Published: 03rd August 2018
Dalit rapper Sumeet Samos on casteism at JNU: You just can't escape it
Samos' fanbase has been steadily growing and now with his first official single ready to release, he says he can't be more excited
Today, 24-year-old rapper Sumeet Samos is one of the most prominent Dalit voices in the country. The JNU alum already has quite a fan following through his video uploads and Facebook presence and now with his first official single slated for release this week his popularity is only set to grow.
The first question that is often posed to an upcoming artist is about their first tryst with their art. In this case, I asked Sumeet how old he was when he first listened to rap. Ten? Twelve? "I didn't even know what rap was until two years ago," Sumeet laughs. That is quite surprising considering Sumeet's body of work so far. He says that the first artist he ever listened to was 50 Cent followed by Eminem. He even tells me his favourite artists are Joyner Lucas, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino but says that these people are his preference only when it comes to style and delivery of idea. When it comes to actual influence, he says the circumstances around him are what he most absorbs from — specifically the casteist environment he grew up in and continues to be part of. "My anger drives me more than anything," he says.
Watch his latest video there -
Source: Qweed Media
To understand what he means, it obviously becomes essential to trace Sumeet's roots all the way back to his hometown in Odisha. "I come from a small village called Tentulipadar, in Koraput district, went to school there and then moved to a bigger town for my high school. After that I came to Delhi to study at JNU," he says. But neither has been easy for Sumeet — not his casteist, discriminative hometown nor the liberal, progressive JNU.
So when did he "realise" that he was Dalit, was it a particular incident or was he told about it early on? Sumeet says that he only confirmed what his caste was with his parents when he needed to fill up his forms when he was completing school. But he says he always knew. "It was in the everyday things. We had a different water source from the upper castes and the villagers were very rigid about caste occupations, we were only supposed to practice the occupation which we were "meant" to do. In school too, all the students from my caste would be sitting in the last bench so automatically I would sit there too. When I was in boarding school also I noticed how only the lower caste kids were asked to clean the toilets or sweep the classrooms," he said.
It was never explicitly said out loud, but Sumeet says he has always witnessed and been a victim of the caste system, "My mind was always in conflict because I didn't have the means to get a larger understanding of caste. There was no one that I could speak to about it either." When he approached his parents about it, they always brushed it off and would only tell him to focus on his studies, as that was what mattered most. Which was why becoming a student at JNU became his dream.
Paying homage: Sumeet with Radhika Vemula, the mother of Rohit Vemula who often appears in his raps
He went on to pursue both an undergraduate degree and a post graduate degree in Latin American literature...an unusual choice. How did it happen? "Firstly, JNU was the cheapest place that I could study at and I was desperate to get out of Odisha so it worked out well for me. The decision to do Latin American literature was made at the last minute, I thought it might be interesting and it has been," the 24-year-old says. Does he draw any similarities from their culture to his own life? He says he does, "What I like the most is their characteristic of being an anti-imperialistic culture. Their oppression is not similar to the Dalit or indigenous people here but consistence resistance is similar to both communities."
JNU is a "polite oppressor", Sumeet says. "I was the second ranker in my class and since I was good at studies I decided that I would try and go abroad for my further studies. But every time I would try to request help with scholarships from my professors, they never helped.
I ask him if studying at JNU was all that he had imagined it to be and he scoffs. "You hear a lot of things before you come. So I came with a lot of hopes, I expected to be part of a community that was caste-conscious. I realised slowly that students here had a standard set of mannerisms that I immediately tried to adopt. I was trying very hard to be like them but their patronising tone really got the better of me. Both the teachers and students would always have a patronising tone," he says.
JNU is a "polite oppressor", Sumeet says. "I was the second ranker in my class and since I was good at studies I decided that I would try and go abroad for my further studies. But every time I would try to request help with scholarships from my professors, they never helped. They wouldn't say it out loud but helped out other students even though they probably had a lesser grade than I did," he said.
Those SC and ST students who weren't politically active were always silenced, "It is left-dominant politically but still an alien campus to me. Almost 90 percent of the students come from colleges like Jadavpur, DU or Presidency and they almost all belong to the upper castes. I've reached the stage where I can sense caste — from how people speak to how they carry themselves. It is definitely not a space for me. But I realised I needed to have a voice, a space for myself."
Rapping on: Through his rap, Sumeet is bringing caste to the forefront
His tryst with anti-caste literature, activists and the movement made him realise that he was not alone and that a lot of others were like him, "I realised mine was not an individual experience, it was a collective experience. There was a shared vulnerability. That's why I decided to represent that experience." And he that's how he turned to rap.
"There's a certain secluded route I take to class on days that I feel particularly pensive. On one such day, there were these words and thoughts that kept coming to me. I went to class but could barely sit still. The minute I got out I wrote down the words and then randomly started rapping them," he recalled. The rapping also came naturally to him because he used to take part in plays back home, "It is sort of similar so I decided that it was something that I was going to take seriously. There are thousands of Dalit students who have been in JNU but unfortunately, they aren't spoken about much. I wanted to be visible, I wanted the people who patronised me to stand in front of me and applaud me. It didn't matter that I barely knew English, I made it a point to learn it."
Sumeet writes a lot, so did he not think it was enough to contribute academically to the cause? "There are lots of writers and academics doing this already, I wanted to stand apart."
He's currently planning on pursuing a PhD from a University abroad but the rap videos will keep coming, he says. But that's not the only way that he wants to contribute to the caste discourse, "I don't want to just talk about poverty or slums or corruption in my rap. I want to critically analyse issues and bring that to the forefront," Sumeet explains. Over the last few years, quite a few Dalit artists have come into the limelight so I ask him if he would ever consider collaborating with them. He tells me he would love to and was eagerly waiting for an opportunity to do so. Well, let's hope he does. God knows we need more Dalit voices. Louder, the better.