Protesting through music: Meet Chennai rapper Nigavithran

The 25-year-old musician is known for songs such as 'Digital Moonji' and 'Excuse me Modi'.
Rapper Nigavithran
Rapper Nigavithran
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Nigavithran’s '82 D Block', a hip-hop/rap album, was launched recently on iTunes but the 25-year-old rapper from Chennai isn’t a new kid in town. Nigavithran showed interest in music very young, picking up Malaysian hip-hop and rap when he was still in school, and he already has a couple of viral protest songs to his credit.

When he wrote and performed 'Digital Moonji' in 2017, the song was widely shared and used during the Neduvasal Hydrocarbon protests in Tamil Nadu. “The song was shared by many channels but we never got the credits for it. However, I was happy that the song I wrote for people reached them,” he tells TNM.

Then this year, his rap titled ‘Excuse me Modi’ written during the protests held across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR), went viral.

“I don’t usually sit at home and pen my songs about protests. During the anti-CAA protests, I was there in person for most of them. I helped with designing posters and wanted to be a part of it in every way I could,” shares Nigavithran who presently works at Pothigai Channel in their computer graphics department. That's how ‘Excuse me Modi’ came out, with lyrics condemning the government that was splitting its people based on religion. This song went viral during the protests held earlier this year.

Another interesting song is 'Namma Street' released as part of Azadi Records' 'Sound of Resistance Volume One'. Nigavithran had collaborated with artists like DBK from Sri Lanka, Tre Ess, RAK from Mumbai and DJ Uri. "When you listen to this song, it's like going on a trip on the streets we're talking about. I wrote lines about my street Lock Nagar in Chennai, DBK and RAK sing about their areas. It was quite an interesting collaboration," he says.

But Nigavathiran was not always writing songs about protests. His journey, he shares, was influenced by his brothers and friends who at different points, changed his perspective.

Talking about his initial days, he says, “When you start listening to rap, you automatically begin writing. There’s something about the genre. I think a majority of rap listeners turn into writers themselves. That’s how I started as well. While at school, I would write rap lines on my life in school.” “Paadam enaku pudikala, paada enaku pudikudhu” (I don’t like lessons, I like to sing) is a line from one of his earliest songs, written while being punished to stand outside his classroom.

Has he performed them to his teachers, we ask. “No, I haven’t gone back to school since I left. Although, they did know that I used to write songs and sing,” he adds.

From writing lines on his life, he then progressed to writing about love. However, when he joined college, Nigavithran briefly stopped making music. “I never gave up completely, I would continue writing songs but didn’t perform them. It was mainly because I was unsure of how to pursue it. I didn’t want to burden my family financially. Renting a studio as a 17-year-old is an expensive task,” he says.

Yet music found a way to pull him back into it. “Around the third year, I joined another classmate, whom I didn’t know until then had an interest in music and we formed 'Dudez in Madras' band,” he says.

This led him to Vinoth, a sound engineer who helped him record his songs. “I recorded at his studio and he offered to work with me. His offer was an important step in my music,” he says.

Poet and writer Muthurasa Kumar, and Nigavithran's brother Kavithran too were great influences in refining his style. “They exposed me to social issues and expanded my understanding of it,” he says. Nigavithran was part of Sethil Paya, a musical event organised by a group of like-minded people in December 2017. “This was before music-activism gained traction. We performed at Nadu Kuppam, a fishermen’s colony in Chennai to great response,” he says and adds that this was one of his first experiences that gave him a social connect with people.

His new album, '82 D Block', has eight songs on different topics, all written a year-and-a-half ago. There’s a bit about his life, there’s a tribute to his mentors, there’s a love song, and there are songs on social issues ranging from sexual assault to demonetisation. The name itself is a tribute to where his journey began; his house 82 on D Block in Lock Nagar area in Chennai. “I lived there from the time I was born until I finished school. It was where my music journey began and I wanted to name my album after it,” he shares.

“The 'Don’t Touch' song (on sexual assault) has explicit lines and I had written it during the Kathua rape incident. I did consider changing it for this album, but it is true to the feelings I had then and now. I wanted to retain it as is,” he explains. There’s the 'Puratchi' song, a protest song that covers a range of issues, and 'Machi Tea', an ode to the humble tea.

For this album, Nigavithran thanks Rayappan Francis of RayApp Studios who helped him record and distribute it. “Rayappan anna was a great support. He gave his studio for free, helped with production and also took it to iTunes,” Nigavathran tells TNM. The album will soon be up on Spotify and other streaming apps.

“There’s a big underground scene with many talented rappers in our city but most tend to stay underground for several reasons. One is the lack of financial backing. It is very difficult for an independent artist to stay independent. They always need the support of someone to help promote their music. I have faced the same difficulty and this needs to change,” he finishes.

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