A section of Tamil independent musicians speak to TNM about their journey in the music industry, share insights on how their craft shapes their identity, and their roadmap for the future.
“Tamil Nadu is my native place. I am a Madrasi. But as I’m a Mumbaikar, I speak Marathi, I’m a 22-year-old media student. You caught me thinking I’m a nuisance. Inside the police station, you give me lessons. But I did not steal or commit crimes. Don’t create differences among humans and discriminate,” sings Dharavi-based Tamil rapper Tony Sebastian in ‘Aai Shapath Saheb’, a 2019 track from his hip-hop crew Dopeadelicz, that discusses racial profiling practiced by the Mumbai police.
A part of the country’s conscious hip-hop movement, Tony was one of the early ones to use music to speak truth to power. Historically, conscious rap and hip-hop have been used as a form of social protest and encompass a range of perspectives and ideologies. In India, the hip-hop wave has been characterised by the works of musicians like Honey Singh and Badshah in Bollywood and HipHop Tamizha in Tamil cinema, among others. Whether their brand of music is reflective of the ethos of conscious rap is an area of contention. But it was only after 2015 that we have seen Tamil artistes like Tony, represent their communities and discuss their identity through music. And he isn’t the only one.
Backed by director Pa Ranjith, the ensemble political band, the Casteless Collective, was founded in 2017. It emerged as a disruptor on many fronts, by questioning the caste system, systemic injustice against Dalits, honour killings, and more through music. In recent years, many indie bands and musicians like Lady Kash, M.I.A, Shan Vincent De Paul, Navz-47 and Rolex Rasathy have produced music shaped by inter-cultural influences and their identities.
But the journey towards finding their niche hasn’t always been easy. Dopeadelicz was started in 2012 by Tony, who is known by his stage name ‘Pyscho’, along with rappers Rajesh Radhakrishnan and Agnel Avinash Benson. And since its inception, the band has been trying to discuss important issues like identity through its music. Initially, they found it hard to establish themselves. “We were finding it difficult to find an audience for English and Tamil rap in Mumbai. But once we started speaking about the issues that were closer to home, it resonated with people. We now rap in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi and English,” Tony tells TNM.
In 2018, during the Thoothukudi Sterlite protests, police opened fire on the protesters who objected to the proposed expansion of Sterlite corporation’s copper smelter plant. Thirteen people were killed and over 100 injured. Dopeadelicz put out a track titled ‘Vishama (poison)’. “What is freedom? Do you have freedom my friend? It exists but still what we see is insults and injustice,” question rappers Tony Sebastian and Rajesh Radhakrishnan in the video, taking an anti-establishment stance.
What counts as political music?
Over the years, conscious rap has found some mainstream appeal as well. In 2018, Dopeadelicz teamed up with director Pa Ranjith for the Rajinikanth starrer Kaala and performed the rap bits in the song ‘Semma Weightu’. Mathrubhumi Kappa TV’s Music Mojo popularised bands like Kurangan and Jhannu that created powerful tracks like ‘Suthanthiram Oru Dabba’ and ‘Achcham Illai’ respectively, and YouTube channel Terrace Jams’ showcased bands and singers like Othasevuru and Siennor. But the watershed moment for Tamil indie music came when lyricist and rapper Arivu and singer Dhee’s ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ was released in 2021. The song recounts the tale of the oppressed, who were denied land and exploited, and discusses the history of human civilization through its captivating lyrics, breaking previously held listenership records on YouTube and Spotify.
Interestingly, the growing popularity of political music in the Tamil indie music scene has also persuaded artistes to rethink what kind of music could be categorised as ‘political’. However, even within the music community, there isn’t consensus on this. Some believe that as long as a musician is presenting their own authentic selves, representing their community and narrating their stories, their work is inherently political.
Tamil singer Pritt, who is based in South London, does not describe her music as political but definitely does not shy away from asking tough questions. In her track ‘Identity’ which was released soon after International’s Women’s Day last year, the singer reflects on how women are treated unfairly and questions everyday sexism. “You’re only getting older. Age is just number. Scary what they tell ya. Just cos you’re a woman,” reads lyrics from ‘Identity’.
Speaking to TNM about how cultural influences have shaped her music, Pritt says, “I learned performing art forms like Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music and then listened to Tamil cinema songs. Living in the UK, I picked up on western music. I took it up seriously 5-6 years ago and started pursuing music full time a year ago.” She describes her style as “East Meets West Rhythm & Blues (R&B)”.
