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Sofia Ashraf: From Rap to Revolution

On a normal Sunday afternoon, over a Zoom call with miraculously clear audio, I, and a few other lucky students, got to witness Sofia Ashraf spontaneously burst into a rap verse. She extended the ending of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, combining electrifying lyrics, a catchy beat, and a meaningful message, to transform the tame lullaby into a powerful song of identity and self-expression. Along with providing us a glimpse into her vivid personality, this moment also reaffirmed one fact: Sofia, who works as a rapper, director, writer, and content creator, is an artist who is truly passionate about using her voice to make a positive impact in the society around her.

A Beat Of Inspiration

Sofia’s creative journey began when she was in college. Having grown up in an austere, orthodox environment, she knew that she would eventually end up in an arranged marriage, with no opportunity to explore her interests. This is what led her to try her hand at every option presented to her. She dabbled in acting, painting, and a number of other arts, until she stumbled upon music. This piqued her interest, and Sofia knew she wanted to be a musician of some sort. The only issue was that she had no experience playing instruments, and couldn’t hit a note to save her life. But all it took was one moment to spark her love for rap. “I saw one girl rapping on stage,” she says. “I was like, hey, I can do that better than her!

Her decision to pursue her passion for the creative arts was fuelled by another opportunity for self-reflection, which followed the ending of her toxic engagement. She realised that she had developed a highly negative self-image - a product of having been constantly criticised for her appearance and her personality while growing up. This had discouraged her from making the correct decisions for herself and removing herself from an unhealthy environment. In a moment of vulnerability, she told us “That day, when the engagement broke, I decided - I will never hold myself back just because others tell me I’m not good enough.” It took a lot of hard work and self-motivation for Sofia to push herself to pursue her dreams. Ultimately, she says that it was one statement of belief that pushed her through this difficult time: “You don’t get what you deserve, if you don’t believe you deserve it in the first place.” 

Under the pretext of working in advertising, Sofia moved away from home. She took this “self-actualizing journey” with the purpose of gaining some amount of independence, which eventually led her to give up religion as well. She found it to be extremely difficult to let go of something that had been so heavily ingrained in her lifestyle. She says, “I realized that while I was in familiar backgrounds and familiar situations, I would still fall back on the Quran, and the Hadith, and the mummy-papa, and the friends. I needed to put myself in a completely new environment, where nobody knew me, and I wanted to see - what would Sofie do?” 

She moved from advertisement to a career in content creation, which allowed her to learn filmmaking and directing. This was a pivotal point in her career, as Sofia discovered she could culminate all of her skills to create a niche career, all for herself. “I realised, these multiple things that I’ve been doing - writing, drawing, painting, rapping - it all came together for me with filmmaking, and I realised, this works for me now.” 

The Voice For Progress 

Sofia’s work on projects such as “Dow Vs Bhopal” and “Kodaikanal Won’t” has gone viral, earning her a huge audience for her activism and creative talent. When asked about what encouraged her to pursue this field, she says “I was extremely fortunate to have come in contact with people who worked in the activism field.” 

While she was in college, she got together with other musically inclined classmates, who were all in search of a platform where they could speak about things that truly mattered to them. She fondly recollects a particular performance during a competition that sticks with her to this day. “We got on stage and then started performing the rap,” she says. “Then, this wave started from the audience of women just going ‘Yeah, we feel this. We get this.’ This raucous applause started rising.” It was after this performance that she was approached by one of the judges of the contest, who appreciated her perspectives and offered her an opportunity to participate in Justice Rocks - a music event that gave artists a platform to express their standpoints on a myriad of social issues and themes. “They gave me first, an opportunity, second, an opening and an avenue, and third, a voice,” she reminisces gratefully. 

A highlight of Sofia’s career was her music video ‘Dow Vs Bhopal’, which aimed to raise awareness about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. This video started out as a live performance, and through the entertaining and engaging medium of a rap battle, Sofia aimed to encourage engineers in Chennai to reject job offers from Dow. Performing this piece gave her an insight to the sheer impact her work could have on people. “These people from the audience came, and they held my hand, and said ‘We’ve been fighting this for so many years, and if a girl from Tamil Nadu can write a song for this, we feel less alone.’” With such widespread response to her work, Sofia saw the emotional impact of her rapping for the first time. “That feeling, it’s addictive, you know?”, she reflects. “However much we try to paint ourselves as altruistic, there’s also some sort of validation we seek. It gave me some sort of purpose as an artist, more than just writing about whatever daaru-shaaru, whiskey, bottle, you know? I felt fulfilled.” 

Sofia also acknowledges the risk behind combining activism and art in the age of social media, where cancel culture is ever-present. She believes that artists choose not to speak up on issues because they are scared, not because they are unwilling to. They fear that they don’t possess accurate information, and don’t know enough to speak up. She also believes that the solution to this is to help out other artists and educate them instead of attacking them. She tells us, “Instead of saying “I will cancel you if you don’t speak out”, say ‘Come, let me give you that information, let’s do this as a community, let’s do this collaboratively.’” 

Changing the Rhythm

If her extensive career has taught Sofia one thing, it’s that people can use their passions and interests to influence changes in their environment and fight for what they believe in. She shares some advice for younger activists: 

  1. Don’t create to impress people, create to make them feel.” 

  2. “Never stop being an audience.” 

  3. “Have a part of you that you protect from the audience. Art needs to be accessible, not the artist.” 

Through her music career, as well as her work on projects such as Netflix India’s Behensplaining, Sofia Ashraf has blazed a trail for aspiring activists and changemakers, showing them that it is truly possible to utilise their passions to make an effective, productive change in society.

Written by Sia Thilakar

Sia wrote this article as a participant of the Media-Makers Fellowship's April'24 cohort.

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