Doing what DIVINE loves is the stuff of dreams
An exclusive interview with Asia's number one MC on the 2023 LiFTED 50 list
As we sorted through the vast array of incredible Asian Rap talent this year, there were really only a handful of artists that could have been number one. After all the back-and-forth and a few heated discussions, what put it over the top for India’s DIVINE was his remarkable album GUNEHGAR. Released right at the end of 2022 and featuring production from super-producers Hit-Boy on the title track ‘GUNEHGAR’, Harry Fraud, and Statik Selektah, along with iLL Wayno, Phenom, Karan Kanchan, and Stunnah Beatz, the album’s 12 songs are all great. Then consider it was released on Nas’ Mass Appeal India label and features collaborations with the likes of Jadakiss, Russ, and Armani White, among others – and you can see that DIVINE had the most international album of any Asian artist.
DIVINE did all of this while staying true to his gully roots and rapping almost exclusively in Hindi. Simply put, DIVINE put Hindi Rap music on the map starting back in 2015 with ‘Mere Gully Mein’ Feat. Naezy, and has done nothing but hustle and grind ever since. Each new move he makes seems like a first for an Indian MC – from having a Bollywood film [Gully Boy] made about his life, to getting the first Times Square NYC billboard, to signing with Nas, and recently performing at half-time of India’s Super Bowl – the Indian Premier League cricket final, where over 40 million fans watched him rock the stadium.
We’ve been trying to catch up with DIVINE ever since we started LiFTED two years ago, so it’s with great pleasure that we finally get that chance, as we crown him Asia’s top rapper for 2023.
YO DIVINE! Thanks for sitting down with us. What a year man! You did so much in 2022 and 2023, what were the highlights for you?
I took my time with the third album, having put out so much music in 2019 and 2020 including my tracks in Gully Boy followed by Kohinoor and Punya Paap, it was incredible. I’d have liked to put out GUNEHGAR a little earlier but things like sample clearances and so on took time. We toured across India with the album, put on some amazing shows [producing a few ourselves], and did headlining slots at Lollapalooza, Wireless Festival, and Supersonic - really adding to the charm of this past year. It felt like the music industry is back properly after a long time with all the pandemic-induced interruptions.
Your birth name is Vivian Fernandes. Can you speak a little about growing up as a Christian in the hood in Bombay? Which area are you from?
I was born in Kurla then moved to Sahar, and eventually we settled at JB Nagar in Andheri East. Growing up, church used to be a big part of my life. In fact, initially I started with Gospel rap and that’s where I got my stage name as well. In my area, we celebrated Christmas, Diwali, and Eid with this same energy. Some of my tightest friends are the ones I met while growing up.
GUNEHGAR is a complete album, with tracks from so many producers. What was it like working with guys like Hit-Boy, Statik Selektah, and Harry Fraud? These cats produce legends! Did you work remotely or in the studio together?
I visited the States last year to finish up the project and met Hit-Boy in LA, then Harry Fraud and Statik Selektah in New York. With Harry, we made the track from scratch in the studio, but with Hit and Selektah it was a mix of studio and remote. I’ve grown up listening to so much music produced by them and been influenced by a lot of it, too, so to have them all on one album has been a blessing!
You did the most tracks with Karan Kanchan, is he your main collaborator? The track ‘Baazigar’ is one of our favorites. You took that Hindi film vibe and made it hard AF – that’s not easy to do.
Karan Kanchan definitely has been one of my go-to collaborators for the last few years. It’s amazing to see his growth too, and the great thing about him is that he’s open to working on different styles and new things and that’s how breakthroughs happen - something we managed to achieve on ‘Satya’ & ‘Baazigar.’ I’d definitely give a shout-out to Stunnah, Phenom, and iLL Wayno who’ve all been a big part of my three albums over the last few years.
You were a very busy boy last year, popping up in New York, Los Angeles, and even on the red carpet at the Grammys. What does it feel like to rep India all over the world?
To be able to rep our language and culture while doing what I love is the stuff of dreams!
‘Mere Gully Mein’ was the track that really put you on the map. Are you still close with Naezy?
Yes, we’re still in link. Big shout out to the Baa!
Can you speak a bit about the current Indian Hip Hop scene? It’s really blowing up and we cover so many new artists all the time. It must be humbling to realize that you kind of started it.
It’s great to see where we’ve come considering we never thought it’d be possible for Hip Hop to become a force in India. The next generation of artists is playing a major role in driving this forward. We’ve really made some noise!
Who are the artists that you’d really like to work with right now?
I’d love to be able to work with the Nooran Sisters, Usha Utthup & Shubha Mudgal!
Are you a Bollywood fan?
Absolutely, it’s been a major part of our lives growing up and has in one way or another influenced our music, too.
After Gunehgar and all of last year’s success, what’s the next move? Is there an English language album in your future?
Working on my next project for this year - maybe an EP, maybe another album! Also prepping for the upcoming Baazigar Tour across Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, and possibly a couple of more countries!