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Rapping for social causes & Dalit women

Sonia Ashraf’s video “Kodaikanal Won’t” has gone viral, more than 2 million views.

In this video, Sofia is rapping parodied lyrics to Nicky Minaj’s “Anaconda” as a message to Hindustan Unilever [HUL], the multinational consumer goods company for its failure to clean up toxic mercury at its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal in south India. HUL attributed the adverse effects its former workers are facing to ‘circumstance’, and not to mercury poisoning and won’t compensate workers. Even though the factory was shutdown in 2001, its workers still face fatal problems including deformities and stillborn babies, which HUL has ignored for years. Ashraf began a petition online that demands two things from HUL: clean up the mess and compensate those who have suffered because of toxic contamination of mercury.

“Kodaikanal Won’t” has had an impact that few have achieved: it received 55,021 signatures after the video release, forcing Unilever to call a press release where they promised to act in a transparent and responsible manner regarding this matter. HUL CEO tweeted that ‘all humans are the same’ and ‘shouldn’t accept different standards’, and in another tweet he was determined to move to solve the issue fast. Sofia’s song didn’t die a quick Internet death like most ‘songs with messages’ but achieved its purpose, a rare moment in a superficial world of digital campaigns. Minaj isn’t the only one to support Sofia’s song when she retweeted Sofia’s video with a ‘wow’, but journalists, activists, environmentalists and major newspapers like Huffington post, and New York Times have all converged to force the entire world to focus on the Kodaikanal mercury toxicity.

But Kodaikanal isn’t the only cause Sofia Ashraf has espoused. She grew up in an orthodox Muslim home and has a BA in interior design and MA in graphic design from a Chennai university. After studying history, philosophy and many world religions, she read Islam from a different perspective and her old beliefs stopped making sense, so she gave up Islam at 22, created a new set of beliefs on which she bases her identity and left for Bombay. She became part of the Vettiver Collective in Bombay, a group that advocates for environmental, and human rights issues. This group has been fighting HUL for a long time before Sofia joined them, and they asked her to rap the song as they had seen her perform before.

Sofia is part of Justice Rocks, an initiative by Vettiver Collective, which puts on a rock show every year to fight social causes. Justice Rocks has taken on DOW chemicals over the union carbide issue, which killed many people in Bhopal, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board for their plans to set up nuclear plants instead of preventing leakage of electricity during transmission converting Tamil Nadu into an ‘electricity deficit’ state and moral policing of various religions against the backdrop of a fatwa passed against a Kashmiri rock band.

Sofia intends to use YouTube as a medium to fight other social and environmental causes, which for her, Dalit and women’s issue rate the highest and closest to her heart. She intends to change the way Dalit are seen in India. Dalit men and women are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system and despite laws to protect them they face widespread discrimination in India. Dalit must wash their cups when they’re done drinking tea because they are untouchables and anything they touch becomes impure. PhD Dr Vinod Sonkar – who studied affirmative actions in India with those of post apartheid South Africa & the USA and teaches at Delhi University – says India is the largest democracy in the world, but an apartheid-style state. The Indian government comes from the upper castes and has convinced the international community that caste discrimination is an internal, cultural issue. But the truth is that it affects the very way the country is run. It is this issue – the horrible treatment of the Dalit and particularly women’s issue – which made Sofia Ashraf move out of the comfort of her parents’ home and do something for them.

This article is informed by Prasanna D Zore’s “the Rapper who is taking on Unilever” India Abroad 14 August 2015 & Vignesh Radhakrishnan’s “Unilever misinformed to save face: ‘Kodaikanal’ rapper Sofia” in Hindustan Times August 7, 2015.


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