The rapper Arivu’s sidelining from the hit song “Enjoy Enjaami”, which was inspired by his ancestors, who were disenfranchised labourers in Sri Lanka, has been noted ever since the track first came out. “Dhee ft. Arivu” read the credits, putting the performance collaborator before the conceptualiser, lyricist and performer himself. Then came a remix that dropped his name entirely, and most recently, a Rolling Stone India cover featuring only Dhee and Shan Vincent de Paul (both of whom rose to fame through collaborations with Arivu). The magazine misframed its cover story in a Tweet, later clarifying that is about the two artists’ forthcoming albums. Optically, at first glance, it looked like one more way to steal the spotlight from Arivu.
At the time of this writing, Arivu has not responded publicly to the controversy. However, he and Dhee posed for a photograph together at a party for composer Yuvan Shankar Raja, shared online by actor Dhanush. This is a move designed for social media semiotics. Arivu – the most successful of the three artists in the controversy – has gracefully chosen silence, for now, and this silence has spurred many inferences and projections. We cannot know what he is thinking, and he may not want us to, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from speaking on his behalf.
Or from fighting publicly, as de Paul’s diss track after director Pa Ranjith called out Rolling Stone India – which had a ripple effect of drawing abuse toward Dhee and himself – showed. Unlike the powerfully-connected Dhee (whose stepfather is music director Santosh Narayanan), who is clearly savvier about letting things blow over, as the least recognisable of them and probably the most inexperienced at handling trolls, de Paul did what a lot of people would do, i.e. react upon triggering. Or perhaps his detractors are right: “no publicity is bad publicity”, as the industry adage goes.
There may be an element of strategy to this mess, which has increased awareness of new releases from the A.R. Rahman-backed label, Maajja. There’s also much insider knowledge, PR decisions and other factors involved that we aren’t meant to be privy to, but which we certainly do play into. The socio-political complexity of this – specifically the relevance of caste – has inspired trenchant discourse. Still, missing in all this is the acceptance that the myth of Tamil unity is a dangerous and chauvinistic one.
Arivu is a Dalit musician from Tamil Nadu by way of colonial Ceylon, where his family were Malayaha Tamils. Dhee is Australian Tamil from Sri Lanka, and Brahmin. Canadian Tamil de Paul’s family fled Sri Lanka as refugees. The latter two are of Jaffna extraction – not the only kind of Ilankai Tamilness, but not enough people know there are others (a topic for another time, says this Batticaloa-extraction writer). They’re all Tamil, sure – but they are not the same. Neither assigning a hierarchy of oppression or privilege nor an uncritical mantle of “Tamil excellence” or similar rah-rahness is fair to any of them, or to the layered histories and identities each carries. Political allyship or solidarity isn’t about uniformity; it requires acknowledging profound unease, not glossing it away in pursuit of coolness.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 2nd 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.