Rozi, rap and representation: The double life of Karachi's veiled hip-hop artist Eva B and her global feminist anthem
When Eva B aka Eva Baloch – the first female niqab-wearing rapper from Pakistan – wrote Rozi in November 2019, she had never imagined it would become an anthem of women's empowerment not just in her home country, but around the world.
Her song, co-produced with Los Angeles-based musician Gingger Shankar, went global thanks to the Disney+ show Ms. Marvel which featured South Asian, and especially Pakistani, representation like never before.
"Eva B’s rap songs are heavily dominated by themes of self-empowerment, women’s strength, friendship, love, and how people on the margins of society live their lives amid chaos"
The mega Marvel Studios production may have ended but it certainly left a lasting impact on the community, particularly for those within the diaspora, for finally giving us the representation we have deserved for decades.
From food to fashion, heritage, history, and music, the show touched all the rights chords taking the desi crowd on an emotional journey and allowing us to witness our culture finally take centre stage.
It received rave reviews after its first episode and a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes overall, despite some mixed feedback towards its finale.
But it has also, in all its glory, managed to bring the incredible arrangement of artists from Pakistan, India, and the diaspora to the forefront and get people talking about their remarkable talent.
Eva B was one of the many South Asian musical stars, among names like Anushae Gill, Ali Sethi, Tesher, Hassan Rahim and Justin Bibis, whose soundtrack dazzled in the series and her hip-hop track Rozi became an instant hit after it was featured during the end credits of the show’s first episode.
"Rozi became symbolic of strong, resilient women and the powers they possess to keep moving forward with life even in the face of suffering"
Inspired by the story of Rozina Khan, aka Ustad Rozi Khan, a widowed and homeless mother who went on to become the first female truck artist in Pakistan's port city of Karachi and whose artistic creativity enabled her to earn a living for her and her children, Rozi became symbolic of strong, resilient women and the powers they possess to keep moving forward with life even in the face of suffering.
Living a double life
Hailing from Karachi herself, Eva B is no stranger to hardship, growing up in Lyari, one of the city's most densely populated settlements notorious for its gang wars, guns, and violence – but also known for producing an abundance of amazing underground rap talent.
The area is also unique for its high percentage of residents who are Balochi speakers, one of the languages Eva raps in.
In fact, it was her big break with Coke Studio – a music webcast sponsored by the Coca-Cola company in Pakistan since 2008 – that really brought her further into the limelight.
Her collaborative track Kana Yaari garnered a whopping 28 million views on YouTube and many people, especially in the diaspora, who were unaware of this homegrown talent became enthralled when this effortlessly cool niqab-wearing woman popped up on their screens spitting lyrics in the Balochi language.
And since then, life for the 22-year-old artist has, unsurprisingly, been hectic.
For someone whose phone has been "buzzing with non-stop messages and calls”, getting time to speak to Eva was proving to be a lot harder than imagined. She finally agreed to a late-night call, it was the only time she now finds for herself at home, she said.
“With several interviews going on these days, my entire day goes by without making music," she explained. "So, my manager suggested that I distance myself from the media and focus on music. A lot of my projects were being delayed because of this."
"The veil helps keep her identity concealed following the sensitivities of the environment and culture in which she resides, but it doesn’t stop her from realising her dreams of becoming a celebrated hip-hop musician"
Already basking in the global limelight garnered with Rozi, the young artist revealed her bag of emotions of then being featured in Ms. Marvel. "It was really exciting, crazy and surreal at the same time. I truly felt like I had done something special because of the reactions around me. My mother was very happy, and I hope Allah always keeps her like this, as well as my friends who told me how proud they were of my success."
A couple of minutes into the call, I'm able to sense that Eva is just a regular young 20-something who is trying to figure out her life and her newly-found global fame.
She is an English, Urdu, Balochi-speaking rapper who dons the hijab as well as the niqab, but the latter is not all she wants her audience to focus on.
For her, the veil helps keep her identity concealed following the sensitivities of the environment and culture in which she resides, but it doesn’t stop her from realising her dreams of becoming a celebrated hip-hop musician.
“Some people do recognise me and say ‘Are you Eva B?’ but I nod my head in denial. They tell me that my eyes resemble those of Eva B"
“It (the hijab/niqab) is actually more like a cultural phenomenon where we live. Young girls aspire to cover their face with the veil and wear a burqa when they grow up. I also decided to wear it and haven’t taken it off since. It’s now more like a habit for me," she tells The New Arab.
