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Learn the theory of rap at this school of hip hop in Dharavi

The Dharavi Dream Project, India’s only school of hip hop, led by AR Rahman, completes one year of online classes with students from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Canada

What is the best way to stare down your opponent? And if the crowd starts turning against you, how do you not choke? Thirty students listened to MC Kode with rapt attention as he explained the art of battle rap.

Kode is the teacher of the day at a school like none other in India. The Dharavi Dream Project is a free school of hip hop: of rapping, beatboxing, graffiti styles, and beeboying. Students here learn the theory of hip hop, how to write beats and lyrics, produce music and more.

Started in 2016 by the late Samir Bangara and his mentee Dolly Rateshwar, The Dharavi Dream Project was actualised with the help of composer AR Rahman and filmmaker Shekhar Kapur to promote the musical talents of children in the locality.

This April, the school completes one year of online classes. “Going online was never part of the plan. Our plan was to open more physical schools and make it a proven model for teaching facets of hip hop,” says Dolly. “But when the pandemic hit, we thought if not now, when? This was the time when people were at home, helpless.”

Dolly, with MC Heam, started the first online class for rapping, on April 1. In one year, this would open avenues for youth across India, even abroad.

“Through our online classes, we have reached out to 800 people of different backgrounds, from Dharavi, to villages of Uttar Pradesh, and even other countries including Canada, Nepal and Bangladesh,” she says.

The origin story

The Dharavi Dream Project started six years ago, when as part of Qyuki digital media company that promotes content, creators Samir and Dolly were visiting Dharavi. Here, they chanced upon a few young people beeboying on the streets.

“At first, we wanted to see if these artistes needed help with digital marketing. They told us that what they needed was space to practise.”

Dolly and her team rented a room and turned it into a dance studio. Eventually, they were given four rooms in a school, Ganesh Vidyamandir in Kalyanwadi, which became their base. The average age of the students is between 11 and 26, with their youngest, a nine-year-old beeboy hopeful from Dharavi.

Offline, it would take in about 70 students, but online, the school has nearly 200 students spread across various classes: 60 in rap classes, 40 in beatboxing, 10 in graffiti, 30 in beeboying, and 30 in rap battle.

Learn the fundamentals

Popular names in the Indian hip hop scene, such as Gully Gang, DCypher for beatboxing, and artist Gauri Dabholkar for graffiti, have come on board as teachers. Online classes are making space for instructors from outside Mumbai too.

One of them is New Delhi-based MC Kode, the school’s battle rap instructor. He has so far conducted 12 online classes. Learning battle rap is something that needs you to be on-ground in front of crowds, so his classes were first less about execution and more towards raising awareness about the battles being conducted in different countries.

The other focus is on writing. “It is like an English class! We look at poetic devices and how to use them,” says Kode. As rap becomes more mainstream in India, young rappers also need to understand how to operate in a country that gets easily offended. “The first thing I like to do is sensitivity training. In India, it is easy to cross lines, we have to realise that we live in a country where there are a lot of thin-skinned people. We need to understand what kind of jokes and roasts we can or can’t make.”

The school holds a 10-month weekly course from April to October and then January to March, and the classes are free. Dolly is now working on moving the school to a mobile app. “We are also collaborating with Gully Gang to expand the course and the curriculum.” she says.

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