The Counterproductive Case To Cancel Enjoy Enjaami For Cultural Appropriation
Enjoy Enjaami, the Tamil song that is now at 35 million views (at the time of writing this) has broken a lot of traditional structures that have plagued the Indian music industry. The music scene in India, even today, has been tightly linked to the movie industry. So every independent artist has this 'forced golden dream' of making it in the movie industry without which there is no identity or any story of success. AR Rahman's initiative, Maajja - which has produced the aforementioned song - aims to bring indie artists to the global stage. It is also commendable that this song has reached this milestone with zero promotions of any sort.
However, everything that comes to the limelight will have criticisms, questions, and discussions attached to it and it is important to have these discussions because they broaden our understanding of subjects that are new to us. Yet, what bothers me the most is the call to “cancel” everything that we don't agree with and labeling it problematic and instead, ‘cancel culture’ ends up removing any space for dialogue, discussion, or rational thought to evolve. Let us discuss some of the criticism Enjoy Enjaami has faced and the discussions around them.
1) The claim of cultural appropriation of music:
Since the time of its release, Enojy Enjaami has had accusations of cultural appropriation for its music, costume, and dance moves. Let us begin with the sonic aspect that claims that the track and the initial set of vocals seem familiar to African tribal beats and drums. However, on further inspection one will observe that the first few seconds of the soundtrack actually start with a ground-shaking "Parai'' drum. This drum has a history that goes beyond caste oppression and to the roots of civilization itself. Anyone confusing it with African drums must know that the Parai is just a classification of drums that encompasses other percussion instruments that are native to India and the Tamil Nadu people specifically.
These instruments are usually labeled as the music of the oppressed and shunned largely. Arivu must have consciously opened the song with them and they show how powerful that opening to the song still is.
2. The claim of cultural appropriation of sound:
Ululation that follows in the next few seconds has also been labeled as a cultural appropriation of African tribal sounds. Ululation is to utter a loud, usually protracted, high-pitched, rhythmic sound especially as an expression of sorrow, joy, celebration, or reverence. In Tamil, this is called "Kolava", whose origins can be traced back to the earliest civilizations of Egypt. This sound is still used by women in temple ceremonies across India from Bengal to Kanyakumari.
The first words, "Odiyya", in the song is sung by Arivu mimicking his grandmother. Odiyya is a vernacular pronunciation of the word "Odiva" which means 'come running' or something a grandmother would call out to their grandkids. It makes perfect sense here because the crux of the song originates from a story told to Arivu by his grandmother, who was a tea plantation worker in Sri Lanka. While calling it “African sounds” may be a little far-fetched, but calling it cultural appropriation is absolutely invalid.
3. The claim of cultural appropriation of costumes and dance:
From the beginning of the song’s music video, most people have weirdly related it to the opening of Anaconda by Nicki Minaj and several have also found close references to Beyoncé's Grown Woman music video. People have also spotted the leopard printed clothes and the dreadlocks in the supporting dancers surrounding Arivu and Dhee claiming that they are inherently African characteristics, and I suppose this originates more in Indian cinema and its problematic portrayal of the tribal community of India than anywhere else.
India has a rich and flourishing tribal community that has found very little space in movies. Even when they are given the minuscule screen time they are not represented in their best interests nor with the authenticity that they deserve.
India is home to more than 500 active tribes that have very distinct cultural and social history - Tamil Nadu alone has more than 36 tribes and the Toda tribe women still sport dreadlocks and colorful handwoven shawls. If we go back to the history of dreadlocks the earliest mention of it is in the Vedas which goes back to 1500BC where Hindu God Shiva, is described as wearing dreadlocks or “jata” in Sanskrit.
As for the dancing, Arivu's mostly hip-hop body language goes in with the beating of the chest. The beating of the chest is something that is traditionally done in funeral houses mourning for the dead. This song is not just rap or hip-hop but also Opaari, which is an art form of singing mourning songs of the dead.
Additionally, as we discuss the claims of cultural appropriation, there is also a need to see from where and who these claims come from. A vast majority of African/African-American reactors on Youtube have enjoyed the song, the costume, and lyrics. Moreover, Arivu is singing about ancestors, forefathers and if we have to go literal - we have to go back to Africa, the birthplace of humanity.
4. The claim of caste appropriation of Dhee:
There has also been a claim of casteism and an underlying idea of placing Dhee, a savarna woman on the throne while Arivu, a man from an oppressed community is seen standing beside her. While this, on the outline might seem like a crime, I don't think it is. As many people have put this forward on social media discussions, Dhee metaphorically portrays Arivu's grandmother Valliamma (who is also shown in the video).
