The Rise of Tamil Hip-Hop: Exploring Identity & Innovation
In May this year, we witnessed a brilliant moment in hip-hop where Arivu and Dhee shook the global stage with a fusion of hip-hop and pop to serve Arivu’s story in the limelight. Currently standing at over thirty-one crore views, Enjoy Enjaami is proof that Tamil hip-hop is here in a big, authentic way of its own and here to stay. The warm reception of this single is not just a celebration of Arivu’s story but also, the lives of people, oppressed and ostracised, kept away from the very lands they nurtured.
The song, therefore, begins with a stunning visual of the ground shaking beneath an emerging hand as parai drums begin to rumble. The thunderous drums we hear here are instruments traditionally associated with Dalit men, grief, and funeral processions. At the same time, the vibrant colors and pop sounds paint a lighter picture-one that isn’t confined to generational grief but is rather a celebration of identity and a welcoming call for inclusion.
The song makes sure to celebrate life in all its diverse forms: from the kingfisher to the frog and every being in between that shares the land they nourish together. The song celebrates a different idea of land, one that is not defined by ownership but cohabitation. In essence, the song is anti-caste in its approach with an emphasis on intersectionality and celebration of nature as one.
This is incredibly relevant as although hip-hop has always been political in nature, there seems to not be enough conversation or musing around ‘nature’ itself in the genre. Marginalized communities are often the most connected to nature and the song is a brilliant window into a world that celebrates a fight against exploitation for all beings alike.
Director Pa. Ranjith is also to credit for platformising different aspects of the anti-caste movement via art and his mentoring of Arivu since his early days, stretching all the way back to The Casteless Collective’s inception.
Off the bat, Ranjith’s work had focused on the mainstreaming of anti-caste discourse and the advocation of 'the personal as political.' While hip-hop seems like the natural choice of medium owing to its roots in resistance, Arivu’s brilliance shines through as he not only borrows from the culture of hip hop but how he adds to it. The track thus becomes a cultural confluence of upbeat hip-hop and Oppari-- another Dalit artform that is used as an outlet of anguish at death.
The fact that Arivu has introduced Oppari into a chart-topper is a wonderful victory, as the art form has historically been exploited by the upper-castes to keep Dalit women at bay and used as a performative element at grim events. This, therefore, is a reclamation by people of their artform taking charge to represent their culture and heritage their way. By way of immortalizing in a rap song, the rapper has paid an ode to not just Valiamma (his grandmother) who’d carry the parai drum but to an entire community left out of celebration in savarna dominated spaces.
Among the many mimicries of the West in South Asian Hip-Hop, Arivu’s music stands out as a breath of fresh air that has added something new and authentic to the global culture of hip-hop. This emphasis on identity, culture, and heritage is interestingly (but not surprisingly) a recurring theme between Tamil artists across the globe. For instance, let’s have a look at this set of lyrics:
“...Welcome to paradise
On your left hand side if you look you'll see
Five star resorts built with mass graves beneath
The breeze is so crisp, the view is to die for
Coming up on my right, we have here
What we call the field of one hundred thousand flowers
One for each soul missing with no answers or ancestors
To serve as a witness to what they saw
When the cameras turned off, and the killing fields started and the channels went dark
Tried to hide it half-hearted but we found all them receipts
Now reap the wrath of god.”
In his song titled ‘One Hundred Thousand Flowers,’ Shan Vincent De Paul airs Sri Lanka’s dirty laundry highlighting heinous crimes against the Tamilian minority in the country. Based in Toronto and hailing from Sri Lanka under extraordinarily testing circumstances, Shan Vincent De Paul lets his anguish run free as he raps about a pogrom and the genocide of his people, as well as the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, which at the time was home to over 97,000 manuscripts and books. He raps about the incident and remarks that the history of his people still remains fireproof, and it is not without merit.
June 1981 was the beginning of horrific events of attempted ethnic cleansing, traumas of which come alive in Paul’s lyrics. Hip-hop at its core, the song fuses elements of Carnatic music, such as the use of a sarangi, a mrithangam, and konnakol based rhythmic patterns to go with the intensity of his commentary on the merciless killing of Tamilian people. The insertion of these cultural sounds is not only one of the freshest waves in hip-hop music production but also a very strong marker of owning one’s identity and paying homage to one of the oldest systems in global musical history.
The usage of classical instruments from the subcontinent in contemporary hip-hop music helps these sounds transcend a traditional base of listeners into a new sonic territory, into ears that may not listen to classical music actively. Furthermore, this fusion may also result in a furthering of interest in inquisitive listeners as they migrate towards more of these sounds and eventually Carnatic music itself. With this in mind, one can begin to realize the weight of Yanchan’s role in producing powerful tracks like the one above.
Upon a close examination of Shan and Yanchan’s discography, it can be determined that the production choice wasn’t a one-off isolated fusion experiment. Some of their earlier videos showcase the artists in their rawest forms, engaged in a jam session on the ground (as is the norm in classical settings) with Yanchan playing the mrithangam live as Shan raps over it. It is almost certainly a showcase of their craft, not just in terms of a freestyle environment but also their grasp over Carnatic music practices that would later transcend into fully polished studio projects.
In their collaborative album titled ‘Kothu Boys,’ Shan explores his identity further as he writes longingly on ‘Dear Eelam’ where he confesses his love for his heritage coming out of Jaffna and for Eelam, the Tamil word for Sri Lanka which represents a lot more than just the island. He narrates the struggle of migration- something that the Tamilian diaspora can relate to due to displacement and migration caused by colonialism, civil war, genocide, and trade.
Out of the many such countries that now boast a thriving Tamil culture is Singapore, where we find another rapper massively making his mark. Rajid AKA Yung Raja is an actor turned rapper coming out of Tekka, Little India who has managed to enter the limelight signing deals with Universal Music and Def Jam, one of the most prestigious labels in hip-hop history. Born to immigrant parents, Raja considers the dual identity his biggest strength as a musician. The torchbearer of ‘Tanglish’ rap, Raja mixes English and Tamil to create a linguistic fusion that turned him into a viral sensation with tracks like ‘Mad Blessings,’ ‘The Dance Song,’ and recently, with ‘Spice Boy.’
Keeping things fun and jumpy with the soundscapes, Raja spices things up a little differently than his contemporaries. Since the semantics of both English and Tamil are vastly dissimilar, the seamless integration of vocabulary is a feat that requires the artist to tread into unexplored territory and rely on nothing but their own artistic compass to ascertain success.
He has managed to assert his identity uniquely, carefully balancing the Tamil syllables with the English ones, measuring exactly the amount of English the tracks would need for global understanding while also catering heartily to his Tamil listeners. He sits right at the intersection of popular music mixed with niche experimentation-- an experiment successful enough to have his music promoted at Jimmy Fallon’s show in front of the legendary and influential hip-hop band, The Roots.
To be able to intersperse the genre of hip-hop with culturally informed experiments so early in their careers is no small feat. Yet, all the aforementioned artists have managed to make their mark while holding onto their rich cultural roots under the seemingly homogenous canopy of Tamil Hip-Hop-- each with incredibly diverse stories and influences. What’s next is to see the kind of impact these artists continue to make with their music and to watch out for more incredible Tamil artists on the rise uniting people and soundscapes over continents in celebration of a shared heritage and love for hip-hop.