It has been an eventful month for 25-year-old Kekho Thiamkho, the Hip Hop artist from Arunachal Pradesh, who is popularly known by the moniker ‘K4 Kekho’.
After confirmation on 4 March that he will feature as a rapper/songwriter in the upcoming Varun Dhawan and Kriti Sanon-starrer Bollywood film, Bhediya, Kekho has helped organise donation drives for Longliang village that suffered a devastating fire on 18 March.
Located in Lazu Circle of Tirap district, Arunachal Pradesh, Longlian suffered two casualties. To make matters worse, 114 thatched houses, including community halls and granaries, were burnt down. Led by the All Tirap Changlang Namsai and Longding Students’ Union Itanagar and the Rajiv Gandhi University’s Tirap Changlang Namsai and Longding Students’ Union, the donation drive in Itanagar over three days collected nearly Rs 6.7 lakhs for the victims.
We caught up with Kekho following the conclusion of a three-day donation drive in Itanagar which lasted from 20 to 22 March. Speaking to The Better India, Kekho talks about how the fire in Longliang hit close to home. His native village of Lower Chinhan falls under Lazu Circle. On the intervening night of 18 and 19 March, he posted a video on his Facebook page with an appeal to the government for urgent assistance.
“I could relate to events in Longliang because the same thing happened in Lower Chinhan a couple of years ago, when more than 40 houses were burnt down in a fire. Besides urgent assistance for the residents who lost their homes, I also appealed to the government for better infrastructure. The village has no proper road connectivity or other modern amenities. It was an emotional day, and I was really motivated to do something for them,” says Kekho.
After consulting Sange Droma Bodoi, a good friend and CEO of Arunachal Today, a local news media outlet, he got in touch with the student unions. After meeting them on 19 March, they decided to organise donation drives from different locations in the city the next day.
“People in the village need relief immediately. Even though the state government and local administration are offering financial and other assistance, we feel it’s important to supplement their efforts. These victims are without a roof over their head. I feel more people should donate money to those in need of help. Since I am a struggling artist, I wasn’t in a position to donate a few lakhs. Instead, I decided to donate my time,” he says.
Now, Kekho feels that his immediate duties are done. It’s up to the respective students’ unions to ensure money reaches the intended beneficiaries, while he gets back to his music.
Falling in Love With Music
From the Ollo (Nocte) indigenous community, Kekho’s love for music was first inspired by his father, Najen Thiamkho, a constable with the Arunachal Pradesh Police.
“My father had a massive collection of audio cassettes ranging from Bollywood to international pop artists like Michael Jackson and Michael Learns to Rock (MLTR). The collection also included Sufi music, semi-classical tracks and local songs as well. He would often sing at home. When his friends would come over, drink wine and play Antakshari, my father and I would sing together while others would shower us with compliments,” he recalls.
Najen always encouraged his son’s interest in music, but like many parents in Arunachal, he wasn’t sure whether Kekho would survive without a secure government job to fall back on. Besides music, however, Najen also encouraged his son to learn spoken English properly. He believed that learning English would help his son land a better government job. It was this introduction to English language learning which first sparked his love for Hip Hop.
“My father bought a book home for me to learn English, but that wasn’t helpful. To learn it, I started listening to English songs starting with Michael Jackson. When my father bought me my first MP4 player in school, my first objective was to download all of Michael Jackson’s songs. But I asked people at the local internet cafe to transfer all the English songs they had into my MP4 player. Hip Hop found me through this process,” says Kekho.
Besides singing/rapping to songs by international artists like Eminem and Lil Wayne, he would also regularly watch the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Through these mediums, he not only improved his vocabulary but also began ascertaining the different tonalities of English speaking. But out of all the music genres, Hip Hop stuck with him.
“Initially, I would imitate artists like Eminem and Lil Wayne, but after a point that seemed like a futile exercise because they were on another level. By the time I was in high school around Class 11, I began writing my own lyrics with a mix of broken English and broken Hindi. In Class 12, I performed my first ever rap song at a school function. While teachers weren’t very fond of my rap performance, fellow students went crazy because that’s the first time they saw someone perform a Hip Hop song in front of them,” he recalls.
Following the electric reception he got, Kekho knew that Hip Hop would become the medium through which he would express his emotions, while telling stories about the self and society.
Hip Hop For Life
The next big turning point came during Arunachal Pradesh’s inaugural Rap Riot competition in 2015. Competing with 10 other rappers in his final year of college, Kekho came first. This is the moment, he believes, when his music career actually began.
Speaking to The Better India in an earlier interview, Kolkata-based independent rapper and producer, Vikramjit Sen (aka Feyago), talked about this moment.
