In a video that has clocked over 18 lakh views since it was uploaded on YouTube a week ago, Sofia Ashraf, a diminutive 28-year-old, parodies Nicky Minaj’s hit Anaconda as she sprawls on a train, dances on a boat and leads protesters demanding that Unilever clean up its “toxic sh*t”.
She grooves and raps with equal ease in a sari and a tee, asking the company to clean up the mercury waste it is accused of dumping in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. What is missing is the burqa.
Around seven years ago Ashraf was known as the “burqa rapper”. Clad in an all-black cloak and headscarf, she rapped on stage about prejudices against Islam in a post-9/11 world. Then based in Chennai, she was an “Islamic groupie” and part of an Islamic Youth Group in the city, including “a bunch of young Muslims who met once a month and discussed their religious texts”.
“I loved my religion, it defined me, and I would rap in its defence,” says Ashraf, who was the first in her family to don the burqa before her mother followed suit.
But sometime in 2010, Ashraf gave the burqa up, and renounced Islam. “When I started studying history and philosophy, I began looking at organised religion in a whole new context. It failed to make sense to me, and I lost faith,” she says.
It was a “life-shattering” decision, she says, one which her “orthodox” Malayali family is still to come to terms with. Her grandmother pleaded with her to return to the faith, and still blames her renunciation on “studying too much”. Her mother is waiting for the “old Sofia to return”, Ashraf says, adding regretfully that she had to bear the brunt of all the “backlash” from relatives.
Ashraf was subsequently branded by relatives as “mentally ill”, “possessed” and hauled to a psychiatrist.
Denouncing religion wasn’t easy, she admits. “Earlier, a book told me what to do and what not to, what is right and what is not. Now, I had to devise my own rules,” she says. The effect was so overwhelming, she adds, it was like a “homosexual coming out of the closet”.
Ashraf rapped about social/environmental causes with her band Peter Kaapi. At a music festival in 2010 in Chennai, she took on Dow Chemical’s handling of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The news of her performance eventually reached A R Rahman, for whom she recorded a song each in Bollywood movie Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Tamil movie Maryaan.
After sh e renounced Islam, Ashraf moved to Mumbai, where she joined Ogilvy and Mather. “Chennai was too familiar,” she says. Last month she quit O&M as Unilever, the target of her latest rap, was the ad agency’s client. The video Kodiakanal Won’t was also produced by an NGO.
Ashraf now looks forward to writing content for digital media and television, and rapping on the side whenever she gets a project she believes in.
An “Islam hangover” though lingers on. “My previous religion preached against vanity, so for me getting eyebrows shaped or legs waxed still amounts to that,” she says. It took “a very long time” for her to eat bacon or drink alcohol. When a friend was admitted in the ICU, she didn’t know whom to pray to.
These days she is reading up on the Internet about “how ex-Muslims are learning to live life without Islam”. Very occasionally, she goes to a mosque, temple, or church. “Like a music concert gives you an infectious, positive vibe, sometimes a visit to a religious place does the same,” she says.