But Naveeni Athanase Philippeaka Navz-47, the Sri Lankan Montreal rapper you see grooving alongside him Tamil Recording artist Shan Vincent de Paul (also from Canada), won’t stop until you can feel the revolution in these verses – penned by Chennai artist Arivu – surging through your veins.
“When I was little, my amma would often find me in a corner, doodling,” says Navz. “She also used to write; I still remember his brown leather diary. I didn’t think I was going to become a musician in my formative years. However, I knew that I liked to write, because it clarified my emotions. I felt heard.
Almost 17 years after British Sri Lankan rapper and record producer Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam – better known as MIA – released his debut album, “Arular” (the name his father adopted while he was a Tamil tiger), and set fire to the souls of Tamils around the world, a new tribe of musicians is emerging from the diaspora, equally concerned with “being heard”. Whether it is finding grounding and freedom on the cutting edge of the cultural identities in which they find themselves as second-generation Sri Lankan Canadians, British or Southeast Asian; or fearlessly expressing their trauma as minority communities in foreign lands – their music infused with the familiar scents of home – creates the kind of diversity the global music community has been deprived of for years.
“When I first heard MIA, I felt hope; it gave me a taste of home. And I carried that feeling along the way; if someone tells me my music reminds them of home, I consider that my biggest compliment,” says Navz, who has spoken about his struggles with racism and bullying. “I might not have discovered my passion for music if I lived at home. I might have gotten married, had two children and lived another life. Something so simple that freedom of speech and expression was not given to minorities like me there,” she says.
Navz plans to pack all those emotions into his next album, FOB
In January last year, Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman launched the technology platform, maajja, to give independent South Asian artists the resources and network they need to expand internationally. It’s the label that gave us ‘Neeye Oli’ and the groundbreaking ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ – featuring Sri Lankan-born Australian singer Dhee and Arivu.
“My parents always thought that without the war, they would still be at home in Sri Lanka. But that was the whole peak I reached in our history,” says Rolex Rasathy, a singer born and raised in New York. “Determined to instill the culture I was born into, they trained me in Carnatic music for years, and it wasn’t until 2016 when I first went to Sri Lanka as part of scholarship, that I met a whole wave of young creators who used the arts to express their angst, their trauma, their love and their identity.
“It made me realize that neither the tradition of Carnatic music I was exposed to as a child, nor the depiction of Tamil women I grew up watching in popular culture, quite resonated with who I was,” says Rasathy, whose jazz, R&B, and hip-hop influenced style is loaded with Tamil lyrics exploring life, relationships, and self-esteem as a brunette woman. Her collaboration with Navz-47 and producer Steve Cliffand, “Raavanan”, made her famous a few years ago.
The melting pot of cultures that makes the South Asian experience unique and important is what most of these artists aspire to write and sing about.
Since his debut in 2017, Singaporean Tamil rapper Yung Raja aka Rajid Ahamed has been an unstoppable voice that has hot-blooded Tamil youths in Singapore and Malaysia swooning in his harmonious confluence of Tamil and English rap. He references ‘panju mittai’, ‘malli poo’ and Rajinikanth, alongside the distinct swagger of his own swag as a Tamil rapper with his roots in Thanjavur.
Raja, who is on Forbes’ Asian ‘Under 30’ list, says the mix of cultures and lyrics in his songs authentically fills the void he felt growing up as a Tamil boy in Singapore. After Jimmy Fallon introduced him as a “Singapore rapper” on his show, Raja called it a big win for the community.
“Being an independent South Asian musician – whether in India or in the Diaspora – is not easy. For example, it costs money to record in a professional studio or to use live sessionists; and these little things make a difference,” says Noel Kirthiraj, CEO of maajja. “Beyond social media, you need to market and promote your music to reach audiences.”
“We are creating plans to show the art of the possible; that you can create world-class content outside of the film industry. Our digital YAALLFEST brought many of these artists to television for the first time. may be a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but initiatives like this go a long way in normalizing independent music as something artists can pursue and be proud of,” he says. “The real win is when we see these artists supporting themselves making music full time, and at maajja we want to keep pushing the boundaries in any way we can.