It was in August this year that Sofia Ashraf’s life changed completely. The Chennaiite, who was a copywriter by profession, had been making a name for herself for rapping on controversial issues (Don’t Work for Dow in 2008 opposing the Bhopal tragedy). And then, she was approached to create a piece that shed light on Unilever’s thermometer assembly plant in pristine Kodaikanal that had spread mercury contamination in the area — with lasting effects until today, despite being shut down 14 years ago.
Sofia titled it Kodaikanal Won’t and shot a video of the ingenious composition. And the results were unprecedented. “It was absolutely mad! There were several NGOs fighting this cause for over a decade, and suddenly here I was — the face of the movement. I must admit, I was initially skeptical on taking up the project, because I found a few discrepancies. But the more I researched, the more sense it made. Plus, we have to move on with the times — hartals and hunger strikes don’t work anymore — it’s all about social media and contemporary activism,” she says.
From media houses all over the world hounding her, to singer Nicki Minaj herself re-tweeting her video (it was based on the tune of Anaconda), Sofia woke up suddenly to international recognition. Her video had become the New-Age rallying cry, pointing at a problem that has existed in the media’s shadow for years. Because just four days after her song hit the headlines, Unilever scrambled... sending out a press release which said the company “continues to take the issue very seriously and it’s one we are keen to see resolved”. The young singer had achieved something very important — acknowledgment.
But she’s also aware of the fact that public attention today is short-lived. “I’d quit my job and was on a break in Chennai to focus on how to keep this movement going� when the Cuckoo Project happened to me. I spent two weeks in the wilderness, building a self-sustaining, alternative school, interacting with the kids and rediscovering my music — I even wrote a song about ‘rescuing a tree’ and all the children sang it whenever they saw any green cover being felled! This made me really happy� as simple as that — and I decided to work on my music, activism and volunteering.”
Mallipoo and the Alwas, her “fruit fly” band as she calls it (created for the sole purpose of a performance and then disbanded), has become much more than that — flirting between songs on everything from “being vetti” to consumerism — while her collaborations with other groups like electronic exponents Sapta have drawn considerable praise too. But, it is her protest rap that Sofia will always be in the spotlight for: such as her association with projects like the copy-left initiative ‘Justice Rocks’ that challenges corporate globalisation.
“It’s got a total Woodstock-sort of free vibe, and, importantly, we also want to provide new artists a platform to voice their original work,” she explains.
So that was an epic 2015 for her — how is she going to top it in ’16? “I just signed a deal to write an interactive, musical children’s book� yes, that’s how you tempt kids to read. We will be shooting a documentary in Kodaikanal focussing on the Unilever problem. I’ve also been to Bhopal meeting survivors from the tragedy and I’m also excited about my solo tours. I think of them as a musical autobiography — my way of telling women about the limitless potential ahead of them; to urge them to dream and achieve in face of social or religious boundaries.”