SRINAGAR, India – If you ask MC Kash, he's just speaking the truth. But Kashmir's breakout rapper's songs court rebellion and could land him in jail.
Kash calls himself a rebel who uses sharp rhymes and beats instead of stones or guns to protest India's rule over the mostly Muslim region in the Himalayas.
Kash, 20, whose real name is Roushan Illahi, has won a fan base among Kashmir's youth, whose summer uprising against Indian rule inspired his local hit "I Protest."
The lyrics — "Tales from the dark side of a murderous regime, an endless occupation of our land an' our dreams" — tread dangerously close to sedition in India, where questioning the country's claim to the disputed region of Kashmir is illegal.
"Rap is about straight talk and telling truth in the face, however uncomfortable it may be," the rapper said on a gloomy autumn day in the region's capital, Srinagar. "Rap is rebellion. Kashmir is rebellion. MC Kash is rebellion against injustice, oppression and falsehood."
Kash admitted he was scared last month after remarks by Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy questioning India's claim to Kashmir generated angry demands for her arrest.
"Then I thought, revolutionaries don't fear persecution or execution," Kash said. "If they throw me in the prison ... I'll write on the (prison) walls."
Authorities deny going after those who are using the Internet or music as an outlet for their protests, saying their focus instead is on street protesters who hurl stones at law enforcement officers.
"Youth by nature are rebellious. But if it's going out of control, we would like to check it," said Shiv Murari Sahai, a top police officer.
Both India and Pakistan claimed sovereignty over Kashmir when they were divided at the end of British rule in 1947. Since then, India has governed most of the territory and Pakistan holds much of the rest.
Stuck in the middle of the dispute are Kashmir's 10 million people, and for many, anti-India sentiment runs deep after decades of violent turmoil. Separatist insurgencies and crackdowns by the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops deployed in the Indian-administered portion have killed more than 68,000, most of them civilians.
Since June, tens of thousands of Kashmiris have risen up against Indian rule again. At least 111 — mostly teenage boys and young men — have been killed in the five months of clashes with government forces, and hundreds more have been arrested.
Kash grew up with his physician father and schoolteacher mother in Srinagar at a time when India's army was hammering the region to crush a rebellion that erupted in 1989. Government forces were engaging in regular gunbattles with the rebels, raiding homes in search of suspects and arresting people off the streets. Neighborhoods were cordoned off and security checkpoints set up across the region.
"People like Illahi are a new generation of Kashmiri artists who have experienced enough fear not to be intimidated anymore," local sociologist Wasim Bhat said.
There is a long tradition in Kashmir of writing protest songs, but they are usually in the local Urdu and Kashmiri languages so do not have much impact outside the region. There is even a popular, rap-like genre of traditional Kashmiri folk music called ladi shah, in which artists go from village to village to sing about contemporary issues.
But Kash said he chose to rap in English because "I wanted the world to know what's happening in Kashmir."
He started writing poetry when he was 10, and now studies business administration in a college in Srinagar. Using his own money, he went to a local studio last year and with a computer recorded his first rap song, "Moment of Truth," after watching a film on the 2008-09 Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza.
"I cried and cried" because the same thing "was happening here in my land," Kash said.
Since June, authorities in Kashmir have continued to impose rigid curfews as separatist leaders call for more strikes and protests.
Kash made his third song, "I Protest," in September.
"I thought about these young martyrs and their mothers, and then I thought to put this pain of Kashmir in music," he said.
The result was a highly political and emotional song naming the 65 people killed up to September, and saying "these killings ain't random, it's an organized genocide."
Kash released the song on the online music site Reverbnation, where his profile photo shows a crewcut youth wearing a red-hooded sweat shirt and a tough expression.
The song rails against "a murderous oppression written down in police brutality" and vows "I'll throw stones an' neva run. I protest, until my freedom has come!"
It was an instant hit with Kashmiri students, some of whom combined the song with videos and photos on YouTube and Facebook.
Kash was not arrested, but police raided the recording studio and questioned staff about his whereabouts, according to one worker who refused to be named for fear of police reprisal.
"Police were particularly asking if any separatist leader was behind the rapper," the studio worker said.
The studio will not let Kash record his new song, also about Kashmir. Kash said he was looking for other outlets, including possibly a local concert with Indian rappers.
But already within Kashmir, Kash has inspired a handful of other youths to start rapping, recording hip-hop compositions on home computers and connecting with artists outside Kashmir. One 16-year-old boy who calls himself Renegade recently uploaded two songs on Reverbnation, but removed them after a few days, fearing reprisals.
A 19-year-old, Saqib Mohammed, is soon releasing "The Revolution," his first rap song.
"MC Kash is showing us a way to express our desire through art," he said.