Tamil rapper Sofia Ashraf became an internet star when her video “Kodaikanal Won’t”--a political parody of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”--went viral, drawing attention to a campaign to demand clean up and compensation for the damage caused when Hindustan Unilever exposed workers and the environment in Kodaikanal to toxic waste, including mercury.
Less than a month after being posted, the video has more than three million views, has been retweeted by Nicki herself, and captured headlines around the world. Ashraf says she chose “Anaconda” because “when you use a popular tune, then people start paying attention to the lyrics, which was of utmost importance here.”
Her lyrics seamlessly blend attacks on Unilever’s anti-worker policies with demands for environmental justice:
Unilever came and left devastation
As they exposed the land to contamination.
Now here’s the story: they set up a thermometer factory
Where workers handled toxic mercury.
They dumped their waste in the local shrubbery.
Now that’s some toxic shit
By the way, what’d they say?
That their factory was safe as day.
They don’t trust a word of what their workers say.
What about the polluting? The mercury poisoning?
It’s life-threatening. There’s kids suffering.
Poison in the soil, you don’t have us foiled.
Your clean-up was a sham, there’s poison in the air.
You ain’t done done done done done done.
Kodaikanal won’t back down until you make amends now
The song’s success in bringing the struggle to the attention of a global audience--many of whom are fighting similar battles to hold corporations accountable for their decades of pollution--forced Unilever to respond.
Just six days after the video went up, Unilever global CEO Paul Polman tweeted, “Working actively solution kodai #UnileverPollutes for several years already Determined to solve.Need others too and facts not false emotions.” That nearly indecipherable--yet still patronizing--tweet was soon followed by another. “#UnileverPollutes. Determined to solve fast. Too slow progress.” Clearly, Unilever’s online presence could use some serious editing assistance.
Ashraf says it remains to be seen whether Unilever will follow up on these new promises to finish the clean up, and she claims Unilever is setting their sights too low. Stated clean-up goals would leave mercury levels 25--that’s right, 25--time higher than levels allowed in places like Britain, India’s former colonizer.
Though the struggle is far from over, Ashraf’s song raises important lessons for the Left at a poignant moment. First, it points to the important role that art can play in internationalizing struggles. As a medium for engagement, the song has not only broadened awareness for the campaign, but actually played a critical role in moving the struggle forward, forcing the CEO to respond by leveraging worldwide pressure against a worldwide corporation. Similar tactics were utilized in the fight against South African apartheid, when poster art was used as a political weapon to link the struggle of Black South Africans to the fight for Black Power around the world, and especially in the United States.
“Kodaikanal Won’t” also draws on a long tradition of using music in political education. From union drives in the Appalachian coal mines, to the Paris Commune, and the fight to decolonize French West Africa, music has played a central role in relaying information, disseminating political arguments, and galvanizing activists’ morale.
And if the last month is any indication, we haven’t heard the last from Ashraf. Listen here to a recent rap she performed about the alienation of working in the corporate world:
I got job leads and call sheets,
Time sheets and spreadsheets,
no time to eat…
I’m rational, professional, I live inside my cubicle
How, how now can I think outside the box?
...We’re glitches in a system, we are pieces of a puzzle
No place to play, trees waste away
create bills we’re forced to pay
we walk on thin ice every day
can’t face the day, we waste away
so what’s the whole point anyway?