Dalit Billionaires & 'De-Sanskritisation': Is India Ready to 'Rap'?

·5-min read

One fine morning in April, a news marquee grabbed my interest, nudging me to think about the subaltern marginalised society. The headline read, “Kanye West, an American rapper, becomes the richest Black man in America”.

As I skimmed through the opinion piece, I was startled to learn that out of 614 billionaires in the US, only seven belonged to the racial minority. But my meditation on the marginalised section was catalysed after I noticed that two of the Black billionaires were rappers (Jay-Z and Kanye West). Questions like how many Dalits billionaires are there in India, and why the majority of Black billionaires (four) are pop culture icons instead of businessmen or entrepreneurs, raced through my mind.

Is there a correlation between socio-cultural upliftment and economic betterment?

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The answer to the first question was very alarming.

I researched and found that only one Dalit—Rajesh Saraiya—had broken the glass ceiling to became a billionaire.

This was alarming to me for two reasons:

  1. Affirmative action for the marginalised in India germinated much earlier here (1949) than in America (1965)

  2. Even after strong representation of the lower castes in Parliament and Assembly, why hasn’t the same transpired in the economic front?

Now, there can be multifarious theories and hypotheses to substantiate the similar failure of the reservation policy and problems with the trickle-down policy. However, I isolated myself from the practicality of the problem and thought about theoretical questions.

What is 'Sanskritisation'?

It took me back to my college classes where my sociology professor talked about the theory of “Sanskritisation” by MN Srinivas. It is a process by which castes or tribes placed low in the caste hierarchy, seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the dominant or upper castes.

One example that Srinivas gave was people belonging to the so-called 'low castes' adopting vegetarianism despite traditionally not being averse to non-vegetarian food. The prevailing notion was, that by changing the cultural practices the lower castes could elevate their social status. This facilitated the development of Hindu synthesis, in which Brahminical traditions absorbed “local popular traditions”.

Due to this, there are very scant, distinctive cultural practices in the mainstream which can be associated with lower castes.

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Rap Music is Nothing But 'De-Sanskritisation' in the US

This brings me to my second question of why a majority of Black billionaires are pop culture icons.

In my opinion, we are witnessing something akin to "de-sanskritisation" in America. De-sanskritisation (self-coined) is a process by which subaltern culture becomes dominant, and the dominant community starts appropriating the same for societal acceptance.

Now, rap would be the dominant culture in the present scenario. It is an intrinsic part of Black identity—the verses showcase 'hood lifestyle and hardships. The banging bass, groovy rhymes and quirky flow switches made the genre popular.

In 2018, rap surpassed rock music to become the most consumed music genre. Not only this, it became a tool to highlight social problems like drug abuse, poverty, police brutality and authoritarian regimes.

The impact of rap is patent in popular language, clothing and even social movements. Ironically, the hood lingo which was perceived as a sign of illiteracy is now a marker of “coolness”; being used more and more by the white populace.

Hood-style clothing has penetrated mainstream white fashion industry and brands like Supreme, which is earning millions annually.

Rap songs like 'Bigger Picture' and 'Rockstar' amplified the Black Lives Matter movement. These examples illustrate the fact that rap, a subaltern cultural phenomenon has garnered so much traction that the dominant community has started appropriating it to feel accepted in society.

I believe this is one of the major factors bridging the gap between communities in the US. Organic social change and acceptance that came about through the mushrooming of rap, is one of the reasons for their economic upliftment.

Also Read: World Music Day: The Anti-Racism Rap from Arunachal Pradesh

Can the Dalit Community Achieve the Same in India?

The market is controlled by the needs of the consumer and since the needs of large consumers are influenced by rap music and culture, a new space has been created for the Black community.

New opportunities in movies, TV shows, fashion industry, advertisement and the music industry are emerging for the Black community. The above-stated reasoning answered my final question about the correlation between socio-cultural upliftment and economic alleviation.

All these thoughts boiled down to the final question - could “desanskritisation” help in assimilating the Dalits organically and elevate their social status? In my opinion, the answer is in the positive.

Unfortunately, there are next to no distinctive cultural practices associated with Dalits in mainstream culture. This is primarily due to the synthesis of “local popular traditions” into the Brahminical tradition. Would that mean Dalits have to evolve new cultural practices? No, I am not advocating that Dalits actively find and evolve new cultural and traditional practices which would appease the dominant caste. I think an organic evolution of distinctive subaltern cultural practice/s would bridge the socio-economic barriers between the castes.

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(Shikhar Yadav is a fourth-year student at Dr.Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University. This is a blog post and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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