The oddest of things ‘go viral’: A kid saying “apparently” too many times; a man’s crowd-funded campaign to raise $10 to make potato salad; CCTV footage of a rapper’s elevator fight with his sister-in-law. There is no real formula to it, and you cannot orchestrate it. Unless you’re Kim Kardashian.
But, once in while — cutting through the deluge of cat videos and celeb leaks — serious things grab our attention. The Ice Bucket Challenge did it for the disease, ALS. Closer home, a rap video by a petite Chennai-born woman with a pixie haircut, a tattoo and in a half sari (just the right amount of attention-grabbing oddness), did it to expose a corporate giant’s malpractices.
On July 30, Sofia Ashraf (28) sang Kodaikanal Won’t, about the mercury poisoning caused by HUL’s (Hindustan Unilever) factory in the hill station. By August 1, “we had 1.5 million hits on the video,” Ashraf says. It would go on to get over 3 million hits. For two days, you couldn’t go on Facebook without seeing the video, or knowing who Ashraf is. About how she gave up religion, shaved her head, moved to Mumbai and sang songs of protest. The internet quickly labelled her a rebel. She had a Wikipedia page, and was being asked by the media for ‘messages for the youth’.
“The attention was overwhelming,” Ashraf says. “People would recognise me on the street, and ask to take selfies.” We’re at the Hive, the cultural space in Khar, where, two months after Kodaiknal Won’t, Ashraf is doing a public show for the first time in Mumbai. It’s also the last.
“It’s painful to leave Mumbai, but I’m moving back,” she says. For five years, Ashraf worked in advertising. Now, she’s giving it up to volunteer at a forest school (Cuckoo Forest School; cuckoochildren.blogspot.in) for rural children a few hours outside of Chennai.
“I’ll do it for two weeks every month. The rest of the time, I’ll be in Chennai, focusing on music,” she says. In the two months post the viral video, she says she’s been dedicating time to music a lot more — “I’m collaborating with other musicians, some of us have formed a band in Chennai, and I’ve been writing more, which is what I enjoy the most.”
Ashraf might come across as a tad whimsical. But as she talks about holistic learning, composing songs inside forests, and teaching kids to make toys out of waste material (she is an art student, so that’s what she hopes to teach), her eyes light up — with the same conviction they do in the video as she talks about saving the environment.
“In advertising, it takes years to have one of your ads released. But when some of the guys at O&M (Ogilvy & Mather, where she worked) called to tell me about one of my ads being released, I didn’t feel happy. It didn’t compare to the happiness I’d felt at the school.”
But she’s far from dismissive of the profession. The understanding of advertising came in handy with Kodaikanal Won’t. “We picked Anaconda [the rap was sung to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s song], which was already controversial. It had fans and haters, so we had an audience. HUL had a squeaky clean image on social media, so we decided to strike them there. And I’d just tried a half sari a few days back, so we decided to use it; and that image helped.” That’s the ad professional talking.
But there’s a flipside to internet fame. The comments on the video on YouTube are largely supportive, but some of it is vitriolic. Ashraf’s appearance has been criticised, so has her ability to sing. “I’ve been called a tranny. People have said ‘worst rapper ever’.”
But she was more worried about people deviating off topic: “There was a Reddit chain debating if I should get credit for the song, or if Nicki Minaj should.” But the 91,000-plus signatures supporting the campaign (jhatkaa.org/unilever) and pressurising HUL to clean up Kodaikanal’s mercury poisoning form the real testament of the video’s success. It even got the corporate giant to issue a statement.
Personally, Ashraf says the video acted as inspiration to take music more seriously. For, all this while, under the gutsy and energetic woman singing for a cause (something she’s been doing for a while, before the viral video) is a person who was insecure about her ability. “At the beginning of the year, I’d decided to give up rapping. I didn’t think I was good at it,” she says. “But the success of Kodaikanal Won’t has pushed me to pursue music more seriously.”
The gig at Hive is her farewell of sorts to Mumbai, the city that gave her “self-actualisation”, she says. But she’s not done with music. She’s actually just getting started. And while her next video may, or may not, go viral, Ashraf is a name to watch out for.
Catch Sofia Ashraf live
Where: The Hive, Chuim Village Road, Khar West, 96199 62969
When: 8.30pm onward
Tickets: Rs 300
Watch Kodaikanal Won’t