02/Yancham left and SVDP who collaborate on Mrithangam Rap series copy
There’s no fighting the smile that spreads across one’s face at the beginning of Best Friend, Shan Vincent de Paul’s latest track from his album IYAA, due to release in March. Produced with long-time collaborator Yanchan, it samples AR Rahman’s monster hit Mustafa from Kadhal Desam (1996). “We wanted to make a song that would challenge society’s ideas of masculinity, especially in the South Asian community. We wanted to visit a Tamil classic, so when he sent me the beat with the sample, the song immediately started writing itself,” says Paul, 37, who is powering through “Oh Gawd”, his maiden five-city India tour this month. “Initially I was coming here to shoot a couple of videos, but I’ve received so much love and attention from India for some time now, it became a tour,” he says.
While the Toronto-based Tamil rapper and director has been making waves in Canada’s hip-hop community for some time now, several fans in the subcontinent were introduced to him via ‘Mrithangam Raps’, a series of videos on YouTube that showcased a new genre — Carnatic rap, a fusion of the mridangam (played by Yanchan) and Paul’s percussive rapping over beats. “A couple of purists had a problem with me rapping or swearing; others didn’t want rap to be merged with Indian classical music because they don’t want to be associated with Black culture. But it’s about craft and not showmanship: rap is usually a very arrogant and braggadocious form. So, doing it sitting down, connecting with another person and an instrument, is about making it bigger than us,” says Paul, who debuted the first live performance of ‘Mrithangam Raps’ with Yanchan at VH1 Supersonic last week. After touring Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore, Paul will perform in Delhi on Friday, before wrapping up in Chennai.
The response to his work has been tremendous, he says, “But no place has made me feel at home the way Chennai has.”
Born in Jaffna, the youngest of five children, Paul and his family were forced to leave Sri Lanka during the civil war; they made their way to Canada, settling down in Brampton, Ontario, home to a large South Asian population. “It’s known as Bramladesh now, but we were one of the only brown families back then, hustling between jobs. That’s where I fell in love with rap, and I joined a number of groups. But I only found my voice much later,” says Paul, who brought out his debut album in 2016. “It was about a conversation with god; the second album was about my lover. But now I am ready to talk about my origins, where I come from, my struggles with racism, and talking about how the war in Sri Lanka impacted my people and continues to do so. ‘Mrithangam Raps’ is a way for me to reclaim my Tamil identity and celebrate it. We shot the seventh video of the series in Bangalore and will release it on Monday,” he says.