My songs are a form of debate, so I want to be factual: Tamil rapper Arivu

Antara Chakraborthy
Rapper Arivu, Arivu Sanda Seivom, Arivu

Rapper Arivu has gone viral once again with his latest song, Sanda Seivom.

“Who am I? Who are you? Who is your grandfather?

NRC is coming to dig up all that.

Then why did we need Aadhaar and Voters ID?

Now you have to dig out your great-great-grandfather from his grave.

Do you have brains? You halfwit?

Is there any logic in your law?”

Titled “Sanda Seivom” (Let us fight), this three-minute Tamil rap song takes on the CAA-NRC debate with the rapper Arivu questioning the very legitimacy of such a law. Arivu might be young, but that does not stop him from being political. In fact, he became popular with another song, ‘Anti-Indian’, which too was all about politics.

Inside his humble one-room-kitchen apartment, you get a flavour of his politics. His room is exactly how it is portrayed in the video, with pictures of Dr Ambedkar and Periyar adorning the pink-coloured walls. As the son of teachers, Arivu grew up amongst the books of these two social reformers and continues to live by their words. Having grown up with the saying “politics is personal”, 26-year-old Arivu has made sure his music is a clear reflection of his beliefs.

In an exclusive chat, Rapper Arivu talks about his music, identity, politics and much more.

Have you seen any change in the social structures in Tamil Nadu, starting from where you grew up in small town Arakkonam to how things are now in Chennai?

In my opinion, things haven’t changed much. It’s just worn a different dress and showcases itself in the form of “modern casteism”. But, education has definitely given me the confidence to face these struggles.

There is definitely a lot of dialogue and debate around caste, that has sprung up in the last 2–3 years. The fact that movies like Pariyerum Perumal and Asuran did commercially well is proof that more people are watching it. Do you think people have responded to your music, in a similar manner?

Yes. I feel like people are getting more aware. And whatever their privilege is, this generation is breaking that and moving towards “reclaiming human dignity”, and I view that as the most important reaction to my music. For instance, my schoolmates used to initially feel awkward about discussing a topic like caste but after listening to my songs, they are slowly starting to have a dialogue about these issues. And this is where I want to be very careful and write factual songs. Because, my rap songs are my form of debate.

Songs have become a symbol of protest. Up north, Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge is being used like a battle cry for the anti-CAA protests. Do you also want your music to become a “symbol” amongst Tamil audiences?

I am not doing this intentionally but as an artiste, I am observing what’s happening around me and writing about it. I want to keep talking about the reality and I don’t think there’s anyone doing that here, at the moment. I am hoping a lot more people will follow suit. I don’t want labels to define me. I will be happy if my music is instrumental in helping people understand what is happening around them.

Rapper Arivu, Arivu Sanda Seivom

Having grown up with the saying “politics is personal”, Arivu has made sure his music is a clear reflection of his beliefs.

The Tamil rap scene has flourished for a while and it’s quite a diverse crowd. We have Yogi B from Malayasia, Singapore-based Lady Kash and Sri Lanka’s King South, to name a few. But there’s not many from Tamil Nadu. Why do you think so?

We can start from hip-hop, as an art form. Hip-hop is not from India. It was started by African-Americans, who used their songs to tackle racism, and show others the problems their community is facing, as a whole. I look at this whole form as a debate. When people say “rap battle”, I see it as a debate. Instead of talking to you for an hour about the problems of my community, I am rapping for three minutes. But when I am adapting that for an Indian audience, I am worried about appropriating the art form.

For India, I saw that caste was the widespread issue, like racism is for America. I just wish that more rapped about caste before, because I am also very new to hip-hop. I did not grow up listening to hip-hop. So, I don’t want to mimic their culture, I want to adapt the politics of hip-hop for a more niche Indian crowd.

Especially in today’s political climate, where there seems to be a lot more divide amongst people…

Exactly. All forms of protest start from art. For example, we are drawing “kolams” and voicing our opinions. And that is so important because even a housewife is exercising her democratic right to protest using art. Since I call myself an artiste, I want to use my talents to be socially responsible.

Your “Sanda Seivom” video ends with Ambedkar’s Quote, “We are Indians, firstly and lastly..” It created an impact. What made you add that particular line?

I sang the whole song to convey that one line. That was the entire crux of Sanda Seivom. I grew up without an identity as a Dalit. So, for an intellectual like Dr Ambedkar to say that helped me a lot personally. And I want my songs to take that message forward. The other thing, nobody has the right to call someone an immigrant or an illegal human here. We don’t know who lived three generations ahead of us and to use that as an issue here bothered me.

The current generation is trying to educate themselves about caste and its relationship with politics. How do you think they should go about it?

Firstly, I want children to be taught that our society is unequal. Economy in India is generated through inequality. You have to tell children the context and the caste history behind certain jobs in society. These days, we make children study in big, private schools and colleges, but they are clueless about what’s happening outside their bubbles. Growing up, if I had one teacher who told me that I was from the oppressed castes, I would have studied even harder. Only after I grew up, I realised that there is a big gap between me and my classmates.

But if I had known all this as a 14-year-old boy, I wouldn’t have bunked my classes or taken my studies so lightly. I grew up in an urban slum settlement in Arakkonam and we were a mixed crowd. My neighbours were Muslims, Irular tribes, pig-hunters, herders etc and we were part of a separate world. We were all economically poor and were pushed aside, by birth. And I never learnt why this was so. My teachers would treat me and another guy, who would come to school in a car, the same way. They think that is equality but it’s not.

Today, I am a little scared because I don’t want any children to be caste-blind or society-blind (smiles).

You are inching your way into Kollywood now. How are you going to balance “songs of commercial value” vs “songs with a message”?

Kollywood songs are situation-based. But independent music is not that way. I don’t have to worry about censors or production committees. I can decide what I want to sing about, choose a contemporary topic and give my opinion as an artiste. Working in Kollywood definitely helps me financially and I want to develop my profile. People will go see my independent music after listening to my songs in a film. I want to strike the perfect balance between the two.

Do you want to be known as “Arivu, the social artist”?

I just want them to see me as a human being, that’s enough (Laughs).

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