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A teenage girl is Mumbai's latest hip-hop sensation

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Over the past several years, India's ruling nationalist party has provoked protests across the country. Critics say its policies discriminate against religious minorities and restrict free speech. Reporter Raksha Kumar brings us the story of a Muslim teenager from Mumbai who is also protesting but with music, specifically hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAHOT DHEET")

SANIYA MISTRI QAYAMMUDDIN: (Rapping in non-English language).

RAKSHA KUMAR, BYLINE: Saniya Mistri Qayammuddin is 16. She has many firsts to her credit - one of the first female rappers in Mumbai, the first to rap wearing a headscarf or a hijab and the first female rapper from the neighborhood of Govandi, which is known for heaps of solid waste strewn all over and high rates of crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAHOT DHEET")

SANIYA: (Rapping in non-English language).

KUMAR: "There'll always be hurdles, but I never let them dampen my spirit," she sings in this song titled "Bahot Dheet," or "Very Resilient" - just the way a woman needs to be in conservative societies, she says.

SANIYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: "I have a different level of confidence when I'm rapping," she tells me, while sitting in her tiny home, which she shares with her parents and her brother. In three years, Saniya has become the heartthrob of the city. She has been invited to perform at venues like the NCPA, or Mumbai's equivalent of the Kennedy Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UDAAN")

SANIYA: (Rapping in non-English language).

KUMAR: She's also on a TV show that showcases young talent, a little like "America's Got Talent." And she has fans.

SANIYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: Two young girls stride into her small Mumbai home, which is made from tin sheets and mud. They've seen Saniya rapping on TV and want a picture with her. One of them is 11-year-old Falak Naaz from the same neighborhood.

FALAK NAAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: "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.

SANIYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: After all, that is what Saniya did with her life. Saniya's father is an auto rickshaw driver, and her mother is a tailor. But despite poverty and neighbors' disapproval, her parents encouraged her to pursue her passion.

SANIYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: "Neighbors and acquaintances think what I'm doing is un-Islamic, and they used to tell my mother to not let me shoot videos or rap," she says. But Saniya didn't pause for anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAHOT DHEET")

SANIYA: (Rapping in non-English language).

KUMAR: Saniya says she likes hip-hop because the music is all about justice - justice for Black people in America, for Muslims in India and for anyone who is oppressed.

SANIYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: "Hip-hop is all about creating awareness," she says, "and that is what I'm doing." Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based music writer who has been following the city's hip-hop scene closely. He says unlike mainstream popular music, hip-hop gives voice to minorities and allows them to express...

BHANUJ KAPPAL: Their idiosyncratic and individual identities, whether that be in terms of religion, in terms of caste, in terms of sexuality and gender. They are really, like, building on those aspects of themselves, and that's an integral part of the music.

KUMAR: Saniya says she would like to be a teacher or a professional rapper or a social worker when she grows up. But for now, it is time for her next performance at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. And this time, the theme is gender rights. For NPR News, I'm Raksha Kumar in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAHOT DHEET")

SANIYA: (Rapping in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Raksha Kumar