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Although ‘rap’ as a genre is generally believed to have originated in the black-majority neighbourhoods of the 1970s New York, the word itself can be traced as far back as the sixteenth century when it meant “to utter sharply and vigorously”. Ever since rap has been used, especially by subaltern artists, as a form of protest by voicing their angst. It has been indeed a sharp and at the same time coherent outburst against oppressive structures such as racism. 

Influenced and inspired by the likes of Tupac, 50 Cent, and Eminem from the West - the Indian rap scene has really come to its own in the last two decades or so. From being a fringe movement, it has been incorporated well into the popular imagination by Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Gully Boy’ (2019) which was based on the lives of Indian rappers Divine and Naezy. Following the film’s success, many more rappers and their hard-hitting lyrics have gained recognition. 

As in the West, many rap songs in India too are a medium of protest. Consider, for instance, the song ‘Azadi’ by Divine and Dub Sharma which was used in ‘Gully Boy’. The song passionately speaks against nepotism, discrimination, hunger, etc and demands ‘Azadi’ (freedom) from all such social ills. Other remarkable rap songs of protest include Mantoiyat, #NORAPE, Naari, Nazarbhattu Freestyle, Kaisa Mera Desh, etc. 

To oversimplify for the sake of this article, one can identify or associate codes of protest, self-expression, aspiration, and ambition with the rap genre. The sentiment in a rap song generally is anti-establishment. Frustration in a rap song is manifested through a number of elements such as grungy and dimly lit backgrounds, a body language marked by bellicosity and anger. 

But what happens when a rap song is also a piece of branded content i.e when it is commercialised? 

An increasing number of brands have climbed onto the booming rap bandwagon in order to amplify their youth appeal while cashing in on a popular cultural phenomenon. From celebrating a milestone to conveying a change in brand ethos, the medium of rap song has become a go-to strategy. Many brand anthems too make good use of rap. With over a hundred rap songs by brands, it is not quite fair or possible to club them all together as they vary in both their themes and their messaging. But for the sake of our analysis, we try to extract some common elements and codes across the rap spectrum. 

Brand as the enabler 

#AageKiSoch - Upskill Anthem - 1 | upGrad 

UpGrad’s anthem presents a one-stop solution to problems of boredom and lack of skills. It hypothesises the excess time on hand as a problem. In comes UpGrad and there follows the solution. 

Any art piece that is being produced in a consumerist ecosystem works with the pre-defined notion of a world where all pieces are set to fall in place eventually. This is the basic problem-solution binary where the brand of course is part of the second half. 

The brand thus assumes the role of enabler that is conspicuously missing from a protest rap song. In life outside of the consumerist utopia, there are little or no enabling structures that find a mention in a rapper’s art. To understand better, consider: 

A protest rap song would mention hunger as a problem. But a consumerist rap song is likely to plug in a food item/product that solves the problem. Case in point: 

Faasos 500 Bash Rap ft. Mc Heam

The ‘500 Bash’ celebrating five hundred Faasos outlets makes mention of their sumptuous wrap that kills hunger. 

A similar template is followed by Ola where the problem: is drunk driving and the solution is to take an ola: 

Peeke Mat Chala ft. Prabh Deep 

Therefore, the very fabric of the rap song that gets woven into the absence of machinery to fulfil one’s dreams and aspirations is altered when a brand comes in, because with the brand also comes the enabling machinery. Frustration typically demonstrated by a rapper is repackaged into hope and joy. Branded rap songs are enthused with the dictum of “yes we can, you can!” 

With all the alterations, a rap song is clearly still a popular choice. Why so? 

Retained Elements 

Even with the obvious commercialisation, a rap song still perhaps provides the maximum space for self-expression. For instance: 

fbbXNaezy - India Ka Style

‘India Ka Style’ by Naezy of ‘Gully Boy’ fame starts off with obnoxious stereotypes about the sartorial choices of people from different regions of India. But mid-way the rapper breaks into a personal monologue that traces his journey from the streets and focuses on his ‘style’. So, ultimately the element that appeals to the youth has been retained in the song. 

Talking about the youth, another contemporary reason for the popularity of consumerist rap art includes the ultimate utility of rap songs to be used in short format videos such as Instagram ‘reels’ or YouTube ‘shorts’. In an increasingly influencer-led marketing ecosystem, this might just prove to be the cherry on top. Case in point: 

HDFC Bank #MoohBandRakho 

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As mentioned above, the rap genre has been traditionally associated with those at the lower rungs of social hierarchy. Those who have been discriminated against thus have found both expression and representation within rap. Therefore, when trying to produce an inclusive piece of branded content, a rap song may come in handy. As in: 

Faasos 500 Bash Rap ft. Mc Heam

Although Faasos’s rap subscribes to the problem-solution binary of consumerism, the lyrics have been artfully penned. They use the typical rap imagery where the rapper has worked hard to reach the top. More importantly, the song features Faasos’s own ground-level employees grooving along with the rap. Thus, they become a symbol of the brand-empowered upward social mobility. 

Lastly, rap songs are the shining beacons of self-empowerment. Whether inside or outside the consumerist utopia, they powerfully signify the belief in self. Rooted in protest art as they are, rap songs emerge as clear winners when the messaging is to do with validating and celebrating oneself as one is. A few well-made examples that illustrate the same include Absolut’s Rani Cypher which features a host of female rappers - all saying that women can do ‘absolutely’ anything. Although shot against a decadent backdrop, the piece is an anthem that visualises women as queens who should unapologetically follow their dreams. 

Absolut Vodka - Raja Kumari - Rani Cypher feat. SIRI, Meba Ofilia and Dee MC

Another example of the same would be Unacademy’s ‘Let’s Crack It’ by Naezy and Dub Sharma which has become something of a student anthem now. 

Let's Crack It - Student Anthem | Naezy | Dub Sharma 

Beginning with PM Nehru’s iconic ‘A tryst with destiny’, ‘Let’s Crack it’ imagines an academic revolution in making. It makes for an inclusive effort with lyrics and visuals cutting across different classes and gender. Nuanced semiotic decoding of the same can be read here


Originating in the hotbeds of endemic black racism, the genre of rap has and continues to witness new forms of self-expression and belief with the likes of American rapper Kendrick Lamar winning the Grammy this year. In a consumerist culture, the genre has been modified to include brand messaging. The long line of uneasy questions that a protest rap song leaves in its wake has been conveniently filled in with answers by brands. 

Given its newer utility on digital platforms and social media, energised by young rappers striving to break into and sustain the scene, the consumerist rap art is likely here to stay. 

But before eagerly jumping onto the rap bandwagon, we urge content marketers to more deeply consider the re-semioticisation (altering of the meaning) of the rap genre that they are engaged in. The consumerist rap song is but a hybrid where the dissenting spirit is dampened in favour of an optimistic overtone that ultimately says - “you do you.” One must question the hybridisation - till which point is the removal of dissent justified? What are the gains to be had from the positivity that enters the rap song as a replacement of protest? Are the scales well-balanced post the altering of meaning from protest to encouragement?  How do we retain the authenticity of raw emotion that powers protest rap?