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“They’re shoe shoes, silly!” A Hip-hop Journey into Queerness

A photo of an installation at Queer Objects exhibition in Assam.

I was approached in June 2023 to contribute a piece of music for an exhibition titled Queer Objects 1.0 that would be held at Gauhati Artists’ Guild, Guwahati, from October 28 to November 2, 2023. When the curator, Rishav, approached me, they shared several voice notes from LGBTQIA+ persons in Assam talking about aspects of their life via objects that they were contributing for the exhibition. In this essay I would like to reflect on the creative process of a collaborative production of socially conscious music. For me, who had just begun a ‘questioning’ journey of my own, engaging with gender, sexuality, and queerness via art-making has been very enriching not just professionally but also in a deeply personal sense.

Here are some snippets (from the exhibition) of the art and the objects that I had engaged with:

The following month, in July, one day in the heat of summer, I was listening to an interview with the iconoclastic David Bowie on YouTube in my hostel room of TISS Guwahati. This was when it clicked for me. I wrote a song standing at the intersection of art, activism, and self-expression and titled it Shoe Shoes Silly in homage to Bowie’s matter-of-fact response to the interviewer’s ignorant question about whether his shoes were men’s shoes, women’s shoes, or bisexual shoes: “They’re shoe shoes, silly!

My music piece isn’t simply a hip-hop track, it’s a narrative journey diving into the stories behind the showcased ‘queer objects’. You can listen to the song here and watch the live performance here.

Here are the lyrics.

Shoe Shoes Silly

[Verse 1]
Welcome to the freak show
It ain’t a ted show
These are the stories of many identities
Let me walk you through different windows
Try to walk in their shadows
Might be provoking
It will be shocking
Still, you will be thrilled
How much they have to deal
To come out of their closet
kill their own self, to create a new self
To question the system, breaking the norms
Tagging oneself as the mischief
Staging the aggression for the generations
Becoming the sensation for the whole nation
Bleeding for speaking the truth
Shouting out loud against the gatekeepers
That’s the price they have been paying from the ancient.

[Hook – voice notes of queer persons talking about objects]

[Verse 2]
Welcome back, the show is getting exciting
Let me tell you a story of a person with no aggression
But can be in our imagination
Which we are not finding any solution out of the confusions,
Trying to locate own self in the vast ocean
Sailing through different emotions
But the body is on motion
To create the potion of devotion
For the mind to be sacrificed
That will be crucified in the name of law
Saw the devil inside, created by the society
Only to be term as outlaw.
One fine night, the person was with the knife
Naked in the mosh pit of agony, but with no pain
Sticking the last words on the wall – “I quit”
Morning the mother saw a beautiful corpse, with no penis
And the society was in awe, to see the devil as dead.

[Hook – voice notes of queer persons talking about objects]

[Verse 3]
Here, comes the last verse
Thank you for listening so long
‘Cause the stains will never go soon
The chain of pain will remain the same
But the names will keep on change
Put the blame on who you want
This is the new world order
Never ask for any border, neither we surrender
We are the warriors of this rainbow war
And, Love is the only weapon we got,
The harder it gets, the louder we become
We demand nothing, but peace
Freedom to be who we want
No matter what the outcome
We fight for our own rights
Let’s have no doubt, we are just humans like you do.

I wrote this three-part song in the process of delving into the daily struggles of queer folks through the voice notes that Rishav, the exhibition curator, had given me, and engaging with objects and other craftwork such as paintings and handlooms for the exhibition. Starting with the first verse, my intention was to provide an overview of what is happening with queer people in our surroundings as well as the stigmas or stereotypes we have attached to LGBTQIA+ persons. In the second verse, I tried to explore how the mind and the body of a person may get trapped in a way while trying to understand one’s own self – one’s sexuality, gender and status in society. It might either lead to the destruction of the person, which is what I really focussed on, or it might lead to the creation of a new being. The last few lines of this verse depict society, as I wanted to highlight it:

One fine night, the person was with the knife
Naked in the mosh pit of agony, but with no pain
Sticking the last words on the wall – “I quit”
Morning the mother saw a beautiful corpse, with no penis
And the society was in awe, to see the devil as dead.

The final verse personifies hope for the marginalised and the oppressed. The last line of the verse emphasises that we are all humans and everyone has the equal rights to be who they are.

My personal favourite bits are less my own lyrics and more the voice narrations of queer persons talking about objects. I was moved by listening to the personal voice notes while touching the ‘queer objects’ that they mentioned. A lot of trans and non-binary persons talked of objects of love or hate – a doll, or an umbrella or a piece of clothing – to which society had assigned gender. These are not abstract stories – they are lived experiences, struggles, triumphs, and everything in between. Objects ranging from a childhood frock, bits and pieces of the garden the person has in their home, personal diaries, to empty hair-colour bottles and carefully-chosen accessories. These items, their vibrant colours and unique designs reflect queer self-expression and an unapologetic embrace of stigmatised identities. Imbued with personal significance and imbued with the power to challenge norms, they became the foundation upon which I built the song. By incorporating the raw, unfiltered voices of the queer community as hooks, I sought to transcend the realm of entertainment and attempt to create a powerful act of communal storytelling, adding my voice to that of those who are often silenced.

Recording Session

Live Performance

Since I was a school student in the small town of Raha, in the Nagaon district of Assam, hip-hop has been my favourite genre of music. Starting from Linkin Park to Eminem (my greatest motivation for wanting to rap) to listening to Public Enemy, KRS-One, or our own Indian groups like Swadeshi, and MC Manmeet Kaur, my taste in music went from the commercial to socially-conscious lyrics. As I also started exploring my own potential in rap, I developed a deep connection with writing more about surrounding political situations. With time, as I was introduced to sociology and philosophy, my drive to include more marginalised voices like mine – tribal, rural, queer – in my lyrics became stronger and more prominent. Thus, I evolved a writing style in which I discuss gender and sexuality as well as the stigmas and taboos that we attach to human bodies.

As someone who identifies as questioning, I have not lived the queer lives that I was exposed to while preparing for the exhibition. I have not had these experiences of pain, joy and agony in my own life. So, to come to a point where I could imagine, understand, connect to or feel the experiences of LGBTQIA+ folk was challenging. This process of relating was vital for me to make their experiences visible through the lyrics I wrote. In my rap lyrics, I try to focus on the undercurrents of resilience, hope, and the unwavering spirit of resistance in the face of struggles. So, in a way my music aims to become an anthem, a rallying cry for the community, celebrating its strength and demanding recognition.

Shoe Shoes Silly thus turned into a multifaceted exploration of local queer experiences. I created it to celebrate personal narratives, highlight diverse voices, and be a powerful testament to the resilience of queer people. Weaving together music, spoken word, and the essence of the Queer Objects exhibition, was an attempt to generate an experience that was both entertaining and thought-provoking, and that would leave a lasting impact on the listener.

All images, including the cover image, courtesy of the author