How a Rap Duo Found New Ways to Engage With Their Audience Under Lockdown
In this 10-part series, we explore how Indians are embracing digital connections under the Covid19 lockdown in the absence of in-person intimacy. Here, rap duo Cartel Madras describes the shift in their work under lockdown, and how they found different ways to stay connected with their audience.
There is a certain energy you get from being on stage, and from seeing a real-time reaction to your music being actualized. It’s validating, it’s terrifying, and it makes you a better artist. Like, performing “Goonda Gold” to a crowd of 500 people at 1 a.m., and everyone is sweating and yelling back at you, there isn’t anything like it. We wouldn’t trade that for the world.
When we came back [from touring in New York] and moved to two different cities, we were in shock. The horror of realizing that we would not be on an explosive North American tour in May, but instead watching VEEP in our bedrooms and making discount tacos at home was initially devastating. And then it was interesting. Your art evolves entirely because of your environment, and we were funnily enough back at this familiar childhood-teenage space of being on the internet for far too long, playing around with our creativity and neurotically thinking about the next phase of our story.
The most difficult part is being in separate cities; we aren’t constantly in each other’s ear and bouncing ideas off of one another. In terms of making the music itself, that’s more or less the same. We tend to send each other demos and notes on a song or a beat and then come together for the meat of the hook or the larger theme of a song — it’s a process that happens randomly when we are excited about an idea or a sound; there isn’t a big change in how we do this during the quarantine. In terms of videos, we’ve always been inclined to direct and produce our own work so the pandemic actually gave us time to work on formalizing a media & production house with our collective — Thotnation Media. We produced our new single working through this and helped direct the video as well. While getting logistics figured out during a pandemic can be frustrating, it turns out we’re quite good at it. We managed to shoot four music videos during the pandemic and have begun production for other artists’ work as well.
There has definitely been a shift in our relationship to our audience as our profile has grown and our music has been heard all over the world. When we started, we were already doing live shows but were just beginning to be Cartel Madras — the line between fan, friend, and someone who is trying to get lit was blurry. Now, we typically know when we’re interacting with someone who just became a fan versus someone who has supported us for a while. Post-pandemic, we suppose we’ve had to hop on Instagram a lot more and sort of let people in, in a different way. We have done a few digital performances and we tend to be picky with it. We did a show within an art gallery, we have recorded performances in front of a projection of an arthouse film, we’ve performed from our mother’s basement and our Toronto high-rise. Performing online really, really isn’t the same as live, but we’ve made it work. We wanted production value so that it still felt like a Cartel Madras show, even if it was more stripped down.
BLM and the current political climate in the West are deeply connected to us as people. It would be very dishonest to our beliefs and lives for Cartel Madras to not take a public stand — our music, our messaging, our identities, all of it is political. It sort of just happens naturally. We are trying to make music that bangs in the whip and at a party, but we are also slipping into our lyrics how we feel about the world. Using our platform to raise the alarm on certain issues in the West and the East isn’t separate from our art. We’ve grown up listening to Black music and being immersed in Black art and literature. Our art collective Thotnation is made up of BIPOC artists. We participate in a genre of music that is rooted in Black communities and identities. Without our ties to and connections with the Black community, we are still deeply aligned with human rights, civil rights, and the progress, safety, and promotion of that community.
Cartel Madras has always been clear about where we stand, so when we ask our audience to consider defunding the police or to stop engaging with right-wing extremism, we don’t entirely separate that from the messaging of our discography. And sometimes that is very uncomfortable for certain fans. We exist in this unique space as artists where our audience comes from the West and East, some of them are trap music heads while others come from the queer scene and many have found us through activism and politics. Not every single one of our fans is going to be okay with us yelling ACAB at them through Instagram, especially when we are referring to systems of policing in both of our homes in the world, but art has such an important role to play in shifting perspectives. What type of artists would we be when the world is on a tipping point and we chose to not say or do anything? We are trying to move you and change you while also intriguing and entertaining you, and we hope that in your consumption of Cartel Madras all of this happens.
This project was done in partnership with Tinder India.