Rapping Her Protest
Sofia Ashraf’s rap music video ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ went viral on social media for its brave stance in asking Unilever to take accountability for the toxic mercury contamination from its erstwhile factory in Kodaikanal. Youthrise’s Ananda B. Pandit spoke to Sofia about the issue, her experience creating the video and how Youthrise’s member base can help.
Known as the ‘Princess of Hill Stations’, Kodaikanal is one of India’s most beautiful and peaceful destinations. However, it also once served as the home to corporate giant Hindustan Unilever Limited’s (HUL) mercury thermometer factory. Displaying utter disregard for its paradisiacal home or its own workers, Unilever irresponsibly dumped its toxic mercury waste at the site, leaving many workers dead, and poisoning the soil. Till date, children born in the area suffer from the effects of mercury poisoning. Unilever has done absolutely nothing to clean up the site or compensate any of the affected workers or their families.
Protests, marches, demonstrations, restraining orders, this issue has seen it all. NGO’s and groups like Kodaikanal Workers Association and Vettiver Collective have been fighting for justice for over 14 years. However, HUL just didn’t seem to comprehend the message clearly enough so Vettiver decided to hit HUL where it hurt them the most. With the backing of Jhatkaa.org, they set out to target HUL’s squeaky clean social media reputation.
Enter Sofia Ashraf, who was approached to join the campaign in a creative capacity. Initially, she herself was not entirely convinced and doubted the realities of the issue. However, after doing due diligence and researching the matter, she realized that Unilever was fabricating a lot of their claims in their report. Brave as ever, she decided to take on this exciting challenge.
We spoke to her about the process of putting this campaign together and were amazed by the simplicity and seamlessness with which it was carried out. She says, "Writing comes really easily to me so it took about half a day to write the song. I then went to a friend who has a studio in Chennai, who agreed to record it for me for free.” The spontaneous shoot was carried out within 24 hours, with zero budget, and a passionate and fun crew. The protestors and others in the video were informed and well versed with the cause and their drive and passion for it are evident in the video.
Discussing the creative campaign and use of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda beat, Sofia tells us just how well the use of popular culture works for this issue. “The idea is to grab people’s attention. People are smart, they (watch the video) and then go do their research, as shown by the online conversations. Social media campaigning is all about grabbing attention for a cause and trusting people to be smart enough to take it forward.” Further connecting with viewers and driving the relevance of it to everyone across the country, she has written the song naming brands that we use on a daily basis. Lyrics such as “Washed their hands off Kodai with Lifebuoy” and “There’s nothing Fair or Lovely about this trial” allows viewers to seriously think about their personal interaction with Unilever. “It boils down to the people working on-ground and the awareness built. I'm not someone who believes in lighting candles and human chains unless it translates into actionable positive results,” says Sofia.
Unilever on the other hand has been avoiding compensating workers or cleaning up their mess. However, beyond campaigning, there is a lot more to achieve. The demands of the campaign are for cleanup standards to be held to UK standards and all workers to be compensated. The treatment of the workers was tragic to say the least, with lack of even shower facilities in a place where they were made to interact with toxic chemicals.
As aware and responsible members of society, all of us can contribute to this issue in our own way. “We know public memory, and especially the internet’s memory, is short-lived, so we need help sustaining interest in the story, and to keep the shares and pressure going.” Unilever is banking on people forgetting the issue and that just cannot happen.
We are inspired by Sofia’s creativity and courage and hope that all who read this follow the campaign closely and are inspired to use their best talents and skills to do what’s right!
Watch Sofia’s Kodaikanal Won’t
Ananda B. Pandit is the Founder of Youthrise and a former student of Kodaikanal International School (Class of 2010).