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hip hop

'Understand, I'm a revolution'

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For 12-year-old Taran Kaur Dhillon, Birmingham was a lonely place. The Asians made fun of her straight-from-the mustard-fields accent, and Taran, already vulnerable after losing her father in the Sikh riots of 1984, felt like she didn't belong. That was twenty years ago.

Today, Hard Kaur, as Dhillon has rechristened herself, can hardly walk down the street, whether in Birmingham or Bombay without being stopped. The pint-sized rapper with Bollywood hits like Paise phek (Johnny Gaddar, 2007), Main talli go gayi (Ugly Aur Pagli, 2008) and Singh is Kinng (Singh Is Kinng, 2008), is confident, sassy and, by her own admission, shame-proof. Painted as an attention-seeking loose canon, Hard Kaur, in her torn jeans and tube tops, doesn't give two hoots about what the world thinks of her because she loves herself more than she loves the world, including her boyfriend. As she makes clear in her distinctive, raspy voice in her debut album Supawoman:
I live my life just how I please
Satisfy one person I know, that's me
Work hard for the things I achieve in life
And never rap fake when I'm on the mike

The transformation from Taran Dillon to Hard Kaur didn't result from hours of expensive therapy. She couldn't afford that kind of thing. Instead, Dhillon, like many other Asian kids in the UK, found solace in the songs and lyrics about gangsta life, and in turn, found herself.

"Hip hop saved my life, " Hard Kaur, who was recently seen in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Patiala House as a demure Punjabi girl in Southall, told TOI-Crest in a telephone chat. "When I got to the UK, I had to deal with all the bullshit about being from India, everybody picking on me, bullying me and people calling me a 'freshie' and most of this was coming from Indians. "

Born in Kanpur, Hard Kaur moved to Birmingham in 1991 with her mother who had married an NRI businessman. Somewhat prepared for a cultural shock, what greeted Hard Kaur was far more shocking. "People had little idea about India, " says the 31-year-old in a Birmingham accent that still has a trace of the mustard fields. "They thought we lived in huts. They asked me if we had toilets - and this was Indians asking me. This really saddened me. Now because of the language barrier and being in a new place, I didn't know what to do. When I discovered hip hop, it felt good. It was in 1993 when I saw my first hip hop video and bought my first album. I'm talking about crazy underground stuff like Nas. I saw it and thought to myself, 'I'm loving this shit'. "

Rap mirrored her loneliness and her loss of identity. But more importantly, for a teenager, it taught her the lingo of cool that allowed her to fit in. "I had become so cold because of all the crap I was getting, the bullying and my father passing away, " she says. "I fell in love with hip hop. I found myself with hip hop. I learned to speak English properly or the slang through hip hop. Anyone who doesn't speak English learns the language through music. Hip hop taught me the slang, and secondly, it told me to stand up for myself. I got so much energy from it. I was tired of all the crap happening in my life and my mum being a single parent and struggling to look after my brother and me while my stepfather abused her. "

Learning to rhyme gave the young girl the power to dream an unlikely dream. "I was 15 when I decided to become a rapper, " she says. 'I told my mom that I wanted to become India's first female rapper. " The declaration made her mother laugh, but the older woman has turned out to be her main source of support and encouragement.

"I'm very proud of my Indian culture but England taught me that you have to stand up and punch back, " continues Hard Kaur. "That's the only way to survive. It's a doggy-dog world. Everybody was against me. I was ostracized by my family because of the kind of music I did.

But then my mother had ingrained the importance of work. I used to work at my mom's beauty salon during the day and then do my gigs in the evening. She taught me the importance of being independent. "Koi kuch nahi kehta. Paise kamane seekho. (Don't worry about what people say. Learn to be independent). " I'm glad I listened to my mum. She says, 'Chadte sooraj ko sab salaam karte hain (Everyone wants to befriend a rising star). ' She was right. "

It was her mother who suggested that she sing something for her "Indian people" and the result was the highly successful collaboration Ek Glassy (2006) with the London-based quartet Sona Family, often called the Indian version of the Black Eyed Peas. That opened doors for her in Bollywood. Her current chart topper Char baj gaye, party abhi baki hai from the forthcoming film F. A. L. T. U. is setting dance floors afire.
But success has come at a price.

"Earlier I would do real hip hop music and talk about issues on women empowerment and domestic violence, " she says. "But now when I show a bit of cleavage and put some make-up on and talk about Glassy, you love me. It's really weird. Nobody wants to buy music that is real. Everybody wants to buy music they can dance to. Sure, I didn't want to die a struggling artist. Paise bhi toh kamane hai, roti bhi toh khaani hai (One has to earn and eat). So I did both. I kept my soul satisfied by doing the real stuff and keep my pocket satisfied by doing the Bollywood stuff. "

The 'real stuff' was her feisty debut album Supawoman in 2007 and a collaboration with American rap group D12, Desi Dance.

Devoted as she is to her art form, Hard Kaur knows that hip hop today is a mere shadow of what it used to be. Where once Tupac Shakur talked about women fighting for respect, today it's all about swinging in the club. "I'm glad I discovered hip hop in the early 90s because now it's all just really stupid. Cash, money, clothes, " she says. "When I discovered hip hop, the songs were about living in America and what were the wrongs in society. But now you don't have to do that because everybody wants to make money quickly, get famous. Today it's about survival of the fittest. Earlier it was about survival of the most respected. Now it's about being smart, having brains and screwing over to get to the top, no matter what. There's real stuff that still comes out but no one buys it. There's no time to be real, darling, kyunki jo dikhta hai woh bikhta hai (whatever is popular sells)! "

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