The British rapper M.I.A. is arguably the most well-known Tamil woman in hip-hop today. As a refugee from Sri Lanka, a country that has engaged in the systematic genocide of its Tamil population, her work often speaks of displacement and diaspora.
Tamil is both a language and a people stemming from the southernmost parts of the Indian sub-continent. Tamil people are predominantly from Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India, as well as the Tamil speaking regions of Jaffna and other North and Eastern parts of what is now known as Sri Lanka. The Tamil diaspora is huge, spanning continents from Latin America to Southeast Asia, many of whom were forcibly transported to these areas as indentured labourers during British colonialism.
Coming on the heels of this vastly diverse diasporic history, are three Tamil women trailblazing their way through hip-hop, a genre that even South Asian men find difficult to break into. One of them is Candice Pillay, who was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa to Tamil parents and moved to Los Angeles in her late teens. She has written for some of the biggest artists in music history, including Dr Dre, Christina Aguilera and Rihanna. When she co-wrote Rihanna’s “American Oxygen,” the song hit close to home for her, reminiscent as it was of her migration to the U.S. to pursue her musical dreams.
Leaving the politics to others, Her EP, The High, which was released in 2015, contains five delicious pieces of pop accented Soul/R&B. She sings effortlessly about love and absence on “Lost Without You,” and then segues without a change in pace to her dance anthem, “Party 4 Da Low.” Pillay’s South African roots are clear in her music, as she mixes African and Indian rhythms under heavy drums. She considers her melodies to be quite Indian but they are intermingled so smoothly with synthesized hip-hop that a listener would not be able to tell apart the two cultures.
A ground-breaking newcomer is Raja Kumari, whose background and training as a Bharathanatyam dancer clearly infuses not just her work, but her aesthetic as well. Her moniker is Tamil, as “Raja” means ‘king’ and “Kumari” in this case, refers to a princess. She references herself as the “daughter of the king” in her song “Meera,” making clear to everyone who is listening that her lineage is paramount to her. Always seen in Indian jewellery and a modern interpretation of South Asian fashion, she is currently touring India promoting her first album. Her 2017 EP, The Come Up contains “Meera,” where she croons “Paga gungare bandh Meera nachere,” which means “Radha dances with anklets on her feet,” a reference to the 15thcentury Hindu mystic whose fierce devotion to the god Krishna has spawned thousands of songs and movies.
The EP unabashedly infuses Indian traditional culture and classical music with hip-hop, a melding rarely seen. Raja Kumari spits Bharathanatyam Jathis as if they were raps in “Tribe” and “Meera.” Bharathanatyam is the thousand-year-old classical dance of Tamil Nadu with intricate hand movements and expression while Jathis are rhythmic word patterns that mimic the movement of feet during the dance. Raja Kumari is fearless in the embrace of her ancestral art, music, and literature, eschewing the need to sell herself to the white gaze. She turns a Sanskrit mantra into a rap one, singing “Lokha Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu,” meaning, “May all beings be happy and free.” Religious references to Hindu gods and philosophies are embedded into her lyrics, richly showcasing her cultural heritage.
On the other side of the world is veteran Singaporean rapper Lady Kash. Fluent in both English and Tamil, she has already established herself in Kuala Lumpur, the world capital of Tamil hip-hop. She has worked with Grammy winning international composer, A.R. Rahman and is the youngest and the only female rapper to sing on a 60-artist strong theme song for the World Classical Tamil Conference in 2010, which went on to become the modern day anthem of the Tamil language. In her latest piece, “I Told You So,” she raps about being ignored and sidelined on a global stage. She has been around for a decade, but despite being one of the biggest rappers in Southeast Asia, is not known outside of it. She refuses to give up though, thinking about the day she’ll “speak the words/on stage at the Grammys.” The song features Carnatic runs in the background, seamlessly splicing Tamil classical music into rap. There is a difference between a Tamil rapper and someone who raps in Tamil, and Lady Kash has both of those covered in her unparalleled ability to twist and turn a classical language and its modern iterations to suit her message.
All three women continue to produce work that melds and showcases their Tamil backgrounds with hip-hop. They are signalling the coming of the new women of color who are unwilling to de-racialize themselves to be accepted by the industry. Instead, they place their culture front and centre, saying to the world that modernity does not require detachment from one’s heritage. In welcoming Tamil women into the fold, hip-hop shows how deeply adaptable it is, regardless of racial and historical differences. The language of hip-hop and its ability to speak to people of such different backgrounds, from South African migrants to Los Angeles classical dancers and Southeast Asian rappers shows its immense ability to transcend race, gender and geography, and this power of rap is masterfully showcased in these women’s varied careers. May they continue to pave the way for others, as Tamil women have much more to contribute to the world.
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