“We had a rap battle in Arunachal, and this young man called Kekho won. He was driven. His father was there at the time, telling him that this was a total waste of time. However, when the boy went to his dad with the winner’s cheque, what we saw was a parent eventually seeing this as something his son could pursue in the future,” said Feyago.
“Back then, all the craze was about Rock music and Metal. In my opinion, even today, people in Arunachal who love Rock music, Bollywood music and Metal, don’t really respect Hip Hop. But since I started making music, the Hip Hop scene in Arunachal has grown tremendously. There is a budding rapper in every colony across cities like Itanagar,” he says.
However, Kekho doesn’t like to call himself a ‘pioneer’ of Hip Hop music in Arunachal. “I just played my part and witnessed the Hip Hop scene rise in our state,” he adds.
‘I am an Indian’
Later that year, he wrote a song called ‘I Am An Indian’, responding to the spate of racist and xenophobic attacks against people from the Northeast in cities like Delhi and Bengaluru.
“I had to find something relevant to rap about so that people could ascribe real value to my art. If I can compose and rap a song about a subject which touches people’s hearts, it’ll be worth remembering. Recording this track on my mobile phone, I shared it with my friends on WhatsApp and Facebook. After a few weeks, people started talking about this song. Even before I recorded the song in a proper studio, people would ask me to perform it in different gatherings. Bengia Morto, a friend, came to me and said we need to make a music video for this song because more people needed to hear it. After all, music is a better way of spreading awareness about racism against Northeasterners than textbooks,” he says.
But that music video didn’t come for a few years. Instead, Kekho was honing his craft and putting out the occasional track. Finally, in 2018, his search for someone to help produce ‘I Am An Indian’ in a real studio and make a music video on the same, came to an end.
Approaching Hilang Nima, a local producer, they re-recorded the song and made a music video alongside close friends and long-time collaborators Bengia Morto, the director, Nyago Ete, the cinematographer. This video went viral with over a 1 million views, and many mainstream Indian publications covered it. “This video changed my life,” he adds.
He hasn’t looked back since. Besides regularly putting out songs expressing personal bravado, the pride in belonging to tribal communities, and socially conscious lyrics, Kekho has collaborated with many artists from the Northeast in cyphers and other tracks.
Take the example of Yoksa, a Hip Hop track song by Arunachalee producer DJ Bom, which features Kekho on vocals. With nearly 850,000 views on YouTube, this song pays homage to the traditional values associated with Yoksa (Tibetan swords) of the indigenous Adi tribe.
As the song’s YouTube description notes, “the beat is a combination of digitally produced hip hop sounds and the sounds of yoksa recorded in a studio accompanied by the vocal performance of a traditional Tapu War dance crew.” A personal favourite is his verse in the Northeast Cypher 2020, which saw contributions from rappers across the Northeast.
Never Giving Up on a Dream
Throughout this journey, his family has backed him. Then there are two of his closest professional collaborators and personal friends Bengia Morto and Nyago Ete, who have sometimes made Kekho’s music videos for free. Other well-wishers include Katung Nabam and Yachang Chan. Since his career took off, Kekho has been supporting his music dreams by working on background scores and music for documentaries, feature films and short films made in Arunachal.
“I also work on dubbing and sound designing projects. But then again, it’s not easy to find work because there isn’t an organised film industry here. The money I get goes into buying petrol, purchasing things for my kitchen and making music in my home studio. My father does his best to support me as well, but we have a big family. I don’t want to exploit my friends into making free music videos. That’s why I’m taking my time working and earning in different spaces to put out new content because I’d like to pay them for their work and put out quality content. So far, I have earned my name in the game and the love of my people. I want to keep it real and not give people the impression that I’m rich and fancy,” he says.
However, there are times when Kekho feels that he should give up his music dreams and find a ‘proper job’. This happens, particularly, when he sees artists who have parents with deeper pockets support their careers. These artists put out music videos regularly. “I can’t expect too much of my father because he has a large family to support. So, I’ve gone independent to fund my content on YouTube,” he adds.
Having said all that, things are really looking up for Kekho. A couple of months ago, he was approached by Amar Kaushik, a Bollywood director, who was doing a recce for the upcoming shoot of Bhediya. As per reports, the movie will be shot in Ziro, Lower Subansiri district, Sagalee, Papum Pare district and parts of Pakke Kessang district.
“Amar Sir approached me to compose a song for Bhediya. I was competing with a couple of other artists as well for the same spot. They were given the same brief. Although he expressed his desire to see me come on board, I wasn’t sure about making it till I heard Varun Dhawan Sir publicly mention my name in that official press conference. My entire family was overjoyed when the news came through officially. I remember hugging my parents and wife in excitement. Hopefully, I will be featured in another song, besides the one I have already submitted, and the movie goes ahead as planned,” he says.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)