For Bhagya Ramesh and Priya Ramesh, making music is weighted with responsibility; one that the politically astute sisters from Calgary – who call themselves Cartel Madras – not only take seriously but embrace heartily.
Bhagya, a.k.a. Eboshi, and Priya, whose stage name is Contra, formed the trap group two years back. Since then, their hyper-kinetic sound has been earning them glowing reviews from far and wide, including the Indian editions of Rolling Stone and Vogue, which called them “a Tamil Pulp Fiction-meets-MIA” who deliver “bad-ass, no-fucks-given, brown girl anthems.”
And last June, the sisters signed with Sub Pop, the legendary label that was home to Nirvana and Soundgarden. “It was a dream scenario being signed by (Shabazz Palaces’ and former Digable Planets member) Ishmael Butler,” Bhagya says from her home in Calgary. “It was crazy validation!”
In a press release, Sub Pop said, “Contra and Eboshi enter the world of trap loudly, abrasively, unapologetically – signaling to their growing fan base that they intend to bring something entirely new to hip-hop.”
That “something new” is a sound informed by the duo’s different identities. Contra and Eboshi are queer, South Asian women operating in a Black genre that’s predominantly male, and that’s been criticized for its misogynistic and violent lyrics.
The sisters agree that these layers manifest themselves in their music. “Definitely,” says Priya. “We’re two brown women coming into this space and trying to figure out how we lean into this sub-genre of hip-hop, that’s associated with sex and a gangster lifestyle, while saying something new. All these different layers bubble up into Cartel Madras.”
Adds Bhagya, “There are also so many important conversations we’re having with all the communities we represent. There’s definitely a responsibility to participate in them, and to speak to – and not just on behalf of – those communities. Just within [those communities], there’s so much diversity.”
“Goonda Rap was a right fit. It’s scary and disruptive and gangsta.” – Priya Ramesh of Cartel Madras
Talk inevitably turns to the Hindu nationalism that’s sweeping India – the sisters were born in the southern Indian city of Chennai, which was formerly called Madras – and their tweet urging “Diaspora Indians to be angry and raise hell to tell everyone the truth about the rising fascism in your motherland.”
“You have to be very vocal about what’s happening at home,” Bhagya insists. “It seems like some diaspora Indians don’t give a shit! They’ve used their culture as a building block for their platform, and it’s shocking to me that they don’t speak out. I mean, what else is your platform for?”
Goonda Rap – goonda is a Hindi word for thug or trouble-maker – is Cartel Madras’ platform, a furious hybrid of Indian sounds and languages, rib cage-rattling beats, and rapid-fire verses. “Goonda Rap was a right fit,” says Priya. “It’s scary and disruptive and gangsta.”
They say that hearing various Indian languages and music styles while growing up inspired them to pursue a career in music. “It was obvious from a young age that we weren’t going to be doctors or lawyers of engineers,” says Priya, laughing. “We faced the same pressure from our parents that other young South Asians face, but we kind of bent their will. In South Asian homes, the choice is either ‘I’m going to listen to my parents’ or ‘I’m going to stand my ground.’ We stood our ground.”
Bhagya and Priya say they have a deep respect for the origins of hip-hop, “a sound that traditionally doesn’t belong to us. We’re in our own lane, this is our take on the genre.”
When it comes to making music, Priya and Bhagya say they sit in separate rooms, “writing our own verses but collaborating on the hook. We do a good job balancing everything. As sisters, we know each other’s skills and talents, and that makes it easier when something works or doesn’t. If we do have any disagreements, they might be about beat choices.
“On the other hand, the first time we heard the beats for Age of the Goonda, we were like, ‘Oh yeah! This is it, this the beat we’ve been looking for.’ “We’re all about pushing the envelope sonically.”