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Sofia Ashraf: Navigating Identity & Activism on a Global Stage

“You don’t get what you deserve if you don’t believe you don’t deserve it in the first place,” Sofia says.

Sofia in action. Source: Sofia Ashraf

  “Then I saw this one girl rapping on stage and I was like ‘Hey, I can do that better than her.’”


The Beginning 

Sofia Ashraf grew up in an orthodox Muslim household in Chennai, where despite the conservative environment, her family enjoyed privilege and ensured she was brought up well. From a young age, it was instilled in her that she would eventually have an arranged marriage— a common expectation for women in her community.


Her mother often reminded her that her life would change significantly after marriage, and encouraged her to enjoy her youth while she could. During her school and college years, Sofia seized every opportunity to explore various interests, understanding that she might not have such freedom later. Her parents permitted her explorations as long as they were within the vicinity of the girls' college she attended. Sofia had a deep love for music, but in her devoutly religious household, singing or playing instruments was forbidden due to a scriptural belief that music was not allowed.


The turning point came during a college rehearsal when she saw a girl rapping on stage. Confident that she could do better, Sofia began to learn rap, marking the start of her journey into music.


Her college years were transformative, marked by interactions with supportive individuals. She recalls a performance where, as soon as she started rapping, the audience’s cheers shattered stereotypes about Muslim colleges. The performance resonated deeply with the women in the crowd, and a judge named Siddharth Hande approached her, offering her a spot at a platform for new artists. This opportunity was a dream come true. 

          

“Suddenly I had a talent pool that I was pulled in(to) and I started using my voice.”


The Call Off

Sofia began rapping and honing her skills, but her life took a significant turn when her engagement to a toxic and possessive man was called off. The breakup led her to introspect and question why she had tolerated such a relationship for so long/in the first place. “And then I realised, all my life I was told ‘you don’t deserve better than this’,” she says.


Constant criticism about her height, looks, outspokenness and performances had ingrained in her a sense of inadequacy.

“I started to form this mental block that if someone was willing to marry me despite all these flaws I was fine with it. But then I suddenly realised… having talent is not a flaw.”

She vowed never to hold herself back based on others' negative perceptions. Sofia embraced the belief that one must recognise their own worth in order to achieve what they deserve. This epiphany drove her to fully engage with her talents. She began using rap to address various environmental issues and combined this with her passion for writing, which she had previously utilised in advertising. This marked a new chapter in her life, where she refused to be limited by others' judgments.


“From that day on I decided I will never hold myself back because others tell me I’m not good enough.”


TWWSD - Then What Would Sofie Do

At some point, Sofia gave up on religion, a decision that profoundly affected her life. She had always relied on religious texts and elders to guide her moral compass, but once she abandoned religion, she faced the challenge of having to determine right and wrong for herself.

“I needed to put myself in a completely new environment where nobody knew me and I wanted to see ‘There, what would Sofie do?’ There, would Sofie avoid drinking because Sofie thinks drinking is wrong, or is it because other people would be seeing Sofie drinking and they would think it’s wrong?”, she stated.

She noticed however, that in familiar settings, she still defaulted to the Quran and the guidance of her elders. This realisation led her to decide she needed to place herself in an entirely new environment where she could independently discover her values. Sofia moved to Mumbai, ostensibly for a career in advertising, but primarily for self-discovery. 


Back then, platforms like Instagram didn't exist, so it was a significant moment for Sofia when she found a stage where she could voice her thoughts on environmental and social issues. She used these opportunities to express her thoughts on her religious identity and personal struggles. She remembers performing a rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," incorporating her experiences as a Muslim woman, which the audience loved. Another impactful performance was a rap battle about the Bhopal gas tragedy. Audience members from Bhopal approached her, expressing gratitude for her support, which made them feel less alone. 

