Vaa, a recently released Malayalam rap song, opens with the following lines: “Come friend, Shoulder to shoulder, Let’s go fight, Become fire, Shatter the barricades” (English translation). Twenty-six-year-old Vedan has made it clear in these opening lines that his song is a call for some form of united resistance. But resistance against what?
“There’s a reason I released this song on April 14, 2021, which is Ambedkar Jayanti, birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar,” Vedan says, speaking to TNM over a telephonic conversation from his hometown in Thrissur, Kerala. This was Vedan’s way of sending a message that ‘Vaa’, which translates to ‘Come’, is a call for Dalits and other oppressed communities to come together and stand united against systematic caste oppression.
For years, rap music has been used as an art form to voice out the injustices happening in society – especially among the Black community in the US and in Africa. Vedan’s entry into rap also stems from his experiences during his growing up years and from the stories he has heard from his paternal grandmother. And therefore, his music is personal and like they say, Personal is political.
“The colony that I grew up in Thrissur was surrounded by fields and meadows that belonged to many private individuals. We never knew or cared about who owned these areas. We used to go and play in these fields, pluck mangoes and take a stroll with our dogs,” Vedan says. But one day, the landowners warned them that people from “their colony” were barred from entering the fields. “Back in the day, I never understood why we weren’t allowed to enter their fields, whereas certain other people could,” he recalls.
It came to a point when the Malayalam rapper decided that discussing these issues and the discrimination faced by the people of his community within a small group of friends was not enough. “We felt that these problems and ideas should be shared with a wider audience and the best way for that is through art – in my case, it was rap,” he explains.
Vedan feels that there is a popular misconception that there are few caste issues in Kerala, and a major section of society feels that just because they “do not believe in caste”, caste discrimination doesn’t exist in the state. “This ignorance about caste is dangerous as it removes all spaces for a Dalit or a person from an oppressed caste to speak out. We hope to change this through our music,” he adds.
But the journey as a rap artist hasn’t been easy for Vedan. “In a state like Kerala, you are scorned for speaking about Dalit politics or Ambedkar politics. When we bring up caste politics, it unsettles the supporters of certain mainstream political parties that have dominated the political narrative in Kerala for so long,” states Vedan, who goes on to add that he has faced various forms of abuse through social media and over phone calls ever since the release of his first song ‘Voice of voiceless’.
The artist admits that his close friends had suggested that he come up with a non-political rap music next, in order to avoid the threats and abuses. “But that’s not why I’m here,” Vedan asserts. “I feel that there is a sense of life in my music only when I’m political.”
When asked whether he has thought of expanding his work to larger audiences by way of live shows and participation in public platforms like his counterparts in Tamil Nadu – The Casteless Collective and Arivu, Vedan believes that the two states differ when it comes to their approach to Dalit politics. “Unlike in Kerala, Dalit politics is more openly discussed in Tamil Nadu. There are Ambedkar statues in every nook and corner of the state. But things are slowly changing in Kerala and I’m hopeful of going mainstream soon enough,” he says.
Vaa, which is directed and edited by Vedan’s friend Hrithwik Sasikumar, was a crowdfunded project, which according to Vedan is the result of the efforts of many of his friends and family. Apart from his two rap songs, Vedan has also lent his voice for a song in the recently released Malayalam movie Nayattu, directed by Martin Prakkat.
He tells TNM that currently he is going through a “creative block” but that he hopes to be a part of the mainstream commercial film industry someday. “Mainstream commercial art is important as far as I’m concerned because that’s where my target audience lies – majority of whom are unaware of caste oppression. In order to get my message out to the masses, I have to go mainstream and I will make it happen.”
Korah Abraham is a freelance journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram.