The Ten Most Influential Artists Of Desi Hip Hop

The growth of Hip Hop in India is no secret to those following the Indian music scene. As we prepare for 2020, the international impact of Desi rappers has also surged, inspiring us to list the world’s Top 10 Desi rappers. Doing so required balancing the tastes of audiences from America to India, where the hip hop scene is still in its early stages.
1) Divine - The rise of Bombay rapper Divine is reminiscent of the classic American hip hop story, rapping his way out of the slums. Like many Indian rappers, his rapping style is also reminiscent of classic hip hop’s sound, but not to the point of sounding dated. Divine has a very active following in India which has translated to his cosign also carrying large weight, as can be seen with the boost it provided Raja Kumari following their collaboration. He’s also expanded beyond music, serving as the inspiration for the film Gully Boy. Divine has collaborated with Nas and Dave East, although he has yet to breakthrough in North America and his content is unlikely to resonate with non-desi audiences.
2) Bohemia born Roger David, has long been considered Desi Hip Hop’s OG. His success, including his Kali Denali label, has enabled many other Desi artists and producers to develop their own following. The flow Bohemia uses remains the style popularized in the late 1980s which is likely the biggest reason for the perception that he has lost relevance over the last few years, but he remains active with a loyal following to this day. Despite this we included Bohemia so high on our list to salute  everything he has done for Desi Hip Hop.
3) Nav - As of 2019, the Desi rapper who has achieved the greatest North American success is Nav. Starting as a producer, Nav has since found his niche as an artist and collaborated with some of the biggest rappers in the world. Earlier this year Nav became the first Desi rapper with a #1 album on Billboards Top 200 charts. Nav is aware of his standing amongst Desi rappers, stating he took all the smoke for Indian rappers but has also complained about limitations on his fame and how he’ll go unrecognized by paparazzi. Nav’s success hasn’t yet translated into India but that doesn’t appear to be a concern for him.
4) Shah The Desi rapper who has received the most critical acclaim in North America is Toronto’s Shah. He’s been named Trap’s Newest Star by Complex, and one of the Hottest New Rappers by Buzzfeed. Shah completed his first European tour this year and was one the first artists announced by SXSW for their 2020 lineup. Similar to Nav, however, Shah has yet to perform in India. While Shah’s lack of major label backing renders international success even more challenging, the industry excitement surrounding Shah’s future in India is large. This is because the most direct path to super-stardom in India is through Bollywood, and Shah, who will be starring in the Ghostwriter television series, is viewed as having the ‘it factor’ and movie star qualities required to become a Bollywood icon.
5) Raja Kumari - As an American female desi rapper, Raja Kumari’s rise to success deserves to be lauded. Overcome the obstacles faced by Desis in the American music industry, as well the hurdles faced by females everywhere, should serve as an inspiration to young desi girls with similar dreams. Her path was more similar to that of pop artists than rappers, serving as a songwriter,  for artists including Iggy Izalea for which she earned a 2015 Grammy nomination. Kumari’s emergence as an artist followed, with substantial buzz surrounding her collaboration with Divine in 2018. Things have quieted down since then, and it will be interesting to see whats next for Raja Kumari.
Rounding out our Top 10
6) Fateh - The third Toronto area artist on our list, Fateh has amassed a loyal Punjabi following
7) Anik Khan - Queens, New York  artist Anik Khan is the only rapper of Bengali descent on our list, and has toured the United States with R&B singer Jidenna
8) Heems - New York’s Heems (Himanshu Kumar Suri) founded the hip hop group Das Racist, and remains active as an advocate for South Asian community.
9)  Hard Kaur - Years ago, before Raja Kumari, many predicted Hard Kaur to become the first desi female rapper superstar. Years before Lilly Singh garnered TouTube fame under the moniker Superwoman, Hard Kaur released her solo album 'Supawoman'. More recently, it has been Hard Kaur’s activism that has drawn attention. Hard Kaur’s twitter account was suspended after she criticized Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and voicing her support for the Khalistani movement. This again demonstrates how hip hop in India is still in its early days, reminiscent of rappers like Public Enemy stirring controversy and being banned from platforms for their activism in the 1980s.
10) Emiway Bantai
Born Bilal Shaikh, Emiway was inspired by the music of American rapper Eminem and released his first track “Glint Lock” in 2013. Emiway used to rap in English in his early days, but later switched completely to Hindi. His second track called “Aur Bantai” further cemented his foothold in the music business
How did we decide our rankings?
Using streaming data, we found American and European artists were far more impressed with North American Desi artists than artists from India. Indian audiences seemed to split into two categories. The bulk of listeners seemed to be primarily listening to Indian based artists. However, listeners that were viewed as ‘influencers’ by Spotify’s algorithm, i.e. those who had a history of listening to songs before they achieved widespread popularity, listened more to North American artists. One of the most interesting discoveries was that influencers we analyzed across the world, did not appear to be listening to Bollywood based Hip Hop. In our Top 10 list, we took these factors into account.  Because India’s population dwarfs that of America and every European country, Indian based rappers were able to achieve online numbers more easily than North American rappers. However, these numbers did not necessarily translate to international acclaim.  The other factors used in our ranking overall were lyrics, flow, relevance, and success across regions.
Huge thanks to the writers Priyanka Choudhary and Gur Signh.
Published by Musicmandir.