COVER STORY: Back to the Roots
How international Tamil artists Dhee and Shan Vincent de Paul are blurring local and global music boundaries, via record label and platform maajja
Clad in a tiger-print shirt on a cloudy Toronto morning, Shan Vincent de Paul is talking about his 2019 song “Out Alive.” A lot has changed in two years in the world outside and within Shan as well, but he talked about a “brown artist renaissance” for South Asian music makers back then.
Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka and fleeing to Canada with his family as a child, the hip-hop artist put pen to paper and wrote powerful songs like “Die Iconic” in 2016, but he’s been at his most prolific in the past two years. He released two albums – SVDP 2 in 2019 and Kothu Boys with Canadian-Tamil producer-singer Yanchan in 2020 – and got worldwide acclaim for the song series “Mrithangam Raps” (also with Yanchan) and is now prepping to release his next album Made In Jaffna on September 3rd via record label and South Asian-focused platform maajja.
Rapping at breakneck speed and with the intensity of a torn heart, songs like “One Hundred Thousand Flowers,” “Savage” and most recently, “Neeye Oli” with fellow Tamil-origin hip-hop artist Navz-47, directly and metaphorically reference civil wars in Sri Lanka and the emigration of some Tamils from the country. He says over a video call, “The stuff for this album is representative of a larger people, not just me. That’s also reflective… the success that comes with it also really does feel like a success for my community.”
“The stuff for this album is representative of a larger people, not just me.”
– Shan Vincent de Paul
In telling his own personal and local story, Shan Vincent de Paul got global acclaim, reaching listeners all around the globe. He serves up more of that on “Neeye Oli” – composed by veteran Chennai-based composer Santhosh Narayanan, featuring Tamil lyrics written by firepower Tamil rapper Arivu. It was also part of a sync deal via maajja that saw it placed into the movie Sarpatta Parambarai, a story about a boxer. Shan goes apeshit with his verses and Navz-47 brings an incisive, rousing delivery to the Tamil portions and it now stands at over two million views on YouTube. Despite the serpentine, almost too dense rap delivery, the folks at maajja told Shan it “can be the next ‘Despacito,’” referring to the 2017 Latin chart-topper by Louis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. “I was like, ‘Despacito? This is the hardest shit I’ve heard in my life,’” Shan says.
South Asian spotlight
Founded by Canadian entrepreneurs Noel Kirthiraj, Sen Sachi and Prasana Balachandran and supported by music composing legend A.R. Rahman, maajja has the gusto to make that kind of comparison. They really want to put South Asian music on the global map the same way Latin pop has birthed stars over decades who have broken into the mainstream. Or the way we’re seeing Korean music create a new level of fan following and listenership like never before.
The world closely watches artists like Fonsi, J. Balvin, Bad Bunny as well as BTS, BLACKPINK, EXO and many more for their chart success as well as the moves they make as part of the music ecosystem. As for where India stands in the multitude of voices breaking past language and culture barriers in the minds of listeners, artists singing in Punjabi, Tamil, Hindi and more have accrued millions-streamed songs and want to occupy the global space.
Among those millions streamed songs was “Enjoy Enjaami,” Dhee’s first independent single featuring Arivu (who also wrote the lyrics) and produced by Santhosh Narayanan, as a tribute to Tamil culture of yore, celebratory yet revelatory in its tone. Released on March 5th, 2021, the Tamil song took off to reach over 350 million cumulative streams across platforms, causing a wildfire of ringtones and Instagram Reels alike. Chennai-based Arivu, who has risen to become an unmatched rapper and lyricist who never wavers from his socially conscious stories, says the success of the song and its embedded message of keeping our roots strong is a powerful sign. “The song’s lyrical imagery and the people who populated it has resonated with the audience’s pulse. This success has given me the confidence that I can make rooted music that touches people’s hearts,” he says.
Although maajja had released Shan Vincent de Paul’s wavy, chill song “Amnesia” as its second single on the same day, “Enjoy Enjaami” brought with it an emphatic statement about identity and Tamil culture, not specific to India, owing to Arivu drawing from his grandmother’s pre-independence experiences about migrating to erstwhile Ceylon. With his dark lyricism staying true to its oppari tradition (Tamil songs usually sung at funerals), Arivu makes us think about the politics of marginalization, caste and how generations have survived in the face of oppression.
Arivu makes us think about the politics of marginalization, caste and how generations have survived in the face of oppression.
That is perhaps what led to the song’s success as a cerebral, layered, thought-provoking cultural text. On the other hand, there’s a music video – shot in a local part of Tiruvannamalai where Arivu has roots – showcasing slick choreography, colorful set design as well as primal elements of nature like forestry and fires. Dhee’s bird-call of “cuckoo cuckoo” became an immediate hook and also put forward a friendly, festive vibe that had instant earworm potential.
