Meet the Malayalam rapper behind the viral Gender Roles song

Karthik Krishnan, who goes by the name ‘The Humble Musician’, uses such straightforward lyrics to question the system that it is hard not to pay attention.
Karthik Krishnan with his ukulele
Karthik Krishnan with his ukulele
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More than any speech he made, a short rap song would get people to listen to him, Karthik Krishnan knew. The first time he wanted to say something, for people to react, he tried speaking about it. It was listened to, but not in the way the rap worked. One by one, his songs came out – bashing early marriages, dowry and gender roles – all in Malayalam rap. Even people with the attention span of a goldfish listened to Karthik sing and question the system; they sang along with emotion. Karthik Krishnan’s became a voice that people spent time listening to. He called himself ‘The Humble Musician’.

The most viral of The Humble Musician’s songs came out in November last year – ‘Gender Roles’. There is no better way to explain it than by listening to it, and then listening to it over and over again. Sample the middle lines:

21 aayal nee udanadi kettanam

bharthavu parayunna kettu nee jeevikkanam

friends intoppam tour venda

bharthavintopam evde venelum pokko nee “pennalle”

aanayal orikkalum adukkalle kayaralle

swantham dress polum ariyathe kazhukalle

athellam pennungalde joli alle mone

nee cheyalle nee oru "aanalle"

This roughly translates to:

If you are 21, you should get married soon

Live your life obeying your husband

Don’t go touring with your friends

You can go anywhere with your husband, aren’t you a “woman”?

Don’t ever enter the kitchen if you are a man

Don’t wash your own clothes even accidentally

Isn’t all of that the work of women, son, aren’t you a “man”?

When he began his YouTube channel, Karthik, a trained singer from Kochi, mostly sang cover versions. Even now he most enjoys singing melodies, Karthik told TNM. “But when you want to say something strongly, rap is a better form. In a song by Akon, Eminem raps a small bit. There is a lot of content in that small bit and that has such an impact,” Karthik said.

The first time he thought of writing his own raps was after watching Gully Boy – a Hindi film which contained a number of popular hip hop songs with powerful and political lyrics. “The first rap I wrote was about the challenges faced by YouTubers but I didn’t put it out. Instead The Kalyanam Rap became my first rap. It was about early and forced marriages of women. I had thought of speaking about it but then decided that a rap would be more effective,” said The Humble Musician.

He was right. There are more than 4.73 lakh views for the video on YouTube. In very simple terms, Karthik stated things as they are for young women: “she is 18 and she has a lot of dreams, but the family will tell her to get married, before she knows any better.”

Another line, “If you are born a woman, you should know to cook, but you have no voice in your own home.” It rhymes in Malayalam – paachakam (cook) and vaachakam (voice). The rhymes are important, they make it hard to pretend you are not paying attention.

The Sthreedanam song (Dowry song) came soon after Vismaya’s horrible death in Kerala in June 2021 – she was only 22 and died after sustained dowry-related harassment and attacks by her husband. Karthik looked visibly angry when he questioned who has the right to put a price on a woman. “Don’t know what times we are living in, what one needs is not marriage but education / Who finds a woman a burden, why don’t they know her emotion / What is the hurry to get her married / Will she become outdated if she stayed at her home? We say we are literal Kerala but what everyone wants is dowry.”

Again, the words in Malayalam are more powerful – putting ‘sakshara keralam’ (literate Kerala) against ‘sthreedanam’ (dowry). At the end of each of these songs, he added a message – the law for instance about dowry, or against forced marriages, and a line of his own: “stop forced marriages, let her decide for herself” or “say no to dowry”.

“I have seen a lot of my female cousins get married very early and some of them leave their homes crying. My female friends also go through this. One colleague I met was 23 and already a divorced single mother. I have heard how elders in the family talk to young women, asking them to stop spending time with the boys they grew up with, asking them to come home by 5 or 6 pm even after they get a job; all of this happening in some grand misunderstanding of keeping the society happy,” Karthik said.

His cousins and friends and a lot of girls listening to his rap songs have asked him how he understood what they go through, how he could see things from their perspective. He said it is just what he sees around him. It would be hard not to notice.

It is not always about women’s rights too. In one video, Karthik rapped about the need for sex education with really straightforward lyrics. You can’t make it clearer than that. It will be relatable to students of many generations who grew up knowing little about their own bodies, not finding help from the biology teacher who refused to teach the chapter on ‘Reproduction’ or from family members.

“Veetukarku pinne paranju tharan pande madi / Naatukarodu chodichal on the spotil kittum idi,” he sings. Meaning, the family has always been reluctant to talk about it and if you ask others you will get beaten up on the spot. The whole song is laced with humour but touches the very important and often neglected subject of sex education.

There has been so much appreciation for the songs that people have asked him to write such lyrics for their works, such as short films. “I don’t know how to explain how the songs get written. It is hard for me to come up with the first or second line. But after that it comes out in a flow. I think most songs take form when I am under a shower and there’s cold water pouring on my head,” he said.

It took him only 15 minutes to write, compose and record the viral ‘Gender Roles’ song. “It happened at a time when I got busy with my day job – working as a vlogger for a company based in Kozhikode. Nothing was uploaded on my page for a couple of weeks and I began to lose followers. But the song was not made for followers, it is something I had in my head for a long time, the topic of gender roles. I had no idea it would be so viral,” he said.

He named his channel ‘The Humble Musician’, remembering a line his father, also a trained musician, had once told him: “That a student of music is a student till his death, only then can you learn new things”.

Listen to Karthik’s songs here and here

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