The Hot List 2017: Aranya Johar (Spoken Word Artist)
The 18-year-old viral sensation is slamming gender inequality and societal norms through her poetry
In an especially empowering year for survivors of sexual assault and harassment as the #MeToo movement spread across the globe, Mumbai based poet Aranya Johar emerged as a strong new female voice from India. The 18-year-old gained overnight fame this March with “A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender,” a raw piece of slam poetry that challenges the patriarchy with its honest reflection of society’s treatment of women.
Johar started writing when she was 11 years old and performing when she was 13. Her interest in slam poetry was sparked by a love for rap and encouragement from her brother Ankur Johar (aka rapper Enkore). “If you don’t put an instrumental behind the verses, it’s literally poetry,” says Johar, who also credits her brother for introducing her to the concept of feminism. Since then Johar has gone on to deliver several virally famous pieces, co-founded the creative start-up More Than Mics, curated the company’s Blind Poetry Sessions and has performed at several prestigious literary events across the country.
Written about a week before it was performed for the first time, “A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender” covers marital rape, acid attacks and slut-shaming. Friends shared it on each other’s Facebook walls, grandparents Whatsapped it to their grandkids and everyone from PopSugar to the BBC were interested in speaking to the poet. “I feel the reason it got the traction it did is because everyone knows about [sexual harassment] but no one talks about it in a constructive manner,” Johar says.” It’s become such an ingrained part of our life and we’ve become desensitized to it.”
A second viral piece, “A Brown Girl’s Guide To Beauty,” came shortly after in July and garnered even more attention thanks to its focus on fact that society does its best to break men as well. “Personally I’m really proud of [it] because I got to talk about how beauty limits women and men, something I’ve felt strongly about for really long,” Johar says. “I’ve seen so many of my male friends and family members having to conform to these standards and no one talks about it. It’s not like only women are suffering from the idea that they have to look a certain way.”
Being a strong female voice on the frontlines of Indian social media is dangerous: attacks are personal, spiteful and heinous, thanks to keyboard warriors hiding behind anonymity and memes. But Johar is determined to retain a thick skin. “I think the most important thing to remember is when you put art out into the world, you’re not going to be able to appeal to every audience. There’s always going to be someone who likes it and doesn’t like it.” She adds that she has seen so many strong, powerful women like Mirror Now news anchor Faye D’Souza, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Regha Jha, actor Richa Chaddha receive hate, rape threats and death threats in their pursuit to do good, but it hasn’t stopped them. In fact, in July, D’Souza recruited Johar and Jha for a special panel on Mirror Now to discuss gender inequality and sexual crimes.
“That’s the kind of unity we need right now especially considering that every time a victim comes out and talks about their harassment, everyone’s first instinctive thing to do is ask them to prove it, or not take it in validation,” says Johar. She points out the effect victims’ voices can have is so powerful—Netflix, for example, took immediate action and cancelled comedian Louis C.K.’s comedy special and fired Keven Spacey from House of Cards after both men were accused of sexual harassment.
Although Johar is currently in the first year of her B.A. course with a plan of majoring in English, she will continue her career in poetry with several upcoming projects. “I do plan to put more pieces out and try writing differently, try writing about different topics. I feel I’m at that place where I can try new things and get constructive feedback.”