The “new normal” gave Gundi's Shruti Kotiya the chance to chat with Sofia Ashraf, a rapper, an activist and a digital content creator who gave up her religion to break free from everything that was holding her back from being the womxn she is today.
We first got to know about Sofia when her rapping career gained recognition and you might know her from her Kodaikanal Won’t music video or from her recent work for Netflix’s Behensplaining. She told us her struggles of coming from an orthodox Muslim household, gaining recognition as the burqa rapper, giving up her religion to rapping about environment and creating digital content – a journey where failure wasn’t an option. So, let’s dive in!
SK: How has quarantine life been treating you?
SA: It’s been crazy. It has made me count alot of my blessings, my mental health for starters. I happen to be in an industry that seems to be the least hit by the job losses, in fact it has got me working 7 days a week, 10 hours a day because there is a huge demand from artists and content creators in a time like this. Everyone is on their phones, looking for entertaining content or perspectives and as content writers and directors we have our hands full at the moment.
SK: Do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career, be it music or creating digital content? If so, how?
SA: In a way, yes, because the deal is that alot of opportunities were denied to me as I was brought up in a very orthodox Muslim household. Nobody in my family is in the entertainment industry and being denied the right to that stage from a young age – to sing, act, perform or to create content like that – made me work harder for it. So, when I was finally given that opportunity, I think I worked much harder for it. I walked out of home when I was 22 and I gave up every comfortable, privileged lifestyle be it a little orthodox, I gave that all up to come here. Failure wasn’t an option for me, going back to that lifestyle wasn’t an option so it kind of propelled me to work harder, it pushed me to want to succeed at it.
Tamil singer and rapper Sofia Ashraf is back with a hilarious portrayal of the different ways Muslim women carry hijab, the traditional head scarf.(Screengrabs from Sofia Ashraf’s video)
SK: Walk us through your journey so far as a female rapper standing up for important causes in contrast to being a digital content creator. How has the journey been?
SA: It has been crazy. I think it all started in college. So, if you look at women brought up in orthodox households, especially a woman like me that came from some level of privilege, when you’re in college you’re told “have all the fun you can right now, within boundaries, we’re gonna get you married after this and you’re gonna have to listen to what some man has to say”. So, my mom was like we’ll put you in a girls college and if you want to be up on a stage in an all girls crowd then go ahead, just do whatever you want while you’re in college because this “naatak” will end once you’re done with college and we’ll get you engaged to be married off. A Lot of girls in my community, you’re engaged by the time you’re in your third year of college.
That kind of put me in this place and I was like okay, I want to have as much fun as I can right now. So I participated in every college activity, I had a proclivity towards writing and also had a mad interest in dancing but being a woman who was also brought up in an orthodox household, it is not seen in a good light and it doesn’t lead to a career option for you to fight for in the end. Even though I was more of a dancer, I was like “mujhe bas stage par jaana hai”. The other option while I was doing all my elocution, was music. I started gravitating towards it but in my household, musical instruments were not allowed as its considered haram in Islam so I couldn’t play any instrument and I am also not good at singing but my sisters dumped me into the college music band making everything think that I can sing like them. But the rhythm and poetry from having those dancing and writing skills came together at that one place and that was rap. That’s how rap started for me because I wanted to be on stage and I enjoyed music.
About the time I started rapping, I wanted to write my own songs as it is a great way of expression for me. At one of the events, a judge came up to me and told me that they were a part of this collective that uses music to talk about issues that matter and he had noticed that my rap, back then I was in a hijab, was about my identity as a hijabi. They were looking for these kinds of voices, people with an alternative perspective. He told me about Justice Rocks, a show where they talk about issues like environmental politics, moral policing, social reforms, corporate liabilities – the “woke” musicians of those days you could say and asked if I wanted to be a part of it and I obviously said yes to this opportunity. But, this was around the time 9/11 had happened and people were confused about what Islam was. Up until then, all the religions coexisted and never really asked about each other’s religions and suddenly a bunch of people claimed that violence is intrinsic to this religion, making people question it. So I thought this was an opportunity for me to clarify some of the things about Islam and how it’s not about terrorism. How you should call a spade a spade and not an Islamic spade.
