“Master, moonu tea, oru lemon tea.”
The order placed, the 16 boys gather around a green table outside Ajwa Tea Shop, some taking the red chairs, some squatting on the steps, some leaning against a nearby tree. As they wait for their teas to arrive, they begin singing, rapping, and beatboxing, slapping the table steadily for rhythm. Their voices grow louder by the second, but the other patrons just look on with mild curiosity. It is business as usual at this kadai in Stephenson Lane, Vyasarpadi, a stone’s throw from the railway station.
For the past six months, ever since it opened, Ajwa Tea Shop has become the haunt for the rappers and gaana singers of this area. Every day, 16 of them come here to jam and write songs together. “We come here right after college, and sit here from 7.30 pm to 10 pm,” G Dinesh, a gaana singer explains their ritual. “We are free to sing here, nobody asks us to stop or keep it down.” The owner of the shop, CS Salaam, does not mind. “The owner has a son who is also interested in music, so he likes sitting and listening to us,” says Dinesh. Shop manager Rahul smiles, “They come here every day. I have seen all their YouTube videos.”
The boys have a running tab here. “It does not matter whether we have cash that day or not, we can pay later. Sometimes we don’t even order tea, we just sit here and sing,” says Stephen, who is also a hip hop dancer. Before Ajwa Tea Shop was built here, this place used to be a pet shop, Dinesh tells us, “We would come here to record our TikTok videos.” Most of them used to listen to gaana, but were not active singers, until Logan of The Casteless Collective stepped in.
Logan, along with rapper Sunil, organised and mentored them into becoming the Black Boys, a collective of 32 gaana and hip hop singers. “Pa Ranjith is our role model… We want to emulate The Casteless Collective, and hold events in this neighbourhood on the same scale,” says Sunil. The Black Boys recently released its first song, ‘Vyasarpadi’, and have two more in the pipeline: ‘Adimai Makkal’ and ‘Kuppathu Singam’.
Major chunks of these songs were written at this tea shop. Pointing to an elderly man passing by on the road, Sunil says, “We observe what is going on around. Who is that man, where is he going, is his house okay in the rains, all of these can translate into the songs. We cannot do that at home, there is too much of disturbance.”
One of them writes the lyrics, another puts it to beat. A song that would take them an hour to write, is wrapped up in 10 minutes here, says Sunil. “Everyone here sings about a different theme, and all of that comes together. We talk about the water scarcity, about money being the root of all evil. If you look around, there will be one guy throwing litter, and another sweeping it up. One is rich, the other, poor,” says singer Sukumar.
“Do you want to listen to a song?” asks Sunil. As their ring-wearing fingers and keychains strike against the table, the glasses — now empty — shudder with the beat. Sunil points to each person indicating their turn to sing the chorus, before theatrically shushing them for his rap interlude. “Vyasarpadi, pala theramai irukum. Vyasarpadi, idhu kutti Brazil ulagam,” he sings in his aggressively gravelly voice. The skies are overcast; the monsoon is here. What does that mean for their hangout place? “We will find a tree for shade,” he shrugs.
With inputs from Aditi Subramanian