Notably, the Eelam Tamil rap scene and its political overtones have had a humongous impact on the works of a huge section of artistes. The extent of political music’s success in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora is proof that independent music bands and artists are here to stay and can no longer be pushed to the sideline.
The impact of social media
In 2015, Chennai-based rapper Sofia Ashraf’s ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ took the internet by storm. The track was launched as a part of a campaign against Unilever for dumping mercury in Kodaikanal, not cleaning up the contamination, and for not compensating its factory workers. The rap song quickly gained momentum and has been hailed as one of the reasons 591 former workers of HUL’s thermometer factory received welfare compensation.
The positive response to the song also reiterated that there is an audience for protest music in the country, Sofia tells TNM. “One of the most poignant outcomes was knowing that people would want to listen to this kind of music. It broke the impression that the audience would only want to listen to rap discussing Daaru (Alcohol) and item songs,” she shares.
While the perks of social media are plenty – growing popularity and increasing discoverability of artistes and their music – there is also a fair share of trolling and abusive comments the musicians have to deal with. Coming to terms with social media hasn’t been a straightforward journey for them, to say the least. But there have been times when criticism has been warranted and paved the way for discourse. Take for example, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ and discussions around cultural appropriation, and Sofia Ashraf’s track ‘Tam-Brahm Boy’ that received flak for reinforcing caste hierarchies.
“I always thought my blindness to caste was a virtue. But today, I have suddenly realised that there is a huge difference between denouncing caste and denying caste. The critics are right. I have been caste blind. I just learned a very important lesson. But, that’s the beauty of social media. It can be used to start a dialogue. This video has started so many dialogues for me personally. This post is an attempt to keep that conversation going,” she wrote on YouTube soon after the song was released in 2016.
Describing social media as both ‘blessing and curse’, Tony acknowledges that it has nevertheless, created a level-playing field for all artists. Both Sofia and Pritt remark that they channelise their efforts towards shedding light on the positive aspects. The latter observes that it has also helped her connect with audiences across the globe.
There are also discussions on whether there is a space for dissent in a democracy. Especially as music creators run the risk of being slammed with legal action and defamatory suits and even court controversies when their art stems from an anti-establishment perspective. “I have built a network of artists and activists over the years and have legal resources at my disposal that other protest musicians may not have. It then becomes important to check my privilege and empathise with artistes who chose to work within the system or musicians who are afraid to voice their ideas and ideologies through their art. Everyone has the right to their own safety,” says Sofia.
Meanwhile, Tony points out that he cannot afford to ignore facts. He believes that being factual when it comes to his work can go a long way. Both musicians share that researching and forming a well-informed opinion is an important part of the process that they simply cannot skip.
Forging a path
The growing tribe of indie bands and musicians needs to be supported by a sustainable ecosystem that nurtures them. For the longest time, bigger music labels refrained from supporting artistes who create political music or question the status quo. Regional music did not find a platform through labels and celebrity music makers. However, each passing year, more musicians are finding opportunities in the mainstream- thus blurring the lines between the ‘indie’ scene vs ‘mainstream’ music. “Five years ago, labels did not support conscious rap. In the initial years, we would struggle to find the same kind of resources for our albums that resonated with the people from our neighbourhood. I think the situation has improved a bit,” Tony shares.
According to Sofia, the lack of communication, processes, systems in the music industry is a problem that needs to be addressed. “The utter chaos with which the music industry functions is not something that’s often discussed. The music industry earlier thrived on the idea of ‘high art’ which stems from a very classist ideology. They would consider Carnatic and indie music as high art and folk as low art. But people are becoming more sensitive. One of the good things is that labels, publications and managers are realising that they need to be more liable,” Sofia tells TNM.
To address the fact that many people have been deprived of opportunities and discriminated against based on their identity by the industry, musicians themselves are spearheading collectives to promote underrepresented voices and new talents. “Many people don’t know a lot about Tamil people. They would club my identity under one big umbrella as South Asian. Gender bias is also prevalent. Being a Tamil woman, it becomes difficult to find the right opportunities but once you find the right kind of people, it gets easier,” says Pritt, who has created a platform called ‘A Collective: SOUL’, which she says is a space for artistes from underrepresented backgrounds.
Similarly, the Dopeadelicz studio, which was formed by Tony along with his band, works with underrepresented artistes from Dharavi among others. He says, “The pandemic has really changed things drastically for indie musicians. We had to switch to low-cost production and we really felt like we were back to square one.” But he adds that they are optimistic about putting the pieces back together and creating opportunities for musicians through their collective.