Calgary

Calgary-based hip-hop duo Cartel Madras draws attention — and music video cameos — from some big names

Calgary-based hip-hop group Cartel Madras has forged its own gravitational pull in Canada, rapidly garnering support from newbie hip-hop fans and veteran artists alike.

Now sisters Bhagya and Priya Ramesh use their growing platform to help other hip-hop acts in Alberta

Priya Ramesh in front of a shrine dedicated to rapper Gucci Mane. (Ryan Tram (Yung Kamaji))

Calgary-based hip-hop group Cartel Madras has forged its own gravitational pull in Canada, rapidly garnering support from newbie hip-hop fans and veteran artists alike.  

The duo is made up of sisters Bhagya and Priya Ramesh, whose stage monikers are Eboshi and Contra, respectively.

Most recently, Cartel Madras won $10,000 through the Telus Storyhive grant competition to film a music video for their menacing and unapologetic track Eric Andre (Slick Rick James). It garnered so much support from Canadian big names that it seemed to consolidate Cartel Madras's place in the country's music scene.

Now, the sisters are paying the support they've received forward by sharing the spotlight with a team of hip-hop artists based in Calgary when they play at Festival Hall in Calgary on Thursday night as part of the Block Heater music festival.

'Icons of music' cameo in their video

Priya and Bhagya identify as queer women of colour, an identity proudly asserted in Eric Andre and the cut's forthcoming music video.

Two famous Canadians with long track records of helping uplift talented but marginalized creatives have supported Cartel Madras during the music video shoot.

One of the artists who made a cameo in the music video was Vivek Shraya, a multiplatform artist and creative writing professor at the University of Calgary who identifies as a transgender woman of colour.

Another was the legendary LGBTQ+ singer-songwriter k.d. lang. Both women have used their fame to advocate for social justice.  

"We are so grateful to have these icons of music who have been politically vocal and have represented the best of what Canada has to offer," Bhagya said.

From left to right: Priya and Bhagya's mother, Geetha Ramesh, Vivek Shraya, Priya Ramesh and Bhagya Ramesh. (Ryan Tram (Yung Kamaji))

"Hopefully, having them show up for us means they recognize what we are doing and enjoy our music."

"The entire Eric Andre song itself is a short stream of consciousness type of rap about being a brown girl, taking shots at different men, and adding some notes from our personalities," Priya said. "We wanted the video to reflect that idea while also taking stock of the weightier themes of our identity.

"We are immigrants, women of colour, vocal members of the LGBTQ+ community; our lives are difficult, compelling — and sometimes hilarious," she said.

Shraya says many barriers tied to identity still exist

"It's important to me to give back as part of the artistic practice," Shraya said. "Certainly, when I was a younger artist, I encountered a lot of barriers that were tied to my various identities, and a lot of those barriers still exist."

Using her growing clout to help emerging artists, especially LGBTQ+ artists and artists of colour, is a priority, Shraya added.

Shraya's favourite part of the Eric Andre shoot? Priya and Bhagya's mom.

"She was basically the low-key director during the whole thing," Shraya said with a laugh.

Cartel Madras's Indian roots emerge in their music and merch

The Ramesh sisters immigrated from Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the capital city of India's state of Tamil Nadu, with their parents when they were children.

They sprinkle odes to their heritage throughout their music, group name and merchandise.

In the Eric Andre music video, one scene depicts a puja, a Hindu prayer ritual. During the ceremony, Shraya was tasked with reaching for jalebi, an Indian dessert, while Bhagya and Priya's mother slapped Shraya's hand away.

"She slapped my wrist at least 20 or 30 times and it felt like love. It's a brown mom thing," said Shraya, whose family is from India's Karnataka state. "Their mom is amazing."

Both sisters have been writing raps for years, but officially formed Cartel Madras a little under two years ago. They have made catchy trap music — a subgenre of hip-hop typified by heavy bass lines, hi-hats and nebulous synthesizers — ever since.

The rise of 'goonda' rap

In 2018, Cartel Madras released their first project, Trapistan, a five-track mixtape dripping with braggadocious lyrics geared towards "society's underdogs," Bhagya said.

Their music is spawning a new hip-hop genre that the sisters call "goonda rap."

According to the rappers, goonda, which means "thug" in South Asian circles, best defines the way they blend their heritage with sub-genres of hip-hop, like gangster rap and trap music.

"We want to tell the stories of violence in our ethos  — goondas speak to a political hoodlum or non-North American thug  — while also incorporating elements of our identity: being Indian, being queer, being women," Bhagya said.

"Goonda rap became this space to showcase our identity while expanding the genre."

Bhagya Ramesh is one half of hip-hop duo Cartel Madras. (Ryan Tram (Yung Kamaji))

The Cartel Madras Instagram account has close to 4,000 followers and their most popular track (Housey [Thirsty Thots 2 Tha Front]) boasts more than 5,000 streams on Spotify.

The sisters were also recently selected to participate in the Hedgebrook writers residency program for women, where they spent 10 days collaborating with four additional singer-songwriters.

Hope label/collective will help hip-hop grow

Just like Shraya, Priya and Bhagya are using their rapidly rising platform to support Alberta talent.

They started a label/collective hybrid Thot Police to spearhead the growth of a robust hip-hop community across the province.

Cartel Madras hopes Thot Police will encourage promising talent to stay in Alberta.

"Calgarians do not all look the same and have vast and varied life experiences," Bhagya said.

"There are voices here that are commanding attention to so many differing issues."

"Thot Police is an artist collective that works to promote other artists by creating opportunities to collaborate," Priya said. "We want to elevate artists familiar with the scene and people that don't even know where to start."

The label launched in December and already supports a number of Calgary-based creatives, including rapper Jae Sterling, producers DJ €GG£AD and Yung Kamaji, and visual artists Vincent Raquel and Asim Overstands. All of the artists participated in the Eric Andre video shoot.

"Artists in Alberta make interesting and relevant music, and can only make more of it if the arts becomes a more promising venture," Priya said.

"Less people will move away for opportunities if we can get more eyes on this city. With that exposure, artists will feel compelled to commit [to Calgary and Alberta]."

The Eric Andre music video release is slated for April.

About the Author

Anya Zoledziowski is an award-winning multimedia journalist who joined CBC Edmonton after reporting on hate crimes targeting Indigenous women in the US for News21, an investigative journalism fellowship based in Phoenix, AZ. You can reach her at anya.zoledziowski@cbc.ca / @anyazoledz