Harassed by gang violence and poverty for decades, Lyari was once considered one of Pakistan’s most dangerous areas, but those grim realities also inspired a generation of artists and generated a flourishing hip hop scene.
With its proximity to the sea and the history of smuggling, the Balochi neighborhood, largely ethnic, in Karachi is distinguished by its history of violence and illegality, even by Pakistan’s standards.
When Karachi served as an important transport hub during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, Lyari was severely affected by the influx of weapons and drugs, and the increase in brutality brought by black market companies.
Strongly armed gangs and political coup squads exerted fierce control over large Lyari bands, crushing economic growth while residents struggled with the consequences, including drug abuse and unbridled poverty.
“Lyari was a notorious place due to gangs and war. It was almost impossible for strangers to even think about entering, ”explains resident and new rapper Mohammad Omar.
But in recent years, gangs have stood up after a hard-handed operation by paramilitary forces that began in 2013 and saw the streets become virtual war zones.
In the battle for Lyari, the gangs used infamous rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles to fight security forces, with the crossfire closing schools and businesses and also keeping children out of the streets.
“The children used to cry listening to the fierce shooting,” says Omar, adding: “The poor were victims of those gang wars. We have witnessed all those things.”
But the worst of violence has diminished, and an increase in security has led to flourishing creativity.
The neighborhood in conflict now clings fiercely to its reputation of producing frontline footballers, boxers with iron chins and, more recently, rappers with social conscience.
The hip hop boom in Lyari reflects the birth of the genre decades ago in the Bronx County of New York, where it focused heavily on street performances and featured lyrics that addressed social problems and life in urban ghettos.
Hip hop became a global phenomenon, but the genre initially failed to generate much traction in Pakistan, where music fans used to listen to pop, Bollywood soundtracks or traditional Sufi music.
Occasional incursions by Pakistani musicians in hip hop over the years served largely as interludes in pop songs that were approaching comedy.
Not so in Lyari, where the rappers were influenced by people like Tupac Shakur and sought in their own experiences lyrical inspiration.