Re-Inventing Tamil Identity Through Art

My name is Harishan and I’m a rapper and songwriter.  I was born, raised and am still living in Scarborough. With production backed by my friend Athavan whom I met in a collective, we’re looking to make serious .wavs this summer. Tune into #scarboroughsundays where we release a new song every Sunday starting on June 11th. We took a break from the studio and decided to share our insight on being Tamil in Scarborough and the obstacles we face as artists.

H: I feel like there is this disconnect to Sri Lanka. I mean, even though it is the motherland, I’ve only visited twice. When it comes to visibility, the Tamil community is one of the most visible groups in Scarborough yet we’re severely under-represented. I’ve been grateful for growing up in the east end where I don’t feel like an alien because I see people like me everywhere. However, when I watch TV or I hear music, we’re still invisible.


A: I agree, I feel like even though there are a lot of Tamil people in Scarborough, there isn’t really an identity for the Tamil-Canadian and especially for someone trying to pursue arts. The community is relatively very new, in comparison to other cultural communities in Canada.


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H: Part of the reason why we’re so under represented is because most of us aren’t encouraged to pursue the arts in the first place. My parents still don’t know I rap because I told my mom I make “pattu” and I write poetry. If I told them I genuinely wanted to make a career from music they wouldn’t believe me. For them, a stable 9-5 is what they consider success and I can’t blame them. They fled a war-torn country and came to Canada in hopes of finding peace. My dad never had a chance to pursue higher education so I can’t hold it against them for wanting me to be stuck in a cubicle.


A: Yeah, it’s not that I don’t understand where they are coming from. An office job feels like a sure thing, and a career in music is a long shot at best, and that is not a misconception, that is the truth. My parents know that I “do music”, but very little beyond that, despite the fact that I’ve basically set up a studio in the basement. I have an office job right now,  and I can’t say that I disagree with my parents because I’m not sure I’d be able to leave the stability unless my music career was a sure thing.


H: A lot of people think Toronto should drop the ‘screw-face mentality’ but to be honest, if it wasn’t for the lack of support from my neighbourhood and friends, I wouldn’t progress as an artist. For a long time, my work wouldn’t resonate with anyone and I thought no one understood where I was coming from. At the end of the day, you can’t make excuses and you have to ask yourself, is this the best you can do? There is no such thing as the perfect record but you have to consistently improve your craft and the moment I started doing that, this was the moment that my voice began to get heard.


A: I don’t think we’ve figured out how to gain support from the people around us. I could say that it has made me a better producer, but it would also be nice to be validated from time to time. I think I’ve gotten to a point where our songs can stand toe to toe with the rest, and if all goes well, our voices will be heard.


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H: Tamil people do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which Tamil artists they get to support. There are only a handful of Tamil artists that have a platform (i.e M.I.A, Aziz) and even then, their Tamil experiences are completely different than mine or anyone else. Through my art, I want to be as reflective and honest as possible so that hopefully other Tamil people in Toronto realize they are not alone.  I really despise this anti-Tamil rhetoric that exists among the Tamil community. Many Tamil people take pride in being white-washed, as if listening to Tamil music or speaking Tamil are things they should be embarrassed of.  In Scarborough, you’re more likely to see Tamil guys roll 6 deep to Vybz Kartel than to the soundtrack of Alaipayuthey and this is only because we’re still not comfortable in our own skin.


A: But at the same time, not listening to Tamil music and not watching Tamil movies somehow makes you less Tamil in the eyes of others. I used to not want to be identified as a Tamil musician, because I felt the ceiling was too low to be confined to one cultural community. This is who I am, I am a Tamil producer, and that means nothing except for the fact that I am Tamil and I am a producer. It is undeniable to say that the songs I heard as a kid influence the types of songs I make now, but we are all just a collection of our experiences.


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Be sure to follow Harishan on social media @raisedinthesnow and Athavan @beatsbyathavan