Queer, Desi and badassMeet Goonda rap duo Cartel Madras
Cartel Madras’ music is the type to meet you full force. Comprised of sisters Eboshi and Contra, the hip hop duo is sharp tongued, effortlessly spitting over instrumentals. From their striking visuals laden with rich gold and crimson hues, to their instrumentals which effortlessly mix sitar riffs into trap beats, they’re a far skip away from where they began recording: in the bathroom.
“I remember like, rolling up towels to block all the noise," says Contra over the phone. Using a Logitech mic brought home from a company where she was working as a client manager, the pair began to write, record, and produce their own music. Their first EP Trapistan is a testament to this self-reliance. In these early days, it was a lot of play and experimentation to create the songs they wanted. Whether it was effects like reverb, delay, and echo right down to samples, she says they “were just making that stuff up behind our voices.”
Born in Chennai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and raised in Calgary, the queer, female, Desi act now call Toronto home. Contra describes Cartel Madras as “an identity building exercise,” as immigration and overlapping cultures have been a constant theme in their lives. Although it’s been less than two years since they entered the music scene with their first record, Cartel Madras’ artistry was being built long before the pair approached music in this way. “I always talk about going clubbing here with jhumkas on,” she says, also noting, “We started dancing Bharatnatyam to trap music.”
Building this identity also means confronting problematic parts of culture as well. Contra believes in reconfiguring the power dynamic that sits in the common archetype of a modest Indian woman: “I think we have to be consumers of sex, we have to be people that enjoy it, we have to be people that can talk about it and not be [portrayed as] these women that are like constantly victimized… which is why our music is so sexually aggressive.” She wants the audience to feel uncomfortable and the pair constantly push for a new norm.
In addition to this, she also has noticed the continued erasure of the South Indian woman: “Even Indian people, Indian immigrants here who aren't from the South don't know anything, which is crazy to me. Like being from Tamil Nadu and Kerala is an entirely different experience than being from other states in India. It's badass in its own way!”
This is why Eboshi and Contra chose to put Madras in their name, to signal right away that they were South Indian. Although the city is known by the name Chennai today, Contra says that it was an intentional choice to go with the colonial name. One reason was because it was still under its colonial name Madras when they were born there, but the other reason is to “remind people that this is a colonized place that we're trying to reach to work and take it back.”
Reclamation is a driving force in their work, and another specific example is their music video for “Eric Andre (Slick Rick James),” which Cartel Madras won $10,000 through a Telus Storyhive grant competition for. The CBC Calgary article which followed depicted the vibrant images of a typical puja from the set of the unreleased music video, with a few twists.
“My experience with pujas has been: we're in the back and we're told to shut up, because we're always talking. Or sing. These are the only two things you can do in the puja room, right?” asks Contra. “We were like fuck it. Let’s completely change up what this puja room is going to look like.”
What results is the women at the front of the room, petals and offerings scattered about, Eboshi and Contra aggressively rapping, and a garland around a photo of rapper Gucci Mane. The pair were joined at the front of the room by fellow musician Vivek Shraya, who they knew from the beginning would join them in the puja scene. “Vivek comes from her own tradition of Hinduism, and her own paths and religious experiences,” says Contra. “Why should she be cut out of these things? Why should she be cut out of this space, right?”
Contra stresses the importance of examining the intersection between religion and queer identities, stating, “Religion and queerness in India does intersect so much. But people don't like talking about it.”
In addition to South India, Cartel Madras are quick to claim and continuously shout out Calgary. They still travel with their hometown collective Thot Police, which includes Yung Kamaji and Jae Sterling, who share their creative vision for what they can do in Calgary and how they can take the city to the world.
Contra cites early days Odd Future and Black Hippy as inspirations for how a collective can support one another and move towards a common goal. “I think we have a chance to put the city on the map,” she says. “People are starting to pay attention to Calgary. And to be honest, there's a lot of rappers here, there’s a lot of people doing hip hop here and they’re very good. I just don't think they've ever had a chance to be seen.”
In their endeavour to shine a spotlight on their city, they’re grateful for the support of their new label Sub Pop, through which they released their latest project Age Of The Goonda. “We're really new to this ecosystem, as two, you know, South Indian born, queer immigrant woman in Canada,” says Contra. “I think early on, it was very important for us to need the nod of like a music giant, or a few music institutions to, you know, give us that okay, in a weird way.”
As noted in their profile on Sub Pop’s website, the word Goonda means thug. Positioning this concept in relation to the Indian identity allows the pair to pivot away from tropes such as yoga and Bollywood, and instead towards the way India grapples with fear, energy, and power. These three themes arise across all of the songs in Age of the Goonda, but especially stand out on “Dawood Ibrahim”—which is named for “India's Pablo Escobar”—and underdog anthem “Goonda Gold” which brims with combative energy, and was included in the official soundtrack for EA Sports' UFC 4.
The legitimization through these music institutions doesn’t just serve Cartel Madras alone, but also creates space for others who aren’t typically allowed into this ecosystem. They’re trying to rewrite an entire narrative: “Show people what it actually means to be an immigrant, that you can be Indian and an immigrant and be like, really fucking badass. We're trying to rewrite what it means to have like, a gangster story by talking about a Goonda.”
If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that Cartel Madras aren’t just busting open doors—they’re removing barriers for others and uplifting as many artists as they can with them on their journey.
“It's always been a bit bigger than us,” emphasizes Contra. “This messaging and what we're trying to do.”