By Sofia Ashraf
My name is Sofia Ashraf and I’m a rapper. Yes I’m one of ‘those’. But if you think I’m one of those who ends all my sentences with ‘yo’, then no, I’m not one of those. If you think I’m one of those who like to deck up in bling and walk with a swagger that’s a 9 on the Richter Scale… no! I’m not one of those.
I am one of those who speak their mind and whose music is a form of parlance. I am one of those who wear their convictions on their sleeves and their beliefs on their lyrics. I am among those who are filled with angst and instead of letting that fire consume them, choose to unleash it on the microphone and watch rhythm and poetry combust into a nebular epiphany. But, that’s not what you think rappers do, and you have reason to believe so. Watch any popular rap video and you are dealt a blow of chauvinistic, mercenary, degenerate drivel.
It wasn’t always this way. Rap, in its essence, is rooted in revolution and strife. It began among African musicians who used it as a form of spoken word. It walked hand-in-hand with the blues traditions. It danced to the crescendo of activism. It flirted with emancipation and had a lusty affair with the crusaders of free-speech. Rap has great power. To me it has always been a cathartic release, and boy do I need it!
Rap can create waves of social change, if we only chose to ride it. And that is why it pains me all the more when I see what it has been reduced to today, especially in our country. I see men force-fitting ghetto slang into their lyrics that makes as much sense in an Indian context as a Mexican sombrero does on a sarcophagus. The trash talk and potato-sack dressing isn’t the least of my worries though. What truly scares me is the content of what’s being rapped.
Rap today, causes the world to believe that the youth of today have nothing on their minds except money, sex and ostentatious lifestyles. Modern day rap is slowly and steadily creating an environment where sexist outlooks are celebrated. You all know who these guys are. But before I start slamming their faces against a verbal barrage, I must hand them one compliment. They have talent. Their rhymes are tight. Their flow is liquid mercury. Their music production is pretty neat. And that’s what makes it sad. Such talent ought to be put to better use. But it isn’t my place to put words into people’s mouths or lyrics into rapper’s microphones. I can only make that one request that all artists have been asking of each other since time immemorial “Don’t sell out!” Don’t pander. Don’t go with the flow, beat the current. We, as rappers, have a responsibility to our fans.
In 2012, there was quite a bit of controversy stirred up when a fellow Tamil rapper released an extremely sexist song. I refuse to give that little ditty any more publicity by mentioning it here. People are entitled to their opinions, but the whole episode left a stain on all rappers as the guy who released the track, said the one thing a true musician would never dream about saying. He claimed he didn’t believe in his own lyrics. That he released it because it was popular. An artist who doesn’t believe in his lyrics is like a painter who doesn’t believe in colours. 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. Nothing gives us more pleasure than the relationship between sounds. We savour each ‘oh’ and ‘ah’, swishing it around our mouths like a fine wine.
All is not lost though. I see a lot of talented rappers coming up with great work. I saw a bunch of Tamil children in the slums of Mumbai, rapping about their livelihood as garbage collectors. I’ve met numerous female rappers with a voice and more importantly — an opinion. We are all well aware of the torpedo of Tamil hip-hop reaching us across the seas, from Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Foreign voices, rapping in a familiar tongue about issues that are all the more relevant. Rap is not dead.
Sofia Ashraf is an activist-rapper, who is best known for the Kodaikanal Won't campaign