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Tamil hip-hop in Malaysia : the history, politics, and sounds of diasporic identity
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posted on 18.05.2017by Manoharan, Pravina
This study examines past and contemporary configurations of Tamil identity as expressed through the different religious folk and musical experiences of the minority diasporic community in Malaysia. It seeks to show how deeply felt experiences of the colonial past still influence contemporary expressions of identity by Tamil hip-hop musicians in the context of the popular music industry in post-colonial Malaysia. In doing so, what is revealed is how narratives of identity within the Tamil diaspora in Malaysia are located across multiple discourses of historical, geographical, socio-economic, and political realities.
The ethnographic material gathered for this thesis was obtained through personal communications with senior members of the Malaysian Tamil community, members of the music industry, and contemporary hip-hop musicians to establish an understanding of how identity was and continues to be represented by and for the Tamil diasporic community particularly among Tamil hip-hop musicians. It is argued that throughout colonial rule, different religious, folk, and musical engagements became important avenues for the Tamil community to retain and reaffirm their cultural and religious identity, and to express themselves as a diasporic community against an imposed homogenised “British Indian identity”. Subsequently, in post-colonial Malaysia, the nation’s drive for more pro-Malay and pro-Islamic ideologies presents new challenges for the Tamil community to retain their diasporic identity, as the political ideologies of the nation have altered the way the Tamil image is represented within the nation’s social and cultural landscape.
The appropriation of an Americanised genre to express the alterity of Tamil-ness within the narratives of Tamil contemporary music presents a rich layer of interaction and tension between the global association of hip-hop and the cultural narratives of the Tamil community. This new engagement with the globalising world has in turn influenced the way the diaspora engages with India, as there has been a rise in musical collaboration between local Malaysian Tamil hip-hop musicians with the South Indian cinema industry. This relationship between India and the diaspora presents an opportunity for Tamil hip-hop musicians to explore the possibilities of engaging with multiple identities that reflect both their local Malaysian and wider Indian identity. It is evident that the Tamil identity in Malaysia is negotiated across multiple discourses, and the conflicting realities that emerge from the intersection of these discourses create and simultaneously restrict the space for the reaffirmation of Tamil identities as well as the refashioning of alternative identities.