OJ Da Tamil Rapper x Bo Sedkid

OJ Da Tamil Rapper has been something of an enigma, hiding out in the hilltops of Nuwara Eliya where he tends to a farm. Having started out as a contemporary of Krishan Maheson, way back in the early 2000s, he never quite garnered mainstream attention. Nevertheless, he continued honing his craft, eventually sharing his music on Soundcloud. It wasn’t until the first KACHA KACHA in 2015 that OJ performed in Colombo, after more than a decade. Since then, he has collaborated with many artists, slowly but surely making his name known in the local rap scene. In 2020, he released "Naan Ezhuthita Kadhai", a song that speaks from the perspective of a Malayaga Tamil and the hardships faced by this community. Across his work, what is notable is his distinct lyricism and profound aptitude for the Tamil language that sets him apart. His voice is that of a poet.

 

Bo Sedkid, the producer alias of artist and filmmaker Muvindu Binoy, is a versatile musician, known as a beatmaker and more recently as a singer-songwriter. He has produced music for the likes of Q, 6ZN and Minol. His musicality is quite evident across the broad range of his output. His beats are distinct for their use of foley sound effects and sampling of Sri Lankan music. With 2020's “Full Moon Poya Day” EP, he pulled together the sporadic remixes released over the that year, where he revisited Sinhalese popular music from the past decade and recontextualized them into an alternative and contemporary sound. On May 13, 2022, he collaborated with Mirshad Buckman of Paranoid Earthling and Kasun Nawarathne for the protest song "PALAYALLA" that captured the spirit of the protest movement.

Photography by Shehan Obeysekara

By the time you read this Wake Up will be history. The track was written and recorded in January 2022 and the video finished in March, yet it predicted the political-economic crisis that struck in April. “The Sri Lankan Spring”, some call it, recalling the peoples’ movements in Tunisia and Egypt that gave rise to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011–12. So now the music video arrives to you late, but nevertheless timely. Having pre-processed the crises and the protests currently in play, Wake Up’s montage possesses some visionary power. Rendered with film grain, dust and scratches it emerges as already archival. Might it serve as a kind of divinatory tool? What does it reveal?

 

As figures in Colombo’s burgeoning post-war hip hop scene, Bo Sedkid and OJ Da Tamil Rapper have known of each other for some time yet Wake Up is their first and only collaboration, prompted by an invitation from the curators of Thattu Pattu. While Bo is something of a recluse, preferring obscurity over celebrity, OJ has earned a reputation on the island for his lyricism, with several videos on YouTube and a mixtape as evidence of his skills. I’m told that prior to the pandemic, the scene was blossoming with "every kid coming with beats and rapping in their mother tongues." Since Covid restrictions put an end to gigs, activities have shifted to productions released on socials. So it follows that Bo and OJ never met in person to make Wake Up. Instead they recorded their parts separately and shared digital files. 

As you read this, you probably already know Wake Up as it spread across platforms – finding new and different audiences, surpassing the limitations of underground events in Colombo. Indeed, the music video’s meme-like mash-up sequences present some memorable sequences. For example, the Sri Lankan nationalist and economic reformist J.R Jayawardene surfs on top of a Nike branded gas cylinder, careening through space before crashing into the moon in an explosion. The architect of the nation remade as a corporate controlled suicide bomb. Cut to a cow chopping up lines of milk powder with a Bank of Ceylon Gold Visa card that it then snorts with a rolled up greenback. Another sequence replaces Chris Rock’s face at the 2022 Oscar awards with that of Ajith Nivard Cabraal. In Wake Up’s satirical dream world, the former state finance minister and Governor of the Central Bank who is accused of misappropriating state funds, cops the receiving end of Will Smith’s fist. Are cartoon parodies of governmental violence merely a weapon of the weak? Observed now in retrospect, these images are peculiar precursors to those being produced and shared by the Gota Go! protest movement.

Watching from Berlin, Wake Up signals to me a generational rift. I’m taken by one particular sequence, in which an Andy Warhol image of Marilyn Monroe’s face is superimposed over an outline of the island nation. Affixed to its southern base are a pair of shapely legs, wrapped in fishnet stockings that pour into a pair of black stiletto pumps. This strange hybrid feminised form reclines on top of a night club bar. From the bottom of the screen sprout duplicate white male figures sporting safari suits and skinny neckties. They dance a kind of groovy twist, their eyes closed in ecstacy. In a later sequence a super-sized dancing baby, an early internet meme, exhibits a similar twisting reflex, but with its hands stiff and forearms taut its moves are weaponised. Buildings crash before it as the giant toddler waddles across downtown Colombo, its infantile gestures elevated as insurrectionary destruction.

 

If Marilyn Monroe-Lanka depicts the liberal fantasies of the West’s post-war baby boomers, is the dancing baby a stand-in for digital natives — Gen Z and the millenials? If so, what repressions are they struggling to overcome? Later, another gigantic baby appears, this one throwing punches and high kicks. In one sequence it stands side by side with Godzilla, who had earlier scorched the Sri Lankan parliament building with its fiery blue breath. I’m no psychoanalyst, but these sequences suggest a desire to smash down and raze to the ground what has been established since independence. Tabula rasa from which to start anew.

 

OJ earns a living as a farmer, so he knows first hand the struggles of the rural labouring classes. Nuwara Eliya where he lives in the central highlands district, is an area known for its cooler climate. It is also home to a significant community of ‘Hill Country Tamils’, who were historically recruited from South India in the 1800s by the British to work on tea plantations, often as indentured labourers. These Tamils remain among the poorest socio-economic groups in the country.

