"There must be 10 to 15 women rappers in all of Tamil Nadu. Most male rappers [in the state] are supportive of women’s issues but they have little to no lived experience. Then there are others who use derogatory language against women in their songs. Misogyny is rampant in the rap scene primarily because there is no strong ‘female’ voice to counter their narrative,” said Abishaa, one of the members of Tamil Nadu’s first all-women rap crew, Sollisai Sistahs.
The crew, barely two-months-old, held their first major gig at Margazhiyil Makkalisai in Chennai, organised by anti-caste director Pa Ranjith’s cultural organisation Neelam. The team consists of four young, firebrand women – Abishaa, Kavya, Raaga Kaatralai, and Neya – who do not shy away from speaking about issues ranging from period leaves to the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) exam. When TNM caught up with the crew, everyone credited Abishaa with putting together the team and co-ordinating practices and performances.
Kavya, the beatboxer in Sollisai Sistahs who is also a journalist based out of Bengaluru, said that she first met Abishaa in 2022 at Margazhiyil Makkalisai, where the latter was performing. Abishaa invited Kavya on stage to beatbox as she rapped. Ever since, the former had been toying with the idea of putting together an all women rap crew.
Abishaa met Raaga, a full time music artist and DJ, during one of the latter’s performances and reached out to her over Instagram while she was putting together the team. Neya, the youngest member of Sollisai Sistahs, is a class 10 student and Abishaa’s family acquaintance. Her obsession with rap and nuanced political consciousness were all the more reasons for the young girl to be a part of this powerhouse of a crew.
Abishaa’s aspirations to put together a crew materialised shortly before the Makkalisai event held in December 2023. “In 2022, Abishaa began reaching out to women rappers and beatboxers who were active in Tamil Nadu. As the dates for Makkalisai approached, Raaga, Neya, and I were available, so we came together and formed the team. Abishaa had also performed with Raaga, so we were all familiar with each other. Soon enough, we were practising and ready to put together a show with our own songs,” said Kavya.
It was not always easy for the Sollisai Sistahs to manage their full time jobs and their rap career. For Abishaa, who is also the creative producer of a YouTube channel, it proved slightly more difficult to strike a balance between the Sollisai Sistahs and her job, since both of them require her to be creative. She said, “Since I have a job that requires me to be creative all the time, it is difficult to do the same while writing songs as well.”
For Neya, however, the balancing act seems to come easier. The class 10 student said that she takes leaves on days when the crew has a big show coming up. “Rap is not just a hobby for me like dancing or singing. It is more than that. Since my school ends at 6 pm everyday, I try to finish my homework and studies within that time so that I can focus on rap after that. It is also quite easy for me to balance studies and rap as my parents are supportive and encourage me as long as I am able to balance both,” she added.
Being an all-woman rap crew performing songs loaded with political messaging on issues like social justice and feminism comes with its own set of challenges. From having to tweak their lyrics at the event organisers’ behest to explaining that they are not ‘man-haters’, Sollisai Sistahs have seen it all in the two months of their existence. But the crew is positive that they will not compromise on their politics or the content of their songs. Raaga said, “Since we are a very new team and just starting out, we modify our lyrics a little if organisers express concern. But I would not see this as a compromise of our politics or ideology. In fact, we use this censorship imposed on us to convey [though rap] how society is still not ready to speak freely about certain issues. Currently, we are writing a diss track about our recent experience with censorship!”
Abishaa also noted how such censorship is particularly high for their songs on gender politics. She said, “I find this type of censorship ironic because we rap about periods and other gender issues to create awareness about them. And yet, these subjects are the most censored! There are a few instances where people have asked us what we have against men and why we ‘hate’ them. Our crew had to clarify that we do not hate men but we are criticising the culture that is built around patriarchy. We have to explain ourselves sometimes so that people don't misunderstand what we are trying to say. We are still a new team so we have to be watchful of what we say in our songs.”
When asked if there is something they would like to do apart from performing and writing songs, all of them said they wish to help more women be part of the growing rap scene in Tamil Nadu. Kavya recounted how young girls would be fascinated by her beatboxing skills and ask how they can also learn it. Others, said Abishaa, would be surprised that Neya is able to rap professionally at such a young age and tell the crew that they also want to learn and perform like them. “We want people to know that anyone can rap with enough practice and do it professionally too. In the future, we want the crew to grow and have separate teams of women artists for singing, dancing, beatboxing, and so on. We want more women to enter this industry,” said Raaga.
One problem that bothers Sollisai Sistahs is the lack of organisation among women rappers in the state. Going back to her idea about forming a crew of women rappers, Abishaa said that women rappers are unable to gain the popularity and support that their male counterparts receive because of how dispersed they are. She said, “It is difficult for women to enter this industry because of how male dominated it is. Adding to it, there are few mentors and role models for women rappers. Since there is hardly anyone to guide beginner women rappers, most of them drop out despite having a flair for the art. I personally know someone who left the industry even before she could make it big because she was extremely unmotivated and did not know how to go about things. I tried my best to convince her to stay but to no avail. This really upset me but that is precisely why all of us are trying to make space for more women to enter the industry.”
According to Abishaa and her crew, “Apart from wanting to become popular and perform in more places, we are all passionate about wanting more women to join the rap industry and that’s what keeps us going.”