It isn’t an imaginary Utopia, devoid of class, caste and social structures, which inspired Tamil rapper Arivu to write Enjoy Enjaami. “This is the world I come from. It is real. My grandfather still wakes up at 5am to work on a field that is not his. He’s 85 or 86 now and it is just his love for the land and nature that drives him to do this,” says 27-year-old Arivarasu Kalainesan, better known as Arivu. Enjoy Enjaami is about many things—almost like an origin story of man that reminds us to respect the planet. At the same time, it is about the one thing that divides us—inequality. “I feel that it is my responsibility to talk about the problems of my people because nobody is ready to listen to it. Nobody is able to understand the emotions of the minorities. They always see them as people who need to be accepted. Like, who are you to accept? For example, someone will say, ‘I have a Dalit friend.’ This is the most casteist statement I have ever heard,” says Arivu, who is also a member of the Chennai-based band The Casteless Collective.
Arivu hopes to wipe out the thriving practices of “modern untouchability” and “casual casteism”—and Enjoy Enjaami seems to have set things in motion. In less than a month since its release, the track has surprised its creators with its reach, logging over 88 million views on YouTube and a glut of Instagram reels by non-Tamil-speaking fans. The track, which marks the independent music debut of Sri Lankan Tamil vocalist Dhee, definitely would have been less compelling without her expressive soul-meets-folk vocals. “The song embodies everything that I believe in. There’s one thing that brings us all together and it’s the soil. Equality is the one thing that I strongly believe in and I don’t think that the earth belongs to just humans. It belongs to all of us. And coming from a place where there has been war, it is subconsciously a driving force in every decision you make in your life,” says 23-year-old Dheekshitha Venkadeshan, who goes by the stage name Dhee.
The crossover appeal of Enjoy Enjaami is different from that of, say, the mainstream Tamil film hit Vaathi Raid, which also gained a pan-India following. Also rendered by Arivu, Vaathi Raid, from the Vijay-Vijay Sethupathi starrer Master, is what is described as a “mass song” in the south. Both tracks are driven by a visceral rhythm that makes music inseparable from dance, but composer Santhosh Narayanan, who has worked on the soundtracks of films such as Kaala, Kabali and Attakathi, has been vocal about discrimination, be it based on gender, religion or caste, since the start of his career.
He understands the essence of Enjoy Enjaami, layering it—you hear A.R. Rahman’s repertoire from his Delhi 6 days and UK-based Sri Lankan Tamil vocalist M.I.A.’s oeuvre, but his deep-rooted Tamil folk influences stand out the most.
What starts as a playful children’s folk song turns into a haunting dirge. The words En kadale karaye... Vaname saname... Nelame kolame... Edame thadame... (My sea, shore, forest, people, field, clan, land, footstep), sung by Dhee, engender a sense of anguish for not just those who have lived and lost, but those who continue to be oppressed by caste.
Arivu, who worked on the song for close to three years, travelled to Sri Lanka to trace his grandmother Valliamma’s life as a tea plantation worker there. “The people I met there still have no land to their name. They only have the sky to call their own. But they have a deep love for the land they work on. How else can you explain why someone would work for generation after generation on the same land without even getting a piece of that land?” asks Arivu, who was also inspired by American rapper Kendrick Lamar’s track King Kunta and Alex Haley’s novel Roots during the making of the track.
His conversations with Tamil film-maker Manikandan further shaped Arivu’s central idea of a casteless people, a thread that runs through the striking video too. “Santhosh sir and I are working on Manikandan’s next movie and he was talking about aboriginals. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who lived as one with nature and nature didn’t discriminate. They created art and didn’t occupy land. Back then, our ancestors celebrated nature,” says Arivu.
The track’s title is a play on the word “Enjoy”, which when pronounced as “Enthai” translates into mother. “Enjaami” means “my lord”, a term still used by landless workers for feudal landowners in Tamil Nadu. “Our society is designed to benefit one caste and make the rest feel inferior, so much so that the oppressed have started accepting everything that’s going on,” says Arivu. The rapper believes that age is on his side and might just grant him the licence to amplify Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar’s message. “As a youngster, you can do anything. But what I do will be based on proper facts. There’s no exaggeration and no romanticisation,” he adds.
Lalitha Suhasini teaches journalism at FLAME University, Pune.