Earlier, my rap had a very teenage angst, an identity politics to it but on getting a larger stage, it gave me the chance to talk about Islam, terrorism and the dialogue around that. The theme of that concert was the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and they were trying to throw light on the fact on Dow Chemicals India, the company that bought Union Carbide. We were trying to get young engineers, who were in their placement phase, to not work for Dow. I did a rap battle “don’t work for dow” where I pretended to be a citizen of Bhopal and the other rapper was playing as Dow Chemicals, trying to get the audience on our side, in a theatrical way to get the students to boycott the Dow placements. This was my first experience in using music as something that was bigger than me and it was exciting, somewhat cathartic but it definitely gave me a purpose in some way. The same collective, years later, put out a video “Kodaikanal Won’t”. Every year, I’d go back to them to work on songs and campaigns around environmental politics, pollution, corporate negligence and even moral policing, a different theme every year. We decided on making Kodaikanal won’t a social media campaign instead of a physical one as its yet another stage for us. It was already a platform for these companies to corporate greenwash people, feed them with lies and pretend that they are great for the environment as if they’re curing diarrhoea just by making soap, so we thought that it would be best to kick them where it hurts most.
Rap has always been a sort of expression for me besides being a writer, filmmaker etc but this avatar stuck on when I joined Culture Machine with the intent to talk about women’s issues, as its close to my heart and it’s something I understand because of the journey I’ve had and taking the leap to talk about how South India is ignored in the national content sphere, being isolated even though the North content doesn’t even reach the South – giving birth to ‘Sista of the South’.
Earlier I made YouTube videos because it was fun and it eventually became a bit of a career. For me, the most fascinating thing was probably, at reaching this phase in life where it’s not about putting myself or my face out there but to give the necessary craft to the ideas of all the amazing female content creators out there. This also made me realise that there are very few female content directors in the field, making me want to build the backend for this and to finally see women in the front. We need more women behind the scene – the directors, the editors.
For my content now, I aim to build women and their capabilities – be it editors, writers especially if the content you’re writing is about women telling women stories. I am currently a creative director at The Rabbit Hole and I also handle the “beheniverse” where I work with actors like Kusha Kapila and Srishti Dixit.
"..it’s not about putting myself or my face out there but to give the necessary craft to the ideas of all the amazing female content creators out there."
SK: All of your work addresses feminism or talks about important environmental issues, how would you describe your song-writing /conceptualisation process? What inspires you?
SA: It’s very interesting because I’ve created two kinds of songs, some are commissioned and some I write for my own album. So for the ones that I write for my album, these are actually the mental arguments I have when angry, just spattered on paper – making me move on and have that good night’s sleep. But when it comes to the commissioned work, it’s different because I give a good amount of time to research to know both sides of the story, mainly to fact check the situation.
Even for ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’, I looked at both sides and raised questions, took my time to check if the issue was right and then to figure out solutions because making a song to raise awareness is very important if there is an opportunity for it to turn into action and reach the right people, it cannot be just a petition. For the writing process, I use a bunch of softwares, whiteboards where I write down all of this important information and then the actual writing happens, letting my internal metronome play, further taking it to my music composer. I’d have to say, I have been blessed to rub shoulders with some of the coolest musicians in Chennai – which helps me pick the right vibe and the right music composer.
SK: How important do you think “feminism” is in today’s time?
SA: Funny enough, there are a lot of people out there who claim that feminism is not required in today’s day and age. Although such statements don’t make me ‘angry’ but it instead makes me ‘jealous’ because if someone can say that, they are lucky and privileged enough to not have faced the kind of oppression that you and I have faced. I’m jealous because that is the kind of world I want to strive towards, a world where we don’t need to constantly harp on these things.
When I was ten years old, I would cry myself to sleep wishing I would wake up as a boy because in my head, I believed that if I wake up as a boy, I would be allowed to dance on stage, sing on stage and do things that were denied to me – this young girl thought the solution to all her problems was to wake up as a boy and I’m sure there are young girls out there praying for the same. So as long as there are people who think that waking up as a boy would solve their problems, there is a need for feminism.
"..as long as there are people who think that waking up as a boy would solve their problems, there is a need for feminism."
SK: What was the idea behind “behensplaining” and what’s filming the videos been like during this pandemic?
SA: Filming during this pandemic actually has been very exciting, especially writing sketches during a quarantine setup and it has acted as a great equaliser. Earlier we were going up against big studios with big budgets, massive cameras, amazing crews and now everyone has the same set of restrictions on them. You have to make do with whatever camera and tech you have because you cannot send a crew of fifty people over to someone’s house. In today’s time, story is king, the filmmaking skill and craft is king now. It has become gender, geography and budget agnostic because wherever you are, if you have the story and craft, you’ll shine.
