Unilever misinformed to save face: 'Kodaikanal' rapper Sofia

  • Vignesh Radhakrishnan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 07, 2015 19:14 IST

It started out as any other viral video, but the impact of Sofia Ashraf's 'Kodaikanal won't' rap song went beyond mere virality to have an impact that few achieve.

On July 31, Ashraf released her rap song on Youtube, taking on the multi-national consumer goods company Unilever for its alleged failure to clean up mercury contamination in it's former Kodaikanal factory.

Since then a lot of things happened.

The video went viral on the internet and trended continously for four days on Facebook. It has already garnered close to 2 million views on Youtube.

Nicki Minaj, whose 'Anaconda' song formed the base for Ashraf's rap, retweeted the song link saying 'wow'.

The petition created by Jhatkaa - the organisation which handled the digital campaign - received 55,021 signatures after the video was released.

Unilever responded to the concerns in a press release. They assured that the company will 'continue to act in a transparent and responsible manner regarding this matter'.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman tweeted that he 'don't accept different standards. All humans are same'. He also tweeted the company was determined to solve the issue soon.

Unlike many other 'songs with messages' which suffered a lonely internet death after their 15 minutes of fame, Ashraf's rap went on to achieve the purpose for which it was created. A rare moment in a superficial world of digital campaigns.

Ashraf opened up to HT in an e-mail interview, talking where about her song, the issue, conflict of interest and much more.


Sofia Ashraf. (Photo: Facebook)

Q . How did this idea come to you? Did someone approach you? Or you just thought about it on your own?

A. I have been wrongly painted as the sole crusader of the cause. The truth of the matter is that there is a collection of NGOs and inspiring activists behind the campaign who have been fighting for the cause for years. These include Vettiver Collective, Kodai Workers Association and The Other Media to name a few. They have been organising protests and releasing publications on the matter. They realised that HUL has a squeaky clean image on social media thanks to their sustainability campaigns and CSR activities. Nityanand
Jayaraman of Vettiver Collective approached me with the idea of launching a social media campaign to counter that image. That is how I came into the picture.

Q. Do you believe in the issue? Apart from the rapping, have you researched about it? Do you strongly believe that there is ample evidence that Unilever's mercury poisoning destroyed people's lives in Kodaikanal?

A. I have rapped for a number of causes in association with Vettiver Collective before this. They always give me time to research and the option of accepting the project only if I truly feel for the cause. But, when Vettiver Collective first approached me with this issue, I was honestly a little dubious. Their claims seem to be quite different from the reports Unilever was releasing. Only after some detailed research did I see that HUL was resorting to misinformation in order to save face. I have read excerpts from government-sanctioned reports that included expert diagnosis by occupational safety engineers and doctors, who have concluded that the factory did cause both environment pollution as well as mercury poisoning in the workers. But I think what convinced me the most were workers' testimonies.

I spoke to some of the workers and they showed me the callouses on their bodies and other such deformities. That made the struggle real for me and the number of casualities I'd read about evolved from a number in my head to faces of real people.

Q. NYT, Huffington post, Nicki Minaj's tweet - your rap is going places. About four years back journalist Sarah Hiddleston did an investigation for the Frontline on the issue and brought out some facts about Unilever's mercury poisoning. How do you compare these two - a serious magazine's investigation versus a rap which forced the world to see what is going on?

A. I think a strong protest needs a bit of both. This is a real cause with real activism behind it. While the video has had a tremendous impact on social media and has mounted pressure on the authorities involved to expedite the process, it is the published research that gives the cause authenticity. An awareness campaign without solid investigative journalism backing it up and a clear actionable end result in sight is quite pointless.

Q. A rap has made the entire world focus on the Kodaikanal issue. Do you think a push like this is required for all issues to get attention? Is this the way forward?

A. More than rap - which was just an execution style - it was the platform that helped get people's attention. The platform of social media. It is all about content creation and that is definitely the way forward. That is why most traditional communication and advertising agencies are setting up a content creation divisions. But, having said that, the number of shares and likes on a viral video does not always translate into results. Capitalising on the currency gained from your popularity is what makes all the difference

Q. Do you really think all those who saw the video understood the issue? Or do you think they were there for the song or something else? Any comments you want to make on this?

A. As Nityanand Jayaraman smartly put it, "I am under no illusion that a million views is a million people better informed." Journalists, activists, environmentalists and such are mostly already aware of the issue. Our goal was to plate up the message in a more palatable form and serve it to the general populace. Hence, my conscious decision to use a popular song already steeped in controversy and piggyback off its popularity. This has its merits and demerits. Yes, a large number of people focused on how I looked in the video or how bad the rapping was or who deserved artist credit for the music sample. But there was a larger and louder voice of people actually discussing the issue that drowned these comments out. This attitude restored my dying faith in humanity and the online community at large.


Sofia Ashraf. (Photo: Facebook)

Q. Did you get any response from Unilever after the rap? Has there been any other change in their approach after the sudden focus on the issue?

A. First of all, it would be unfair to say that Unilever has not paid any attention to the issue at all before the video. They have been addressing the issue, but their response was slow and unsatisfactory. Now that the issue is under public scrutiny, their response has been faster and the possibility of our original demands being met seem closer. In fact, Mr Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, has tweeted in response to the video
and that was our original goal of the campaign. All this is very heartening and we are hoping for the best.

Q. Are you planning to take up any other issue after this?

A. I am not consciously making an attempt to become a socio-political rapper. I am a content creator. The subject matter of that content can range from social causes to my personal struggle to even my love for shoes. The only thing I can say with surety is that all of my work will have an opinion and that opinion will be my own.

Q. I read an Economic Times article where your past employer at O&M said there is "no conflict of interest as she has put in her papers." How do you react to this? If you were still an employee at O&M when the video was released, would it have been illegal? How do you see this issue?

A. I had planned to leave Ogilvy for a while now as I wanted a break from traditional advertising. I'd put in my papers on July 1, so everything worked out for the best. Yes, it would have been messy if I had been working for Ogilvy when this video released not just because of our company policy but more importantly as a matter of principle. Lampooning a client while they pay your bills is ethically wrong and not something I condone.

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