I also think that music directors like Santhosh Narayanan have been wonderful allies to further take the discussion of caste forward through music. His recent songs have been nothing but documentation of native art forms that have been sidelined for decades by caste.
Yet, I understand where the fear of appropriation of the story of Enjoy Enjaami comes from. Historically, savarna men and women have made their academic careers in studies and papers on caste oppression. This is like America bombing the Middle East and yet making millions of dollars by creating sad-sob military movies about how hard it was for their soldiers. I think calling out Dhee for caste appropriation in Enjoy Enjaami might be a little far-fetched because Dhee is just singing the words (whatever little portion she had) that Arivu wrote.
Adding to that, when it comes to the creative industry and creating art in general, everyone has a subjective interpretation. Who is to say that in the case of Arivu sitting on the throne with Dhee standing next to him, people wouldn’t have pulled out the sexism card instead.
People would have called out the makers for using Dhee as an ornament and giving into the narrative of having the woman standing subservient next to the king. I also think that we have to give creative freedom for an artist like Arivu to choose the people he wants to work with, which is, in fact, empowering.
The History and Land of The People:
There is an incredible amount of work that goes into making land suitable for agriculture. Farming and farmers are some of the earliest professions that have led to the creation of civilizations and river settlements. The song talks about the eons of oppression that farmers face, especially the descendants of Arivu, who were crucial in creating the tea plantations of Sri Lanka and India turning hills into gold mines for agriculture.
The lines above talk about the oppression of farmers and farm labourers who do all the work yet remain landless and in poverty.
The Revolution of Dalit Environmentalism:
When a landless Dalit weeps for the environment, he weeps for the plants he planted, the farm he lost, the animals that he fed and worked alongside. The effects of climate change first hit the people who work with the land and those who live off of it. A farmer who notices the rain patterns changing, the cattle herder who has to take his cattle farther away from home each day in search of grass, and my mother who still grows a vegetable garden behind our house, they all see it first.
Yet, the main stage for environmentalism is taken over by the rich and the privileged in our country. The stage is set for the social media privileged to gain an international audience for the organization they can run. Activists from oppressed communities get jailed faster and longer, face more physical violence and danger from the state.
Yet, they are the ones who are not in the mainstream debates about the environment or climate change. This global approach of seeing damage as numbers takes away the pain of a population that is dependent on the land for everything. When the oppressed are given a medium or a platform to talk about climate change they take everything from their ancestry to the animals, birds, insects, and even algae around them. This is because of their understanding of how all lives on this earth are interlinked.
The pain of being a vagabond, a landless Dalit is something they know will haunt their generation. They know very well that this curse will follow their children no matter where they lay their heads, no matter what we build, no matter what we accomplish. I don’t think there has ever been a better line written that shows the weight of generational oppression better than this.
Why is The Shame of Caste The Only Reminder:
The people who have worked for eons together, toiling the land, feeding mankind since its beginning, have only got the oppression of caste as a gift. Most people were forced to leave agriculture because of the shame of oppression associated with it. Income, poverty, lack of rainfall, and every other reason were just an additional rub of salt on the gaping wound of caste. This gets crystal clear in the lines of Arivu where he mimics an old grandmother’s voice to sing the lines:
Bringing a Dying Art-form to a Global Stage:
Opaari in its peripheral sense means lamentation, but its roots and the significance it carries in history are far more important. Opaari predates written literature and according to me is the oldest form of pure expression. Opaari comes as a form of expression not just for the dead but for the living, it documented cultures, lifestyles, and stories that no one will write in history. Arivu talks about how his roots in rap and hip-hop come from Opaari which is a rebellion against a system of oppression.
A system of oppression that denied education, so we wrote poetry for our dead and the history of our lives in songs that we memorized in pain and death. It is also high time we also recognize the seed that was planted by PA Ranjith through initiatives like “The Casteless Collective” which gave us a brilliant rapper like Arivu.
PA Ranjith and Neelam productions are also instrumental in bringing a revolutionary music director like Santhosh Narayanan and singers like Dhee. AR Rahman and his initiative to bring in independent artists like Arivu is also the reason we have this gem of a song today in our hands.
It is time we put the magnifying glasses down, stop freeze-framing the video, and just enjoy the work of brilliance. Let us come together as the songs ask us to, to celebrate the gifts of nature and recognize the work of displaced, oppressed communities that go unnoticed otherwise.