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Meet Faris Shafi. You might have listened to this Punjabi from the other side of the border on YouTube, singing rap songs in which he fearlessly challenges religious exploitation in a Pakistan torn between its pre-Independence moderate roots and Islamist terrorism.
Born and raised in Lahore, this 27-year-old - whose songs are an in-your-face criticism of all political, religious and societal ills afflicting Pakistan - is unapologetic about the explicit content of his lyrics. "I am talking about murder, exploitation and corruption in my society; things that affect me severely, and I do not advocate sugar-coating that stuff," Shafi strikes a no-nonsense tone in an e-mailed interview with The Times of India.
The lyrics penned by Shafi bluntly shame Lahore's "famous" mujras and bearded "holy men" bent on waging a modern-day Jihad. "People dress up and appear religious when they are the most corrupt. That is the worst kind of exploitation," he says. "Nowadays, any religious leader will keep a beard and wear a hat, and claim to be pious while spewing messages of hate and violence. I don't understand the double standards, but I still get hate mail for it."
In his song 'Muskura', Shafi has written about religious hypocrisy, or "munafqat". The song, however, had to be taken off YouTube. "Its lyrics were deemed too controversial," Shafi says.
There still are two songs available on the video-sharing website: the recently released 'Jawab De' and 'Awaam', which was released in August 2012 and has nearly 300,000 hits on YouTube.
In Jawab De, which also has a heart-rending video, Shafi has sung about the degree of violence in present-day Pakistan, while in Awaam, he minces no words when he talks about the "gunda", or feudal, mindset in Pakistan. "I started writing Awaam during a power failure, what we like to call load shedding. At that time, there was a dengue scare and there was a lot of news about violence in the country and abroad," Shafi says. "Awaam was born with that feeling of helplessness. I wrote Jawab De a year and a half later, when things kept getting worse; all the evils I spoke about in Awaam had multiplied by then. Talal Qureshi, the brilliant audio mastermind, sent me the beat and I put the lyrics on it and that was that."
Shafi, like most families hailing from Punjab, also has an across-the-border connection. "My grandfather, Hamid Akhtar, was from Ludhiana. He was one of the most decorated leftist writers Pakistan has produced. Although I never read his work in depth till he passed away, I think a lot of his influence rubbed off on me, because he would always talk to me about the struggles that we as a people face," he says.
Shafi, despite his rising popularity in the neighbouring country, is yet to cut a deal with a record label. "There isn't much scope in Pakistan these days. But, yes, if a label approaches me I would love work with them; that is only if I get the freedom to write what I want," he says. "There are many songs that I want to work on, but don't have the resources to do so."
Musically, Shafi has drawn influence from the American rapper Snoop Dog, but says that his taste in rap music is diverse. "I just saw what each rapper did and studied rhyming techniques while trying to focus on what really moved me," he says.
When it comes to Indian rappers, however, he draws the line: "Honey Singh is popular, but anyone who knows rap will tell you his music has nothing to do with rap. I cringe when I hear people refer to him as a rapper. Bohemia, on the other hand, is an inspiration."
And then, just like his music is able to oscillate between the stark contradictions of Pakistani society, he strikes a serious note and says, "We are still living in an age where anyone with money and power can use people as slaves, literally like slaves, and get away with it on a daily basis. My music is about that."