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RollingStone India|August 2021
How international Tamil artists Dhee and Shan Vincent de Paul are blurring local and global music boundaries, via record label and platform maajja
Anurag Tagat

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.”

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 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.

“People’s experiences and our emotions as a whole are similar no matter where we’re from.”

-Dhee

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, with lyrics written by Arivu, produced by Santhosh Narayanan and sung by Dhee with Arivu, as a tribute to Tamil culture of yore, celebratory yet revelatory in its tone. Released on March 7th, 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.

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.

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