 

Another sequence from Wake Up’s delirium lifts footage of land workers from The Song of Ceylon (1934), a British documentary film produced by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. Although made almost 90 years ago, I know it to be an iconic yet flawed representation of the island and its inhabitants that has endured as a point of reference. I wonder what its depictions of traditional Sinhala life at the onset of modernity sparked in the national imaginary as the country strived towards independence? I expect such visions were polarising during the thirty year civil war, so how is it now received by this generation of Lankan youth? A hint is given as the footage is paired with the face of a popular YouTuber, PewDiePie, who appears in a box in the corner of the screen. I read his superimposed reactions as an ironic gesture, as we trace continuities between colonial propaganda and the nationalist ideal, which has failed to unify the island. Recurring as an imperial fantasy, then a national dream and now as farce the labourers are always set-up to lose; their entrusted efforts, appropriated and squandered over generations by political elites. 

 

Assessing the task before him, OJ told me he took the opportunity to address “the people” — a public at large — and in his opening refrain he rouses listeners in the three prominent languages of Lanka, in order: Tamil, English and Sinhala:

 

Wake up, makkal!

Wake up, people!

Wake up, janiyani!

Wake up, everybody, wake up!

 

Drawing from his day-to-day experiences and surroundings, OJ describes the situation of farmers forced to shift rapidly into organic farming without prior education, and who consequently suffered a substantial loss of yields. He recounts the difficulty of buying gas and fuel, dealing with corruption and black market profiteering to fulfil basic needs. With his prose he paints a bigger picture — a contemporary historical tableau — alerting those busy with their daily struggles, to "what is really going on."

 

"We knew things were going to get worse", Bo tells me over a video call, "but we didn’t know it would happen so quickly." Then again, an opinion I often hear among diasporic Lankans (and I am not specifically referring to Tamils) is that the Sinhalese majority are now experiencing what the minorities already know. On reflection, he describes the music video as a "kick in the guts" — emphasising OJ’s delivery in Tamil, not Sinhala, the language that the majority speaks, or English that serves as a "link language". (Notably Bo does not speak Tamil.)

 

Another character is a Guy Faulkes mask. Taken from Alan Moore’s cult graphic novel V for Vendetta (1982), the mask was adopted by the Anonymous movement of ‘cyber-vigilantes’. At first nodding atop the roof of a black stretch limousine, then traversing the surface of the moon, the mask is affixed to a hastily cropped cartoon body. Clad in mediaeval armour, its remaining limb brandishes a blood-stained sword. It would seem that this weapon — a symbol of sovereign power — has been taken from the Sri Lankan lion. Liberated from the national flag, the icon is hijacked and reconfigured with Anonymous as a speculative hybrid galloping through the clouds.

 

There is another mask of some significance, a folk traditional ‘Kolam’ mask with crooked teeth that arises from the terrorised city scape. Its appearance corresponds to a shift in the music, as OJ switches to a more formal, poetic style of Tamil for a flow that might serve to motivate his listeners:

 

You be brave, don't move from your path,

forget everything and fly away.

Don't worry, stand up, walk again,

find a way to grow with confidence,

let go of the easy way,

work for it, you will be rewarded.

Search for good things having understood these.

Let go of that which isn't yours.

Someone should see you and change their lives,

that's also a part of life.

 

I’m advised that the Kolam mask represents the traditional values and trauma of an older generation and Aang from the animation Avatar the Last Airbender (2005–08), is summoned to do battle with it. In the series Aang, a pubescent 12-year-old with powers over the air element, is pitted against a more experienced opponent, Ozai, who has power over fire. The series culminates in an epic duel in which Aang must defeat Ozai to restore order to the world. It becomes a test of Aang’s ‘unbendable’ spirit, less it be corrupted and destroyed.

 

So Wake Up also frames itself in a battle of good against evil, or perhaps what is corruptible and what is righteous. Or is it simply a demand for justice by a generation awakening to this legacy? I must admit, I find Wake Up’s final sequence bewildering. Lord Shiva appears against a background of Christian iconography, what looks to me as a chapel ceiling painted with scenes of heaven. A toothy green beast from local folklore appears on the other side of the screen. Anonymous, poised on a throne of swords from Game of Thrones (2011–19), sits between them. I struggle to read this composition. Shiva against a backdrop of heaven, represents the Hindu and Christian communities whom I understand are largely Tamil. The other significant religions on the island are not represented, namely Buddhism and Islam. The green beast is something local and traditional, perhaps indicating the animistic beliefs of those who do not distinguish themselves from nature, while Anonymous speaks of lulzy net culture and its discontents, now often associated with the Alt Right. This closing sequence centres the vigilante and in its final frames Wake Up brings us face to face with a bearded figure, rivers of tears pour down his cheeks as he levels a gun. The final drum flourishes sync to a flash, searing an after image onto our retinas: the face of the assassin.

Rude Awakenings

By Sumugan Sivanesan with contributions from Imaad Majeed

Wake Up

Athma Liyanage - Liyathambara

Iraj - J Town Story

Indrachapa Liyanage - Jeewithe Sihinayan

Smokani  - Wat u gon’ do

Chamara Weerasinghe - Sithin Witharak

Big Doggy - Stuthi (Feat. Livid)

Iraj & Ruki - Ill Noize

Drill Team - Diariya (Feat. Manasick)

Mohideen Baig - Giri Hel Mudune

Playlist

We asked OJ Da Tamil Rapper and Bo Sedkid to curate a playlist that would situate their work in their local context. They chose to highlight songs by their idols of yesteryear, their contemporaries, as well as musicians with whom they have collaborated. They have found these works to be inspiring and influential to their own explorations. 

The audio recordings contained in this playlist have been used for non-commercial, educational purposes in compliance with the fair use provisions of the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003.