“And that’s where it hit me— the impact all of this (her work) creates. When I saw that and that feeling-it’s addicting. It gave me some sort of purpose and I felt fulfilled and it gave me the courage to speak out and that’s where the activism part came out from me,” she expressed with elation.

This was the genesis of her activism, fueling in her the courage to address critical issues through her art. In the midst of this thrilling and liberating journey, her viral hit "Kodaikanal Won't" emerged, propelling her forward into directing and filmmaking. This creative expansion allowed her to utilise her varied skills to tell her stories authentically.         


The BTS

Sofia recounted how she and her team were running a campaign and discovered the potential of social media as a powerful platform for garnering attention. They had a crucial message to deliver and wanted to incorporate a creative aspect to effectively engage people. Sofia, who enjoyed creating parodies, was inspired by Nicki Minaj's popular song "Anaconda." She felt personally skinny-shamed by the song and thought, "Instead of skinny shaming, why can't we corporate shame?"


'Kodaikanal Won't' led to Union Carbide compensating 591 of their workers. Source: Sofia Ashraf

At that time, Sofia was working in advertising and understood that people gravitate towards familiarity. She realised that by using well-known music, she could capture the audience's attention and direct it towards the lyrics and the underlying message.



Sofia emphasises the importance of always continuing to be an audience to understand what resonates with listeners. Balancing the creative and content aspects involves writing to evoke emotions rather than to impress with technical skills. She advises, "You can ideate from the heart or the head but write from the mouth," meaning that one should write as if speaking directly to people. Sofia's approach is to push herself artistically while maintaining a strong connection with her audience, ensuring that her work always resonates on a personal level.

“Never stop being an audience so you never stop knowing what a listener feels like.”


Create & Destroy

Continuous learning is a big part of Sofia's life, as she illustrates, "Never stop learning—if I've gone for a month without learning, I feel dirty." She believes that pushing oneself to try new things is essential for growth. However, at the age of 35, Sofia found herself becoming overconfident in her skills and talent, which began to hinder her growth. This was in stark contrast to her younger years, when even being cast in a side role felt significant, as it was an opportunity to learn and gain new experiences. As she grew older, she worried that taking up smaller roles might be seen as beneath her, reflecting a phase many people go through where they believe there is nothing more to learn once they've mastered something.


Sofia understands that life is cyclical, involving both learning and unlearning. She likens her creativity to a bowl that she fills with knowledge and experience.

"I always say my creativity is like this bowl that I fill up with all the knowledge and experience I gain, and then I perform right so that I empty that bowl," she explains.

When she performs, she empties this bowl, and hitting a creative block indicates it's time to refill it by learning again. This cycle of filling and emptying keeps her artistic spirit alive. Sofia stresses the importance of not getting caught up in audience expectations to the point where you lose sight of your own desires and potential. "Not getting swept up in the wants of the audience that you forget what you want and what all you can perform," she notes. Although rap brought her fame, she also explored spoken word, directing, and drawing, demonstrating her belief that an artist should not be limited by audience expectations.


Reaching four million views on a video once led her to mistakenly believe that all those viewers were constantly thinking about her, a notion she had to dismantle to keep her ego in check.

"Because once you’ve hit 4 million views on your video, you start thinking that, oh, all these 4 million people are looking at me and thinking about me. Which is obviously not true, right?" 

This realisation is symbolised by her two tattoos: "create" and "destroy." The "create" tattoo reminds her to keep producing art, while "destroy" ensures she doesn't let her identity overshadow her work. Sofia believes that while it's good to find oneself, it's also important to challenge and destroy limiting beliefs about oneself, fostering growth and discipline.

"I’m not saying it’s wrong to have an identity, it’s good to find yourself, but if you say, 'I am this person only, I can only write when I’m motivated,' destroy that. What if you can work on yourself so much that you gain discipline" she advises.

This philosophy helps her maintain her integrity and authenticity as an artist.


Written by Aadya Kashyap

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

This article was adjudged the 'Best Feature', created in Week 6 of the program.

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