London-bred Tamil-origin BBC Broadcaster and film and music critic Ashanti Omkar points out that part of the success of songs like “Enjoy Enjaami” is due to their strong sonic quality. If there’s a groove and rhythm that you can get with, chances are, the words that go over don’t have to be necessarily understood on the first listen. It’s a change that’s arrived slowly over the last 30 years, in part due to multilingual film songs helmed by the likes of A.R. Rahman as well as OTT platforms deploying subtitles across languages to encourage viewership, something that artists have taken a cue from while uploading music videos to YouTube with translated lyrics in closed captions. “I feel that Indian music has the propensity to touch anybody, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ is one of those, it’s like a case in point,” she says.
She points to artists like Raja Kumari and Vidya Vox who used some elements of Indian traditional art and culture and added it to a globally relevant style of music and visual representation. “And then you see an artist like Dhee who has roots in Jaffna. She grew up in Australia, she’s based in Chennai and people like them are now rising and opening that door,” Omkar says.
From the Rowdy Baby to Enjoy Enjaami
Fresh from her cover shoot, Dhee’s henna-imprinted hands are an easy starting point for our conversation. She says, “I wanted henna for the shoot. I haven’t done this in, like, 14 years. I really like it! My grandma used to make it at home. She used to take the plant and she used to mix it and put it on.”
The 23-year-old Jaffna-origin singer previously hit it big with the song “Rowdy Baby” off the soundtrack to action flick Maari 2 in 2018. A cheeky duet with actor Dhanush has currently garnered over 1.2 billion views for the track composed by Yuvan Shankar Raja, but being a film project, you could just say it’s par for the course, considering the acting star power it has behind it, including actor Sai Pallavi.
In “Enjoy Enjaami,” Dhee had her first music video appearance, earning attention from all over the globe. The song was also a part of the remix by party-starter DJ Snake, which was the debut offering as part of the Spotify Singles program in India. The DJ said in his statement about the release, “When I heard ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ for the first time I immediately knew I had to work on it. It was great working with Dhee and to push the new wave of music culture, direct from India. This is the future.”
Dhee agrees as well. “I think people are actually coming together in a way right now more than ever that involves embracing things more than pointing fingers […] People’s experiences and our emotions as a whole are similar no matter where we’re from. There tends to be a parallel. So we are lot more similar than we think,” she says about Tamils in India, in Sri Lanka and the diaspora in other parts of the world. Currently working on an English album with Santhosh Narayanan (also her stepdad) that will release via maajja, Dhee mentions that more than herself, her mother (singer Meenakshi Iyer) often finds influences that show her Tamil roots. “There are a lot of influences that come from her as well as my grandpa, who’s from Jaffna and he’s also a writer,” she adds.
“People’s experiences and our emotions as a whole are similar no matter where we’re from.”
The album’s inception was during the lockdown, with the artist whittling down songs and pushing herself to create something that will arguably take her beyond “Rowdy Baby” and “Enjoy Enjaami.” Dhee says, “It’s been a very hard process. It takes a lot out of you, but it’s lovely. It’s just been the most amazing, but also the most hardest process.”
She adds, “I think when it comes to releasing music, it takes a lot of bravery over anything. And I think when I see that, I get inspired by that. I think it takes a lot of bravery to actually show your music to someone, for me at least.” Speaking of influences, she adds, “My biggest inspiration is literally at home with me. So he’s right there,” referring to Narayanan.
The song and music video turned plenty of heads and helped establish maajja as an artist-focused platform, beyond being viewed as a project, which was riding on the star power of Rahman alone. Co-founder Noel Kirthiraj says, “When we did ‘Enjoy Enjaami,’ from a production perspective, and overall content perspective, we wanted to do something world class, something aspirational because we believe that the talent is there. And now that is done, there is a whole generation to come, that we hope will look at the song and say, ‘Oh wow, this is our people who did it, so we can do it too.’”
Did people compare ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ and say it would have been even bigger if it was in a film, we ask Narayanan, whose film hits have amassed fans across demographies. He says, “I have never come across anyone who wanted ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ to be anything else, as the song itself is a celebration of life…We have always seen many hugely successful songs connecting to people with or without any initial promotions/push.”
Maajja’s major innings
Announced in January this year, maajja stands apart for its refreshing South Asian-focused approach. The roster comprises both seasoned and emerging artists. There’s Dhee, Arivu, Shan Vincent de Paul, Navz-47, R&B singer Ami, plus singer-composer Shashaa Tirupati, hip-hop producer ofRo and Toronto rap duo Two’s A Company. Chennai’s contemporary band Staccato are also in the mix, alongside producers Pravin Mani and Steve Cliff, vocalist and producer Satthia from Singapore, U.K.-based Tamil rapper Tha Mystro. From the televised music show Super Singer, maajja has picked up alumnus including singers like Pravini Saivi, Sakthi Amaran and Maalavika Sundar as well.
