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How NRI musicians use fashion to pay tribute to their roots

Artistes from the South Asian diaspora are taking the help of clothes and make-up to show what real India is 

Tamil-Canadian artist Navz-47 in an outfit styled by Kyle Gervacy. (Courtesy Navz-47)

In the music video for the bilingual rap song Neeye Oli, which dropped early July on A.R. Rahman-backed Maajja’s YouTube channel, what pops out, besides the incredible rap vocals by creator Shan Vincent de Paul (SVDP) and Navz-47, is the fashion. The song has Paul playing with a range of head accessories, including silk scarves, bandanas and a jewel-encrusted face mask that seems like the perfect post-pandemic fashion must-have.

The song credits mention the stylists, Zola Zee and Kyle Gervacy, up front, rather unusual till you read the video’s concept note, which explains that SVDP chose to team up with Zee, his personal stylist, and Gervacy, a Toronto, Canada-based St Lucian designer, for this second single from his third album, Made In Jaffna, which released on 3 September.

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“SVDP creates a fantastical sci-fi world driven by fashion. The sartorial splendour of the video represents Toronto’s diversity as the three bring forth their respective cultures—Tamil, Jamaican and St Lucian, respectively—to create a larger vision of what their Toronto looks like,” reads the note. “I wanted the aesthetic of this video to represent me and my collaborators, and fashion was that catalyst. This is Toronto meets Tamil Eelam. It’s a place where couture meets the ancient past, avant-garde intersects with traditional gowns,” says Paul, who is best known in India for his Mrithangam Raps series.

“I have never done a music video like this. We had stylists on set. We had bikers on set. I even had a snake in my hand! It was an amazing experience,” says Navz-47 aka Naveeni Athanasious Philip. “Fashion plays a big part when you are making a music video because you have to grab the audience. What you wear, and how you perform in front of the camera, makes a really big difference than your vocals,” says the Tamil-Canadian artist.

When it came to grabbing attention, rapper and music producer Pavan Mukhi certainly cracked the code when he opted for an all-blue Avatar-esque look for his solo outing as PAV4N after a 17-year gig as part of the erstwhile hip hop and dubstep act Foreign Beggars. “You have to catch someone’s attention in the first second,” he says. Like the others, he has survived his share of trolling on social media.

Mukhi defines his bold blue look as “a visual representation of music, fashion and art coming together”. Citing musicians like FKA Twigs, he notes: “There are certain hip hop artists who have taken music-making to another level. So it is not only about music now but also about the cinematography, the dance choreography, the fashion...it really is the whole package today, and seeing that level of content art got my mirrors turned.”

For musicians from the South Asian diaspora, going fashionable in the pursuit of music is about factoring in clothes, make-up and style sensibilities to paint a visual imagery to normalise how South Asians actually look—distinct from the Bollywood interpretations. It is, as the title of a song of Indian-origin rapper Raja Kumari goes, a lot of rapping in “bindis and bangles”. For Paul, it’s about showing people an image that’s not shown in the media. “The Tamil Eelam experience is always shown through the lens of oppression and suffering and I want to show people our glory and innovation, a world which is futuristic and avant-garde. There is a South Asian renaissance and I want people to sit up and take notice of us.”

While Mukhi’s blue avatar also represents his spiritual philosophy, he uses it to make multiple statements. “The tattoos I paint on my face (for each video) allow me to collaborate with different artists. And the make-up and the gold jewellery I wear also allows me to represent drag artistry.”

Navz-47 wears the “pottu” in most music videos, the motivation stemming from her memories as a 12-year-old who had just migrated to Canada. “At the time, I was bullied for wearing the pottu, for eating with my hands and speaking my language. And so today, as a musician who is placed right in the middle of Western and Tamil culture, I want to influence the younger generation and show them that being Tamil is cool,” she says.

In early February, singer-songwriter Anna Katharina Valayil, who goes by the moniker Tribemama Marykali, released the single Bless Ya Heels. Directed by Lendrick Kumar, the music video for the Afro-pop song showed Valayil and her friends having the time of their lives, bedecked in Banarasi saris and Kerala’s kasavu set mundu and traditional gold jewellery.

The inspiration, she says, came from her multicultural background—she grew up in India, Nigeria and Australia—and a need to assert her Malayali identity. “I am a third culture kid who was born in India and raised elsewhere. Whilst studying in Australia, I would have Koreans say that I was Sri Lankan and north Indians calling me Madrasi. My ethnicity was so invisible, I was in oblivion. It almost felt like my lineage had ceased to exist, so when I was planning to do Bless Ya Heels, I was sure I was going to show that I am a Malayali. What I have tried to do with my song is to educate people about who I am, who my people are about, how we dress, how we eat, and how magnificent we are,” says the Kottayam, Kerala-based musician.

Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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