change? How?
D: I still live in JB Nagar with my mom, I still have the same friends. I travel and perform internationally for a living, but I am still the same person.
GMF: What’s next for Divine? Do you see yourself rapping in more playback in movies or doing more albums?
D: If the right opportunity comes up in Bollywood, then I would definitely consider it but I am focused on completing my debut album, Kohinoor.
GMF: You’ve done a lot of fun work with Nucleya, you worked on ‘City Slums’ with Raja Kumari…and that was back in 2017. Are there any other Divine collaborations we can look forward to?
D: There is a lot of exciting stuff coming out in the next few months. Keep watching this space!
Catch Divine, performing as Divine (GullyGang), along with the rest of a stellar music and comedy line-up) at Gaana Music Festival on June 8th (New Jersey) and June 9th (California). Tickets available here.
Related post: Gaana Music Festival did a story on the rise of hip-hop in India. Read it here.