South Asian artists using their own language and the sounds they grew up with are breaking into the entertainment industry thanks to a new music label based in Toronto.
The label, called Maajja, launched early this year. It’s helping artists record songs in Tamil and other regional languages in a bid to break down the stigma facing music from different cultures in the mainstream recording business. They are helping artists get on traditional radio and online streaming platforms, while helping them build their music careers.
Naveeni Philip, also known as Navz-47, says the the music she’s making with the label is helping other young Tamil people feel connected to their culture and language.
“I hear a lot of people saying that, ‘Oh, I want to learn Tamil because I want to understand your songs better.’ I think that was the best compliment that I’ve received so far,” Philip, 31, told CBC Toronto.
“I think it’s really important for the younger generation to be proud of their mother tongue because I wanted to make it sound cool.”
Philip, who’s from Whitby, Ont. but was born in Sri Lanka, says what makes Maajja stand out is how it allows artists to be raw and authentic without barriers, something many young South Asian artists want to do as a way to express themselves, and something they may not find a space for in the mainstream music industry.
Amirthegan Wijayanathan, also known as Ami, makes music in English, but with stylistic differences. He says he’s connecting with his roots through a blend of what he’s gained learning about other genres and his own Indian classical training, also known as sangeetham or carnatic music.
“I felt like for a long time, it wasn’t possible to be completely and truly myself,” said Wijayanathan, who’s 26.
“That’s why I strayed to genres that I would normally listen to, hearing on the radio. Being [at Maajja], it’s just a totally different world for me.
“I know based off of my sangeetham training and the way that I say things and my cadences, I do carry a lot of the things that I practised in sangeetham, I just don’t know if people would recognize that.”
The Markham-based artist says his musical journey under Maajja is also about learning to embrace his culture.
“When I was in high school, in my headphones, I would listen to a lot of carnatic music, a lot of Tamil music,” he said.
“But my friends and just the crowd that I was a part of, I didn’t feel like it was welcome as much as it should have been.. I’ve always felt a little lost in places.”
South Asian music can make it to ‘world stage,’ CEO says
For Noel Kirthiraj, the CEO and co-founder of Maajja, the music label’s purpose gets at the root of what South Asian people are known for — and encourages others to find those roots.
“Even though music arts in general is a big part of our culture, I never felt that either myself or the people around me ever got the encouragement from the families to pursue arts.”
He says by giving a chance to independent South Asian musicians and artists and showing people it’s possible to make a career with music if they get the right support, he hopes to see more South Asian artists making music and reaching the same success that Latin music has had.
“For us, it’s about creating opportunities so that we have more and more artists who are South Asian, Tamil that could be on the world stage.”
He says there was a time when people may have felt embarrassed listening to regional music or music in their mother tongue, especially if they were from immigrant families.
“But I think we’ve been here long enough as a community — you have friends, your kids are growing up in a very integrated fashion, where you are now exposing your music to them,” he told CBC Toronto.
“I think exposure in the mainstream media, what that allows is it normalizes it. And for the kids who may be born here, who may not have the direct connection to the language or even the culture, now this is going to make them curious. And definitely they’re going to feel comfortable to go explore it more openly,” Kithiraj added.
Wijayanathan says he hopes younger generations see the influence that a music initiative like this could have on them.
“I hope it makes them feel like they have roots here,” he said. “We’re kind of creating these roots for them.”
Philip, who arrived in Canada when she was 12, says she hopes what her music and what Maajja is doing will help younger Tamil people feel comfortable in their skin.
“I struggled so much ’cause I felt like I don’t belong there, I don’t belong here,” Philip said.
“In Tamil, we say Anthiram, you’re always in the middle, you don’t know where to go. I felt that when I was much more younger and when I first came to Canada and I don’t want the younger generation to feel that way. You can build home wherever you go.”