Keeping in line with maajja’s goal to set up a sustainable path for their signees, all copyrights remain with the artists when they release music via the label. Kirthiraj – a tech entrepreneur alongside Sachi and Balachandran who strongly associated with music and the entertainment industry enough to tie up with Rahman – invokes the Indus Valley civilization to talk about South Asian glory and how they innovated to create an irrigation system.
History textbook lessons aside, Kirthiraj points out that the talent is abundant in South Asian communities but the hurdles have remained. “When you look at the Grammys, or anything like that at a global level, the recognition and representation is not there for South Asians – that’s just mind boggling – we want to pave ways to change that” he says.
He says with certainty that even though Rahman has fought hard over decades to create a global following and earned acclaim, the kind of genre-bending, culturally-rooted music hasn’t broken out in the way it should, outside of the film music space. ““If you talk to ARR or M.I.A., they would want artists to not stop with them, rather overtake them in terms of making a mark.”
‘This is just the start’: A.R. Rahman
Rahman points out that it’s not just about creating a dream label or platform. “Most musicians don’t ever get noticed or get a platform to shine and the industry as a whole is complicated and confusing. maajja was started to democratize this whole ‘business’ of making and releasing music and allow artists to focus on creating awesome content.” He acknowledges that the independent music that maajja wants to champion is “nothing new” but its ever-changing scope and diversity is what they want to put forward on a global scale. “When exceptional talent meets originality and authenticity, magic happens. There is a process that the team goes through to identify and showcase these storytellers and world creators. Whatever maajja has done is just the start – we want to do this at scale,” he adds.
“Most musicians don’t ever get noticed or get a platform to shine and the industry as a whole is complicated and confusing.”
Navz-47 says she’s been longing for a platform like maajja, calling her association with the company as a “humbling experience” so far. “I’ve been making noise in the industry since 2017 and the amount of love and support has been growing substantially. maajja plays an important role in bringing us together,” she adds.
Like “Neeye Oli” in Sarpatta Parambarai, Narayanan notes that there are more sync placements in place for his music, for movies scheduled for release in 2022. He adds that these songs will also be standalone releases, leveraging the crossover potential that “Neeye Oli” enjoyed. “The recent boom in the digital data space in India has created a very important additional platform for ‘non-film’ music,” the composer says.
What maajja does differently here is reinforcing the importance of royalties and rights to the music, which Kirthiraj says should have changed decades ago, if India was to mirror global music industry practices. “What ends up happening is you will have all these great musicians leave the industry as they may not be able to sustain themselves financially. Many end up doing some other job to pay the bills, which takes the focus away from creation. As maajja, if we’re able to solve even a fraction of that and help artists sustain themselves, we would have made an impact in the lives of millions,” he adds.
The future is great artistry
In addition to Shan Vincent de Paul’s album Made in Jaffna, Dhee’s upcoming English album and Navz-47’s album Fresh Off the Boat, there’s also Rahman’s first single on maajja coming up. Their long anticipated YAALL Fest – curated in collaboration with M.I.A. – has been in the works for most of the year, but both the digital and on-ground festival in Chennai will have to wait until the coronavirus pandemic subsides in India.
Until then, the maajja train rolls on, aiming to make what is hyperlocal as hyperglobal, leveraging streaming and digital reach at a time when concerts and tours are yet to properly resume. It aligns with the glocal moves we’ve seen the music industry make so far – from short video apps like Triller introducing global charts to Spotify’s RADAR program that can create new fan bases in different regions, plus virtual concerts which enable a ticket buyer to be sitting in any part of the world.
And it helps to have a fiercely headstrong, motivated bunch of artists. While Dhee might marvel and make a self-deprecating jab at herself and how she never thought she needed a manager, she has found a team that backs her up and understands her intent with her music. “I feel very seen,” she says.
Shan points out that the South Asian diaspora in Canada might have each other’s back, but the institutional support from the country has always left a lot to be desired. He’s found his place in maajja and the prolific run will likely continue. He recounts an interview he saw of the late American basketball great Kobe Bryant. “I’m like, this guy’s already got $100 million in the bank, championship rings… and he’s still waking up at five in the morning to go shoot 1000 shots? I’m like, What the fuck is my excuse? That’s what being great requires; showing up even after you think you’re successful.”
Photographer for Shan Vincent de Paul: Gajan Balan
Photographer for Dhee: Madhavan Palanisamy
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Brand Director: Tulsi Bavishi
Executive Editor: Nirmika Singh