Rapper SVDP talks 'One Hundred Thousand Flowers': Why single on Sri Lankan civil war is his most important song yet
34 years after his family fled the Sri Lankan civil war, Toronto-based Tamil rapper SVDP has foregrounded the violence inflicted on his community, with Made in Jaffna, his third album.
Shan Vincent de Paul was only four when his family fled Sri Lanka’s civil war, in 1986. Thirty-four years later, the Toronto-based Tamil rapper, known now by the moniker SVDP, has foregrounded the violence inflicted on his community, in Made in Jaffna, his third album. The 12-track compilation will be released in late September, but a single — ‘One Hundred Thousand Flowers’ — from the album was released recently, which SVDP calls the most important song of his life. The title of the track refers to the one hundred thousand innocents killed during the 26-year war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in 2009.
When we connected over a call, SVDP recalled how his mother brought his siblings and him to India, with the help of an underground network, before boarding a flight to Canada. “I’m told the moment my mother got on the airplane, she flushed our passports down the toilet as people seeking refugee status could not hold passports,” he says. Shan’s father joined them in Montreal later.
His parents rarely talk about the hardships they face; perhaps it’s their way of coping, SVDP says. They do reminisce about the good times, before they were forced to leave behind their home in war-torn Jaffna, the northernmost province of Sri Lanka that was also the worst affected by the conflict. In Jaffna, “they could leave us siblings outside to play, and the entire village used to take care of us. In Canada, we don’t even speak to our neighbours,” SVDP notes.
His parents haven’t yet seen the video for his anthem, which comes with Tamil subtitles; SVDP knows it would worry them, but “my responsibility towards my community trumps my safety,” he says. “‘One Hundred Thousand Flowers’ is bigger than my life, it’s about what my community suffered collectively.” As a “privileged” Tamilian, who witnessed the horrors of the war from a great distance, unlike his aunt who stayed back in Jaffna and lived through it for decades, SVDP feels he must use his art to keep the demand for justice alive.
Made in Jaffna, which follows Saviours (2016) and Trigger Happy Heartbreak (2017) is his most autobiographical album, SVDP says, “where I talk of growing up in a white suburb, dealing with racism, the relationship with my parents, how education affected my identity, etc.”
Shan was in high school when he was introduced to hip-hop and rap battles. With his knack for “words and writing short stories”, and no necessity for a musical training, he developed an affinity for the vocal art form. “Eight of us in school formed a rap group and things got serious from there,” he remembers.
There was also the minor matter of overcoming his parents’ apprehensions. They didn’t understand why Shan was interested in “Black music” and prioritising it over his education. So SVDP “grudgingly” enrolled at the University of Toronto to study Anthropology and English. On graduation day, he handed his diploma to his parents with a “Here’s what you wanted” and took off for the recording studio.
“I don’t hold it against them,” says SVDP, “and no young artist should. If we can prove to our parents that we are in it for the long haul, they’ll come around.” His parents did, as SVDP started touring for shows, getting press, winning awards, and making money. “Their measure of success, you know, is different. It has to be quantifiable,” he quips.
In 2016, SVDP was part of the “Brown artist renaissance” surging through the world alongside artistes like Raja Kumari, Abhi The Nomad, Anik Khan, Divine, Naveeni Philip and Yanchan Rajmohan, among others.
“I was about to become a father when my rap collective Magnolius decided to separate. The thought of restarting my career as a solo artist was scary,” SVDP reveals. He recorded and filmed ‘Die Iconic’ the day after his daughter Remedios (who he calls Mimi) was born. It would become the breakout track of his debut album Saviours, with its take on identity politics, as also SVDP’s evocative lyricism and razor-sharp rapping winning over many fans. “I know rap is a political art but my take is mostly emotional. I don’t want to be involved in politics. I am skeptical of most governments,” he says.
Last year, SVDP connected with legions of Indian fans with his ‘Mrithangam Raps’ series, featuring English-Tamil rap set to the beats of the mridangam, played by frequent collaborator Yanchan Rajmohan, and a dash of a Rajinikanth dialogue. Fans rechristened him the “Carnatic rapper”. SVDP returned the adulation by sampling AR Rahman’s iconic ‘90s number, ‘Mustafa’, and embarking on a five-city tour here in February 2020. “I felt like I had come home. The fans were so accepting, and in the Indian rappers I saw a hunger to do more,” he says.
On the subject of ‘home’, however, it is clear that performing in Sri Lanka may not be quite as easy for SVDP — certainly not after ‘One Hundred Thousand Flowers’. “I visited Jaffna with Mimi in 2017,” SVDP tells me. “It was such a bittersweet experience… I saw the home I was born in and also the physical remnants of the war. But, yes, I’d love to perform in Jaffna and Colombo…even move back and set up a studio there someday.”
— Featured photo of SVDP courtesy Gajan Balan
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