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The improbable fame of a hijab-wearing teen rapper from a poor neighborhood in Mumbai

A young fan came to the Mumbai home of rapper Saniya Mistri Qayammuddin – aka Saniya MQ — to pay her respects and pose for a selfie.
Raksha Kumar/NPR
A young fan came to the Mumbai home of rapper Saniya Mistri Qayammuddin – aka Saniya MQ — to pay her respects and pose for a selfie.

MUMBAI, India: It is two hours to a high profile rap performance in front of thousands of people at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Saniya Mistri Qayammuddin – aka Saniya MQ – is waiting for her father to pick her up in his motorized auto rickshaw, a compact 3-wheel vehicle that he uses to ferry customers throughout the day. He is her designated chauffeur everytime she performs.

"I go in an auto even to the fanciest of places," she says. Saniya needs to be in the venue at least an hour in advance to do sound and music checks. "If my father has a customer in his auto already, he has to drop them off wherever they say first," she says, checking the time on her plastic wristwatch.

On this spring Sunday, the auditorium is teeming with people from the posh neighborhoods of central Mumba, who'll hear the 16-year-old rap about inequality. One of the headliners, she is dressed in orange slacks, a shimmering silk tunic called a kurta that covers her knees and a white and orange headscarf. She does not step out without her headscarf or hijab. She is Muslim and notes, "It is not that I am very religious, but I am out in the world to create my own identity, and now people recognize me as the girl in the hijab who raps."

A rapper's inspiration — and message

Saniya lives in a 12-foot by 12-foot home, made from tin sheets and mud, in the neighborhood of Govandi — a community of roughly 100,000 people that is often described as a slum and is known for heaps of sewage and trash strewn all over and high rates of crime. In some of her videos, she stands in front of seven-foot-tall hills of trash as she moves her arms to the beat of the song. Sometimes she'll point at those piles and rap about how one half of Mumbai lives next to the trash while the other half generates most of it.

She lives with her parents and her younger brother, down a narrow lane with open drains that send sewage-laden water running down the streets.

Saniya began writing poetry at age 8 and started rapping three years ago, inspired by a Bollywood film called Gully Boy, based on the lives of rappers in Dharavi. The movie came out in 2019 and was India's official Oscar entry the following year. When Saniya watched the film, something shifted within her. "I really wanted my identity to be about hip hop," she says.

She honed her rap skills at free classes twice a week at The Dharavi Dream Project.

When COVID hit in 2020 and the world went into successive lockdowns, Saniya began writing raps in Hindi, her mother tongue. And she began making videos and posting them on YouTube.

Those videos drew criticism from neighbors and acquaintances. They thought her rap videos were "haram" – un-Islamic – because Islam forbids images of human beings. People told her mother to stop her from shooting videos.

Her mother, who earns a meager income as a tailor, thought her daughter should follow her rap muse. So did Saniya.

Saniya has a clear vision of what to rap about. "My songs cover a range of issues that affect Indian teenagers like me," she says. But she's not talking about typical teen topics like clothes, shoes and movies. Instead she is referring to creating an identity, environmental justice and world peace. "My identity as a woman is important to my existence," she says. One of the most watched videos on her YouTube channel is titled "Bahot Dheet" — Hindi for "Very Resilient."

"There'll always be hurdles but I never let them dampen my spirit," she raps in that song. That's the way a woman needs to live her life in conservative societies, she says.

"She is a bit raw but has great potential," says Bhanuj Kappal, a Mumbai-based music writer who follows the city's hip hop scene. He has seen Saniya perform a few times and is impressed by the range of subjects she touches upon.

A breakthrough moment

Her big break came about a year ago when she performed on a national television show hosted by top Hindi film producers and actors. The show, Hunarbaaz, which means "the talented," is a bit like America's Got Talent.

Today she is the heartthrob of the city of about 20 million people. A recent comment on her Instagram profile reads, "One girl with courage is a revolution @saniya_mq and that girl is YOU."

Her fame has brought her to major venues in the city including the National Center for the Performing Arts, Mumbai's equivalent of the Kennedy Center. She is paid for some of her performances, but the money isn't enough to enable her family to move to nicer quarters.

Reflecting on her art, she says, "I think I am a better poet, but people say I am a better rapper."

Her parents, she says, ask her to balance her studies with her YouTube channel. So she keeps up with her schoolwork, writing rap songs and shooting videos when she's done studying. Asked about her future goals, she says she doesn't yet know.

On a windy January afternoon, two young girls stride into Saniya's small home. She doesn't know who they are. They are from Govandi, the same neighborhood. They pull out their phones and ask Saniya to take pictures with them. Saniya is used to this. "I do have some fans," she says coyly.

The girls have seen Saniya rapping on the TV show and have been in awe of her ever since. One of them is 11-year-old Falak Naaz. "I want to become like her," Falak says. But Saniya tells Falak she has it all wrong. Do not follow anyone's footsteps. Create your own path. "You are your own strength," she tells Falak.

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Raksha Kumar