A 23-year-old rapper who grew up in a slum has burst into the national spotlight in India after winning one of the country’s most popular reality shows.
Until a few months ago, MC Stan, who hails from the western state of Maharashtra, was only popular with hip-hop and rap fans who loved his sassy rhymes and uncompromising style.
But his fan base has grown by millions after he appeared in the final season of reality show Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Britain’s Big Brother – his name has been trending on social media since Sunday when the show’s host, Actor Salman Khan announced he was the winner.
Viewers raved about Stan’s “raw and real personality” while fans hailed him as the “savior of hip-hop” in India. His music has found new admirers including Bollywood star Ranveer Singh and singer Honey Singh, whom Stan dubbed the “Indian Lil Wayne”.
Like many other rappers, Stan had stirred controversy long before he moved into Bigg Boss’ house. He has been criticized for using abusive and sexually explicit lyrics, disrespecting women, and launching lurid attacks on his rivals through his music. Last year his ex-girlfriend filed a complaint with the police, accusing him of assault – the police had started investigating the complaint but no arrests were made.
The rapper hasn’t publicly spoken out about the allegations, but in October he said he got involved with Bigg Boss because he wanted to “change people’s perceptions of me.”
However, his die-hard fans say the rapper’s combative style is part of hip-hop’s distinct sociopolitical grammar, which captures the fears of those raised without privilege.
Stan, whose real name is Altaf Tadavi, began singing in public at the age of 12. Not much has been reported about his family, but his humble origins – growing up in a slum in the city of Pune – have been the focus of his writing.
“I feel like a hood baby [someone who grew up on the streets]”who saw a lot of criminal activity and didn’t live a very privileged life,” he told Platform magazine in an interview.
Growing up, Stan found an unusual template in qawwali – a form of Sufi devotional singing that has parallels with gospel jazz – which he says helped him better understand music. “Qawwali talks about things that wake you up and I relate to that a lot,” he told the platform.
Before joining Bigg Boss, Stan was not often interviewed by the media. He was in high school, he told Platform, when his brother introduced him to rap legends like Lil Wayne, 50 Cent and Eminem. Her music sparked something in Stan, who would then spend hours in dingy internet cafes reading about her and listening to her work.
Two years later he decided to try it himself. He started sharing his rap videos with friends and family and on WhatsApp. As he began to garner attention, he launched a YouTube channel — which now has more than six million subscribers — and began to take his art more seriously.
His songs became more political (and the lyrics more insulting) and the videos heavily stylized. The aesthetic — replete with jerky bouncy cuts and flashy neon sets — might have struck some as amateurish, but his expression remained authentic.
Stan also became an unlikely fashion diva. With funky hair extensions, pastel punk dreadlocks and a map of tattoos and diamond necklaces peeking through his clothes, the rapper has brought hip-hop fashion to Indians.
For Stan, rapping was as random as discovering hip-hop: “It was like I was an alien who came from space to show the people who live here something new,” he told Platform .
His big break came in 2019 when he wrote Khuja Mat (Don’t Mess With Me). The diss track, created in response to another rapper who criticized him, has garnered millions of views on YouTube.
“What I really loved was his flow and his ability to fit absolute nonsense into his lyrics and still sound catchy,” says Dustin Yarde, a fan who discovered the musician through the track.
Since the release of Khuja Mat, Stan has had several hits, most notably on his 2020 album Tadipaar. Named after the slum he grew up in, the album features harsh commentary on living and surviving in violent neighborhoods as Stan explores his life in “P-town” or Pune. He called himself Basti ka Hasti, which means something like the young slum boy who wrote his own destiny.
“Tune subhe uthke sun dekha, mene subhe uthke gun dekha (You woke up to sunshine, I woke up to guns and violence)” he taunts on the track Amin.
Fans say Stan has always been interested in making sense of his own identity through music.
“He had an early song called Astaghfirullah in which he talks about his Muslim identity and how he is perceived as a rapper in his community,” says Mr. Yarde.
Stan is considered by some to be the pioneer of mumble rap – a loosely defined rap genre in which the singer mumbles rhymes with no emphasis on lyricism – in India. “His songs are honest conversations that, when encased in a blown-out, icy beat, sound dangerously insightful,” says Aziz Malik, a fan from Canada.
However, Mr Yarde says he has not liked many of Stan’s recent songs because “it seems like he is using homophobic and sexist content as an expression of victory and power”.
“But I always thought he had the ability to make it big. I’m waiting for his lyrics to develop.”
The rapper, who says he has served time in prison, has written several songs about police brutality. In the song Section 307 – the section of the Indian penal code for murder – Stan talks about how he was wrongly accused of killing someone.
But for his fans, each track is a journey of self-development. “The tension between what he was and what he made himself is the subtext. His music is a reminder that no matter how harrowing his life was, he conquered all odds all by himself,” says Mr. Malik.
When he came to Bigg Boss, Stan brought with him his ability to connect with people.
Fans and contestants loved his charisma, tough talk and raw talent. His expressive one-liners like “Shemdi”, “appreciate you”, “Haq se” and “feel you bro” went viral and found their way into popular dictionaries.
Viewers were also struck by how he adapted to the glittering sets while staying connected to his roots. And whenever he performed during the show — including an impromptu rap performance while inhaling helium from a balloon — fans partied for days on social media. For her, Stan had accomplished what was considered impossible – bringing rap, which was on the fringes of the Indian music scene, into the mainstream.
“We made history, stayed real the whole time, rapped hip-hop on national TV,” Stan posted after his win. “Ammi ka sapna poora ho gaya (My mother’s dream has been fulfilled).”