Hard Kaur credits her mother with inspiring her to make a dramatic change of direction.
After years of writing escapist party tunes, new single Sherni sees the controversial artist – "India's first female rapper" – re-embracing her hip-hop roots to tackle the socially conscious subject of female empowerment.
“My mum, an almost 60-year-old woman, called me up last year and said: ‘Don’t you think it’s enough now? Don’t you think you should show them your real talent, do some real hip-hop?’” says the 36-year-old vocalist, speaking from her home in Mumbai.
“How ashamed am I to hear that from my mother? I was like, ‘Shame on me – I need to do this now.’”
Released on Tuesday, Sherni finds the rapper channelling her anger at the cross-class ill treatment of women – from pay inequality to judgements about the clothes they wear – which is seen as endemic in Indian society.
Sherni literally translates as “lioness” – and Hard Kaur is typically fierce about the subject.
“Every woman should feel like a sherni and say: ‘I’m not putting up with this,’” she says.
After years of singing dance-floor fodder about boys and parties, the single also introduces a harder, purer sound. Inspired by her roots in UK hip-hop, Sherni is driven by dark, abrasive beats, propelled by English-language raps and a hook sung in Hindi.
Work began on the track four years ago, inspired in part by the anti-rape protests that have been widespread in the country since 2012. However she was unable to secure a release, so she founded her own label, Future Records India.
“If it ain’t a party track, [the labels] don’t really be interested in me,” she says. “I’ve been waiting years for people in India to be ready for real hip-hop. I’ve been sugar coating it and spoon-feeding it to them.
“This is the first track on my label, first track the way I want it, first track about female empowerment, first track to represent real hip-hop. It’s the most important track of my life.”
The responsibility Hard Kaur feels to speak out on behalf of India’s 600 million women is directly inspired by her own life.
Born as Taran Kaur Dhillon in Uttar Pradesh, her father died when she was a child. At the age of 7 she moved to Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, after her mother married a man who turned out to be abusive.
A playground outcast, Hard Kaur discovered hip-hop at school and bagged early breaks warming up for De La Soul and Roots Manuva. After finding success in the UK and India with her 2007 debut album Supawoman, propelled by hits Move Your Body and Sexy Boy, she moved to Mumbai, where she was embraced as the country's "first female rapper" and pursued a career in Bollywood.
Not everyone is a fan of this spunky, outspoken import – she became notorious for shamelessly celebrating the life of vice with taboo-stretching hits such as 2007's breakout Ek Glassy and 2012's Peeney Do (The Alcohol Song).
“When I used to sing about serious issues and didn’t care what I looked like, you people didn’t want to buy my records,” she says, addressing her audience. “And [then] I’m wearing a miniskirt, showing my cleavage, singing about alcohol – and you love it. [I thought] ‘I can do this all day long, great, I like money, thank you’.”
In recent years, the singer’s lifestyle might have got out of hand, with a reputation for bad behaviour and controversial remarks. But all that is a thing of the past, she says, and she has been sober since November 19.
Kaur admits that people usually trip up at first, “and then get successful – I did everything right and then got to the age of 34, and decided to drink like crazy”. Part of the road to recovery included sacking her entire team – “driver, manager, everybody” – and refocusing her energies.
“From now on, I will do [stuff] that makes me happy. Because I’m already going to go down in history as the first female Indian rapper. I’ve already made my mum proud. I’m already a celebrity – it’s done. Cool,” she says. “Am I happy? I wasn’t – now I am. Because I realised what’s going to make me happy is doing my music the way I want to do it.”
To hear Sherni, visit Hard Kaur's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/officialhardkaurworld