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HK rapper of Nepali descent channels pain of injustice into hip hop with ‘big didi energy’

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HK rapper of Nepali descent channels pain of injustice into hip hop with ‘big didi energy’

Suskihanna Gurung grew up angry. The rage brewed early after several primary schools in Hong Kong rejected her because of her ethnicity. It deepened as a teenager, after she realised many students of ethnic minority backgrounds faced discrimination by teachers.

At the age of 27, the Nepali Hongkonger’s resentments have now taken the form of rap songs, as Gurung embarks on her music career. In early September, Gurung – known by her stage name Suski – released her debut EP titled Karma, featuring four songs.

“The discrimination and injustices I went through in the education system are something I use for my songs,” she said calmly, sitting in a cafe in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, where she is visiting to reconnect with her roots. “I want my songs to represent my experiences, but it’s also a collective experience of many people in Hong Kong.”

While Hong Kong brands itself as an international city, many of its South Asian and Southeast Asian residents have shared their experiences of discrimination at schools and workplaces, many of them labelled as working-class people with low socio-economic status.

Gurung, whose both grandfathers served in the city’s British Gurkha regiment, said she often scribbled her sentiments during her years at a “band three” – or low-tiered – secondary school.

That’s where she discovered rap and hip hop through her male classmates. Gurung said she felt connected with the lyrics underscoring the struggles of African-Americans in the United States and their places in society.

“I felt like hip hop was a genre where people could speak their truth, what was happening to them and their community,” she said. “It had a sort of realistic realism in it.”

Years later, her newly released songs, mostly in English, encapsulate those experiences. A few weeks into her EP release, she’s already known as the rapper with the “big didi energy” – didi means older sister in Nepali – the most popular track so far.

Gurung called the song “a feminist anthem” where she slams unwanted approaches from men who pretend to sympathise with the ethnic minority cause only for potential sexual advances. It summarises the experiences of being a woman who does not owe anyone their affection or attention.

“It’s a feminist anthem doesn’t mean it’s a men-hating anthem,” Gurung laughs, as she clarifies. “When you think of a didi, there’s a lot of warmth, compassion and wisdom. I just want people to be filled with it in difficult situations.”

The song is already catching on among listeners. Some celebrities in Kathmandu have gushed about the song in their Instagram Stories, while acclaimed Nepali singer Bartika Eam Rai said she loved Gurung’s “contagious energy”.

Ujjwala Maharjan, a spoken word poet, said singers like Gurung are “bringing something new” to Nepali rap and hip hop, where there are few female rappers, most notably Dmriti and Amazumi. However, she said that “Big Didi Energy still feels a bit macho”, something prevalent in rap and hip-hop lyrics.

Maharjan is collaborating with other female artists to release an EP titled Apwoh Misa – loosely meaning unconstrained women in Newa language, spoken by Nepal’s indigenous Newa people – questioning the very notion of being apwoh and calling on women to take space and “be extra”.

And it is the desire to take up her space and identity that led Gurung to pursue music full time. She had been teaching students, mostly aged 12 to 18, at a Hong Kong school for five years until August.

Gurung was inclined to teach because she wanted to guide and inspire young ethnic minority students, which she did not have access to. But after five years, the Hong Kong University graduate said it was not a fulfilling career, though her parents would still prefer her to be in that respectable and stable profession.

She said she is worried her parents would be shocked to find out about her career switch.

“I felt I was stuck in a cycle where I felt powerless – like a rat chasing after money,” Gurung said of her experience, which inspired her to write another single in her EP titled Rat Race. “The hustle culture in Hong Kong is so strong. A lot of people feel like they’re a rat in the system, and they have to survive.”

And it is even more difficult for the city’s ethnic minorities, who Gurung said are often treated like second-class citizens. The rapper said she was deeply unsettled over a brownface episode involving a Canadian-Chinese actress in the TV show Barrack O’Karma 1968 last year, prompting her to pen the lyric for her song “Only”.

In 2021, Gurung and her Nepali, Filipino and Bangladeshi friends also started a creative space called Narratives By Us to counter discrimination against the city’s ethnic minorities, whose “men are villainised and women victimised”.

Though she does not want to lecture through her songs, Gurung said she wants people in Hong Kong to acknowledge and appreciate the city’s minority population. She added that while many love their food and clothes, they only tend to “take the enjoyable part of our culture but don’t get to know us as human beings”.

Until that happens, the rapper is determined to continue channelling her anger into art.

“You hear me screaming in the song,” she said, referring to “Only”. “It’s the frustration. The discrimination you face as an ethnic minority can make you feel disillusioned, and the only way to regain power is my right to be angry.”

——by Bibek Bhandari in SCMP, Oct 8, 2023