M.I.A, the world’s most celebrated Tamil rapper, uses modern Tamil melodies and rhythms in her work, but does not actually rap in Tamil. She is British, but the majority of artists who write and perform hip-hop in this classical language are Malaysian.
Malaysia has a sizeable South-Asian minority, 90% of whom are Tamil. They are typically descendants of Tamil coolies and labourers brought to the country by the British to work on Malaysia’s rubber plantations.
Post-independence, the Malaysian Government has sought to return rights to its indigenous people, the Malays, by instituting a series of policies akin to affirmative action. Malays have special provisions in education, business, and politics in Malaysia, as part of what is known as the Bumiputra (Sons of the Soil) policy. This has led to minorities feeling abandoned and, in the case of many lower-caste and lower class Tamils, the sense that they are discriminated against.
Tamils in Malaysia are often poor, lack access to economic and educational opportunities, and are disproportionately targeted by the justice system. Maybe this is why Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is also considered the world capital of Tamil hip-hop.
Hip-hop as an art form is rooted in resistance and used to tell stories of poverty and racism. In Malaysia hip-hop, and by extension rap, addresses similar issues within the Tamil community.
Dr Pravina Manoharan made a study of Tamil hip-hop while a researcher at Monash University. “Tamil musicians believe hip-hop’s narratives resonate with the struggles of the green ghettos,” she says, referring to the vast, green estate plantation lands many Malaysian Tamils still live and work on – areas often referred to as slums. “(It) gives these marginalised musicians a voice over the more overt voices of the majority Malay and Chinese community.”
Tamil rap often has a strong message of empowerment for the community, urging Tamil people to rise above their adversities and be proud of their heritage. Tamil rappers from Malaysia are also frequently trilingual, able to rap in English, Tamil, and Bahasa Malayu (Malay) all in the space of one song.
The first Tamil hip-hop track was “Vallavan” (1998) by Malaysian group Poetic Ammo, a multicultural quartet consisting of three Tamil rappers and one Chinese MC. Malaysian rappers continue to produce music that employs a specific Malaysian Tamil vernacular, acknowledging their Tamil diasporic roots.
This ability to code-switch has attracted the attention of the South Indian movie industry, which sees Tamil rap as unique and marketable. Kollywood, the name given to Tamil Nadu’s movie industry in particular, has made use of Malaysian musicians, giving a boost to the Malaysian Tamil hip-hop scene.
Tamil is a poetic language rich in metaphor. It is this lyrical and elegiac aspect of Tamil that lends itself well to rap. Metres, rhymes, and hooks often employed in rap become fused with stanzas and expressive devices in Tamil. In Malaysia, Tamil rappers often take inspiration from fiery revolutionary thinkers and poets of Tamil culture, such as Subramanya Bharathi, the twentieth-century Tamil social reformer, and seek to express their modern, Malaysian conditions through hip-hop.
Lest they be accused of cultural appropriation, these rappers are quick to point out that they are not simply parroting Black American culture, but are staying true to the spirit of hip-hop by giving a voice to disenfranchised Tamil youth. Their trajectory diverges from American hip-hop, as many Tamil rappers are schooled in “Thevarams”, a form of Tamil devotional poetry, and use classical South Indian instruments in their music.
Furthermore, Malaysia’s political scene requires these artists to be aware of limits to their expression within the pro-Islamic ideology of Malaysia. Manoharan explains, “Tamil musicians in Malaysia are often cautious when rapping about sensitive issues, particularly those pertaining to religion and politics.”
In a country where dissent is often punitively punished by the state, these trailblazing rappers and hip-hop musicians continue to allow their people’s voices to be heard while working within the confines of the state, looking forward to the day that change will come.