“I can never write casteist or sexist words, I write for equality,” says Arivu, a 26-year old rap musician based in Tamil Nadu. He is the creator of the very well received raps like Anti-Indian and ‘Sanda Saivom’, which garnered praise for raising a voice against the Citizenship Amendment Act. A member of The Casteless Collective, a band put together by filmmaker Pa Ranjith in 2017, Arivu has written for about 15 songs, including one for Rajnikanth’s Kaala.
Arivarasu Kalainesan, better known as Arivu, hails from Arakkonam, a village in Tami Nadu. Born in Dalit household to politically left-leaning parents, the seed of resistance poetry was sown in him during his childhood. He began by writing poems and soon he shifted to writing songs. Arivu says he has no television at home and that his inspiration was folk songs that he heard from around him and not film or hip-hop songs.
“When I argue with you
there is a rhythm
and that is rap, that’s it!”
“I think my grandmother is the best rapper I have seen,” says Arivu. He is sure about his political and social principles and ideals and his association with the Casteless Collective, an ensemble of Tamil folk musicians, is a reflection of exactly that.
Today, Arivu is a frontline lyricist and musician in Tamil cinema. He is working on many big budget commercial projects such as Soorarai Potru, starring Surya, Thuglak Darbar starring Vijay Sethupathi, among others. Arivu asserts on how he wants his rise to success and popularity to be an instrument in initiating and mobilising discussions on political issues such as caste, equality and gender.
The Casteless Collective (TCC) is an independent band with a political title. How does it help channelise your art ?
Arivu: The Casteless Collective is a result of the visionary director and activist Pa Ranjith whom I respect a lot. He is a reflection of how one must give back to their society when they achieve personal growth and success. In one way or the other it should bring change in society. This is also the motive behind this band. As is obvious, caste-based oppression has only increased in India over time. We cannot afford to neglect it and its repercussions. It has to be addressed. And we believe that art is a powerful medium to do so.
Because we had no television, I listened to the folk songs that my grandparents sang. I grew up listening to oppari (funeral songs)which you can’t find in films. When I grew up, I realised that the films I get to watch did not represent me or my life and I felt that I needed to bring back those marginalised art forms to the mainstream. They deserved an audience. Tjrough The Casteless Collective, we are attempting to do exactly that.
How did you start writing rap songs?
Arivu: I had never heard or known any hip-hop musicians. Bob Marley, Michael Jackson were just names for me. But my parents were working in an organisation called Arivoli Iyakam where they used songs to educate people in the village and that helped me to understand my community and the prominence of caste inequalities within it. It showed me the roads we were told we had no rights to walk and the houses we were not allowed to enter. I used to read BR Ambedkar and revolutionaries who brought about change to the society. All of this altered my consciousness and my concerns were channeled to take shape as poems and later, songs. I was, in fact, unaware of raps when I began writing and it was only later that I started to work on it. I began listening to Kendrick Lamar, among other rappers, for instance.
Hip-hop has its origin in African Americans’ resistance art that they created to raise their voice against oppression. When it was popularised in India, it became associated with boisterous bragging on objectification of women, breakups and so on. How do you see this irony?
Arivu: I think art represents society. Hip-hop has its origin from Africans who have a history of slavery. This very form of rap with instruments reduced to just clapping with hands rooted from pain and oppression. There you don’t need any instruments or years of practice to stage it. In fact, it is a kind of a response. They had no properly-sized clothes to wear to begin with and eventually, it became a sartorial style of the rappers. Now big brands have tried to capitalise on baggy clothing. While it should have happened in India as well, that is, using art forms such as music to resist caste-based oppression, it is yet to take shape. TCC is a step in that direction because now is the right time to bring about change.
Mainstream cinema lacks the idea of inclusion. It has the tendency to suit popular culture which is largely sexist in its nature. So when you are becoming a part of this space, how does that make sense?
Arivu: Cinema is a very popular medium, especially the commercial cinema industry has huge followers in India. When I become a part of it, I can then use my popularity to tell what I really need to tell. So it’s like a give and take policy. If I tell that I am an oppari (funeral song) artist, people won’t listen to me. Especially my dark skin tone makes most of them uncomfortable. It takes me more effort to prove myself and get accepted into the mainstream. In the industry, I am becoming a part of something that was historically brahmanical and patriarchal. I am making use of that space to talk about equality. So when I am part of it, that is very risky and I am conscious about that. But I do it with utmost care and I cannot, as a matter of principle, write a single word that supports any kind of oppression. I cannot and will not write any sexist or casteist words. I write for equality. I cannot compromise on my politics. And I will not mind rejecting projects that can not accept my lyrics.
Your song Sanda Saivom(Let’s Fight) is based on the recent political tensions around CAA and NRC implementation. We live in a country where poets, professors and activists are arrested, on an everyday basis for the stands they take. Does that frighten you?
Arivu: This is not about whether I am frightened or not. I believe I have to raise my voice, irrespective of that. India is a culturally driven society. The lives of people here are influenced by their social status accorded to them by factors such as caste, religion and gender, among others. The state is scared of artists and academicians who speak with rationality. So they tend to silence us and that will continue. To answer your question, I am not threatened by any surveillance and my raps will only be sung louder in the future.
The lyrics of Sanda Saivom, as given below, is a reflection of Arivu’s determination:
Let us fight
Come forward Tamizha
Let us fight in the streets
Let us fight united as one
If our rights are taken away, let’s fight”
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