Distinctive personalities. Unique styles. An abiding love for their music. Our pick of 5 Tamil rappers and hip hop musicians are a groovy, fun lot. In this exclusive, they talk to Ritz about a range of topics from their craft to the use of profanity and even their fashion sense. With June 12 marking the World Day Against Child Labour, we ask the artists about the menace and find that they are also all heart, as they emphasise on every child’s right to dignity and life through education.
The Impassioned Dame
She is the girl next door, the one with the carefree smile, the sprightly step, dark kohl-rimmed eyes and the ever-changing hairdo. A hijab-covered Sofia Ashraf released her first rap, the catchy ‘Don’t work for Dow’ jam when she was just 20. Since then she has put up a remarkable fight against Unilever, recorded a couple of Bollywood and Kollywood songs for music maestro Rahman and has a long list of causes she would like to champion.
Her lyrics are raw, the message is hard-hitting; It is the real deal! This live wire ‘rebel’ dressed for our shoot in wardrobe from Gatsby, opens up to RITZ about her understanding of and inspiration from the movement and the culture that is Hip Hop.
You rapped about the mercury poisoning in Kodai by Unilever. Commendable effort. How much has changed on the ground after the song? Did you receive requests/threats not to take on big corporations through your music?
Thank you. I have been wrongly painted as the sole crusader against Unilever in the struggle for reparations. The Unilever battle is a 14-year long struggle. I only got involved recently when I was asked to write a song and appeared in a music video in some really mismatched clothes. The people fighting the real fight are Chennai Solidarity Group and Other Media.
On March 9th, 2016, as a result of that song, 591 ex-factory workers were compensated by HUL. This was a huge win for us. Of course, it is just half the battle won, as we are still fighting for a stringent clean-up for the site.
I have not received threats for taking on HUL. Ironically, the only death threats or harsh verbal bashing I have received was for a response video I had made to the sexist song Clubbule Mubbule. But then again, I never take trolls seriously.
Of course, my mom worries when I take on big names. But she’s a mom. She will worry if I go against a corporation or come home late for dinner. That’s what moms do!
Abroad it is norm core for rappers to use profane language. Would you say that South Indian rappers are a little tame for profanity? Many seem to want to deliver social messages. Are you open to trying a sexy, fun rap number without a social message?
Yes, as an industry, there is the unfortunate presumption that chauvinism and sex alone sells in rap. Even Honey Singh started off rapping about Bhagat Singh, but had to turn to misogyny to get accepted.
Rap, in its essence, is rooted in revolution and strife. To me it has always been a cathartic release. That is why rap has so much profanity; because it is a medium of passion. Some people show their passion and aggression through foul language. Being a writer, I prefer to go with word play. That’s just a personal choice.
I definitely don’t believe that every song has to have a message. I am actually quite a comical character and have done a number of spoof songs.
Hip hop and rap are from the West. How far have you had to Indianise your music to suit our audiences?
It’s great to see rap gain popularity in our country. But, it’s silly to see that Indians have also adopted the sub-culture of rap. I find it funny when I hear a rapper talk in ghetto slang. This, to me, is cultural appropriation at its worst.
I don’t take any special effort to Indianise my music. But I always pay attention to “Sofie”fying my songs.
Who are your favourite artists internationally and why? And what do you think defines a great musician?
I absolutely love MIA. She is unabashedly “local” in the way she slathers on Tamil beats and melodies into her songs. A great musician knows that there are stories only they can tell and sounds that only they can make through their music.
How important are drama, awe and a carefully cultivated persona to the overall success of pop culture artists? What is your unique image? Tell us about your fashion sense and how important it is for female musicians to look good.
As someone who has worked in advertising, I am aware of the importance of packaging a product. I have never drawn the distinction between a female or male musician and prefer to keep gender out of it. So, as a musician, ‘Looking Good’ is not as important as standing out or having your own identity.
I have always been a rebel. Combine that with my love for art and what you have is a homegrown style that is an amalgam of punk rock meets DIY.
How important do you feel is writing your own lyrics and making your own music? Also tell us about your favourite quotable lyrics
Lyrics are all we have. Take that away and we are a hollow husk of drum and bass. To a rapper, words are a lover he cradles and coaxes into purring out a melody in his throat.
My favourite lyrics are my own:
“I’ve danced with sinners and sung with saints and found their tunes to be the same”
Have you ever faced gender bias as a musician? Have you ever been asked to dress a certain way, sing a certain kind of song? How have you dealt with it?
Yes. I deal with it by not paying it any heed. Enough said.
Tell us about the impact your music has had socially. How much has changed with respect to the issues concerned that you have highlighted?
Kodaikanal Won’t, awakened the world to HUL’s toxic legacy. But the biggest impact it had was that it gave faith to the social work community that our campaigns do work.
Art has great power. But art alone cannot change the world. I can write an intensely moving song about poverty. What now? Have I cured the food crisis? Music with a message is great. But music with an actionable outcome is better.
Where do you see yourself in the music industry 10 years from now?
Probably not even in it! Haha. I am a content creator first. Music was just one medium I used to tell a story. My next foray might be comedy, art, theatre or even cinema. I go wherever my art takes me.
Present and future projects.
I just released a song about the TN elections. I am currently working on a campaign to deliver justice to the victims of the Bhopal Gas Disaster of 1984. I will soon be releasing a more prolific yet fun sequel to the Kodaikanal issue, regarding the clean-up.
I am also working on a spoken word piece about domestic abuse. I have a few pieces coming up about gender issues and the identity of the modern Indian women. But, what I’m most excited about are my comic sketches and spoof songs; an avatar of mine that those close to me know very well, but not the rest of the world.
The social issue closes to your heart.
Moral policing, patriarchy and identity.
Some words on the menace of child labour.
I volunteer at a school for alternative education next to a forest. It is called the Cuckoo Movement and I truly believe in the philosophy that we need to leave behind a better world for our children and better children for our world. Through alternative education, I think we can solve both problems.
Some compliments you have received for your music.
I personally believe I have a long way to go to evolve as a musician. But, after Kodaikanal Won’t, an ex-worker called me and told me 591 families are indebted to me. That is the best compliment I have ever got!
Wardrobe Courtesy: Gatsby
Photographer: Mobin Kurien