"Also, my brother only allowed me to rap if my face was covered, so I took this approval as an opportunity to pursue my passion for rap music as it was a big deal for me. The niqab, however, has now become a part of my identity,” she adds.
Some may find it strange that with all this fame and appreciation, Eva is satisfied living this life of anonymity, despite the challenges.
“I am living two lives at the same time. I’m a different person at home and a different person for the world," she reveals.
"And at times it can be challenging and difficult to lead a life like this. Although sometimes it is nice to be recognised, I secretly relish the thought that people aren't actually aware of my identity or who I am. It allows me to hear real conversations about my music," she adds.
“I was once playing one of my songs in front of some young women from my neighbourhood and heard them talk about me. While I sat right in front of her, one of them said, ‘Do you know this girl performed at our institute and raps so good?’” she laughs while sharing the anecdote.
Eva also adds that she usually doesn’t socialise, but if she ever steps out to go to a shop or elsewhere, she tries to keep her identity hidden. “Some people do recognise me and say ‘Are you Eva B?’ but I nod my head in denial. They tell me that my eyes resemble those of Eva B,” she states, again followed by a chuckle.
"The song Rozi resonates with listeners, particularly those who identify as women, for its commentary on women’s strength and resilience while existing in harsh circumstances"
The story of Rozi
Eva’s rap songs are heavily dominated by themes of self-empowerment, women’s strength, friendship, love, and how people on the margins of society live their lives amid chaos.
Rozi bloomed after she sought inspiration from the life of women whom she regards highly, including Rozina Khan and her own mother.
Eva first produced the rap song for a documentary based on the truck artist’s life. Local filmmaker Adeel Wali Raees roped Eva in for his project more than two years ago as an ode to female empowerment, where they wanted to highlight the struggles of a woman who had overcome hurdles in her life to survive by taking on a profession traditionally rendered viable for only men in the country.
After numerous years of painting gigantic vehicles in her teacher’s workshop and learning truck art, Rozi has been running a paint shop near a truck station in Karachi’s hub area located on the city's outskirts for the past six years.
After her husband died, the female truck artist began working to provide for her children and following her arduous journey, she proudly shares her life story.
“In her story, Rozi spoke about her life, where she grew up, how she lived, her marriage and how she overcame life’s struggles. I felt like so many women face similar challenges in their life and there are so many examples around us," says Eva.
"My own mother has been through a lot – I know how she brought us up. After I heard Rozi’s story, I found out that she is also a strong woman and a single mother who is pursuing a male-dominated profession. All of this was in my mind and all of those instances inspired the lyrics of Rozi,” the artist shares.
"In her story, Rozi spoke about her life, where she grew up, how she lived, her marriage and how she overcame life’s struggles. I felt like so many women face similar challenges in their life and there are so many examples around us"
The song Rozi resonates with listeners, particularly those who identify as women, for its commentary on women’s strength and resilience while existing in harsh circumstances.
“Rozi is every woman’s story, including my mother. I feel thrilled that the song made it to a massive platform where it received so much love and recognition."
So its inclusion in Ms. Marvel blended perfectly with the show’s own themes of self-acceptance, discovering one’s own powers, and channelling those powers to make the world a better place.
"I felt like they selected this song because it worked perfectly with the theme and that's why decided to feature it in the first episode. It was chosen for all the rights reasons,” Eva adds, sharing how the song first reached Gingger Shankar, who then reached out to her way before it was chosen by the show’s producers.
“Roughly a year after the song was live on YouTube for the documentary, I received a call from Gingger who offered to recreate Rozi. We worked on it together and decided to reproduce the track differently. All of this happened while I remained in Karachi," she tells The New Arab.
Then suddenly they found out that Ms. Marvel’s producers wanted to use the track in the show. “Representation is very significant," she explains about receiving that life-changing news. "It was refreshing to witness Pakistan’s culture represented in a Hollywood project. It gave the world an idea about our society, lifestyle, traditions and for them to know that we’re not an anomaly.”
Despite experiencing such life-changing moments since the start of the year, Eva is just happy that Pakistani talent is finally receiving representation and appreciation on the global level.
Towards the end of our chat, Eva describes how her own journey has changed her life “drastically”.
“My fan following has increased and my name is now in the history of hip-hop for being the first Pakistani female rapper,” she proudly concludes.
Rabia Mushtaq is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes on a variety of beats including culture, gender and social justice, technology, and mental health.
Follow her on Twitter: @rabiamush