We had to improvise so much, I now direct through Zoom calls and the shooting happens through the artists’ camera. We have figured out weird ways to film, rewritten scripts to make it look like the artists are right next to each other even though they’re in different cities, sitting at home.
It has been such a good challenge and we’ve sort of invented a new way of working where it has become the “new normal”, we’re putting out two videos a week and we’re not questioning it anymore because that’s how things are now. It’s a great time for people who have craft to improve upon and people who are willing to change and adapt, it has simply gone to a point where we’re questioning what can be done with whatever we have.
Srishti Dixit and Kusha Kapila review Indian Matchmaking - still from Netflix India's Youtube video
SK: We’re all fans of Kusha’s portrayal of different characters and Srishti’s humour but how did you decide on casting them for the show? What was the thought process?
SA: Even though I joined behensplaining in the middle of it, I’d say Kusha and Srishti are one of the most funniest and talented women I have worked with and they are blessed with natural chemistry. They are like actual “behens”, the true meaning of sisterhood.
What I really enjoy about them is that they are super intelligent and talented women. During our readings, workshops, jam sessions it’s like we’re all learning from each other. I personally have learned so much from having conversations with Kusha and Srishti, they contribute so much more colour and perspective to the script. Besides that, their online content is what really picks me up when I’m having a bad day and it’s great to work with people who you’re fans of.
SK: Before behensplaining, you were known as the “burqa rapper” and gained recognition from A.R.Rahman himself. Considering what’s going on in the country, with the marginalisation of muslims, do you think you’ll be working on projects like that again?
SA: I gave up religion when I was twenty-something but I still am against marginalisation, oppression of the underdog in every way because being an ex-muslim, I understand the pain that sent shockwaves through our entire community. Even today with the Anti-CAA protests, I felt that fear amongst my family and friends and the kind of conversations I’ve had with my Muslim friends during that time was heart-wrenching. So, I will never stop speaking for my community because I gave up the religion and not the community. Coming from Chennai and having the opportunity to be on the same stage as people from different communities and backgrounds coming together with the feeling of mutual respect, especially at Justice Rocks, I just want that feeling back again, I want the old India I knew and loved back again, that’s what we’re all fighting for.
SK: What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
SA: That’s an interesting question. So, the most enjoyable aspect for me is probably the ideation process because it’s that moment of when an idea strikes you and you get excited to share it because you feel you’ve finally hit the right spot. The least aspect has to be invoicing because following up with people to ask for money that’s owed to you is super demeaning, especially after all the labour you’ve put in, that’s probably why I switched to a day job.
SK: What was the biggest challenge you tackled along the way?
SA: So, being someone born into privilege, having that safety blanket and that belief that I can always quit and go back to a comfortable life has been a challenge. There are days we’d wake up and jokingly say that I should just quit and become a housewife, and alot of us have that option. We can just stop this daily, monday to friday struggle, this anxious, mentally exhausting lifestyle and just think that I can marry rich and sit at home. This is probably my biggest hurdle/obstacle to shake when I tell myself that the option like that does not exist and that you have to make something of yourself, that is the only way. So the only way for me to do that was to throw that safety blanket away and remind myself that quitting is not an option.
When you start doing something, you’re not going to be phenomenal at it, you will question yourself and if you’re even good enough. In the beginning, it’s fine to be an amateur but over the years, after some experience, you’ll realise that amateur is not good enough and when you have your family being unsupportive and saying things like quit and come home, I’ll pay you way more than what you’re making – it’s the last thing you want to hear because you’re already doubting yourself. So, that has been the biggest challenge – to not quit and go home.
SK: When was the last time you fought the patriarchy (recently)? How would you describe that experience?
SA: So recently, I was on a flight and I had a conversation with this person sitting next to me because he saw me working on the flight. He was appalled that I was working hard and probably was a career-driven woman and he hadn’t been exposed to women like that. We talked about politics and history which got him excited and fascinated but then he went into his small town, sexist mindset with how he loves to travel but wouldn’t want his wife to do so alone. This is where my evolved brand of feminism came into play because earlier I had a lot of anger inside, which is good when you’re young because of all the energy you have, but now I feel what’s required to change a person’s mindset is love. Though his statements really annoyed me, I explained to him that you want to travel and go home to someone who has cooked food for you, I want the same and that’s when he realised that imposing such a thing on anyone is wrong and unfair be it a woman or a man.
So, there are larger things you do that are tangible changes and then there are smaller things you do in a hope that they will make someone at least think about it.
SK: This was amazing! Thank you so much for this!
SA: Thank you!