Duleshwar Tandi, better known these days as Rapper Dule Rocker, is one of the most successful and influential rappers to have ever come out of the Kalahandi district in Odisha, where my family is from. I jumped into his catalog of videos this weekend and was blown away not just by the success of an artist from such a remote part of India, but by his deep focus on the rights of Dalits, migrant workers, farmers, and others who are being overlooked.

Dule is the best Sambalpuri (Kosali) rapper I’ve ever heard, and he’s got an incredible presence, as evidenced by the boom in press stories like this recent profile. He's also got a fantastic look, rocking the eyeliner and a booming voice that work even across a low-resolution laptop camera.

My favorite Dule track is one of his earliest, which only has like 20 views, and is a tinny beat on laptop speakers, but goes hard as hell. (Unfortunately there are no captions; YouTube still doesn’t support our language even though 45 million people speak it.)

His production values have gone up with each successive video; just a few weeks later he released this track about farmers’ rights (“Hashtag farmer!”) and it’s got hundreds of thousands of views now.

One of the key issues Dule gives voice to are the migrant brick kiln workers whose situation has only gotten even more precarious during the COVID lockdown. Migrant workers who agree to work in the brickworks often end up in debt due to extortionate advances from the kiln owners. Women (who make up the vast majority of the workers) make about 15 US cents per day of work; men get about 18 cents.

It seems like Dule is poised to make an even bigger impact; this Scroll story doses a good job of contextualizing his work for Americans who may want to understand his work but need a more familiar frame of reference. Vivek Menezes sums it up incredibly well:

Whatever the language, there’s no mistaking Dule Rocker’s aplomb and sheer chops, backed by attitude which communicates supremely well even without subtitles. In fact, this is the essence of hip-hop.