The mridangam rapper who is re-imagining hip-hop

Going purely by Shan Vincent de Paul’s videos, you expect him to be a fast-speaking, cocky young man. But over a phone call, the Toronto resident sounds calm and measured in thought. His eccentric series of ‘Mridangam Raps’ shot him to global fame, especially in the South Asian community, and kick-started his first India tour this week.

He recently débuted the Mridangam Raps series live at the VH1 Supersonic Festival in Pune with his collaborator Yanchan (Yawn-sin). Yanchan plays the mridangam — beats you would expect to hear in a sabha, alongside the konnakol. Except, the konnakol here is replaced by Shan’s raps. Bobbing his head to the beats, eyes closed, he throws bars about representing brown rappers, Tamil culture, and the immigrant experience.

The latter forms an integral part of his third and latest album: songs from which he will be playing at the India tour. “Made in Jaffna is the most autobiographical work I’ve done so far. It tells my story from Sri Lanka to Canada, on the war in Sri Lanka, my Catholic upbringing in Toronto and so on. I have touched upon these things in my previous work, but this is the first time I am finally telling my story and connecting with my Tamil and brown audience,” says Shan.

Escaping a war

Shan was six when his parents decided to leave Jaffna in 1986, right when the Sri Lankan Civil War was brewing. “We moved to Montreal as refugees, without any papers, relying on an underground network of immigrants,” he says. His family relied on the South Asian community, as they moved from Montreal to Toronto, who would help them in getting passports, jobs and other connections.

The youngest of five boys in his family, Shan recalls how his parents worked multiple jobs in restaurants and factories, and at one point, “my entire family delivered newspapers. We would take turns, waking up at 5 am.” Eventually, they established a furniture store, which became the family business. Music, Tamil or otherwise, however, was not a major part of the Vincent household. “Which is why hip hop was so special to me. It was something I discovered on my own,” he says.

The mridangam rapper who is re-imagining hip-hop

Like many immigrant brown kids in the US and Canada before him, hip hop became an identity for Shan. “I remember watching a music video by DMX, and understood there was a whole different world, raw and rooted in authenticity,” he adds. Having been a creative child, whether it was drawing or writing short stories, the lyricism in hip hop drew him in. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he began rapping and recording videos professionally. “I didn’t grow up with any classical training. But with rap, you don’t need any of that to be able to tell your story.”

Getting the Classical on

Without a background in Classical music, his Mridangam Raps seem even more experimental. “I had worked with Yanchan before on a few tracks, and one day thought why don’t we try doing just the raps with him playing the mridangam. We recorded the video on an iPhone and just posted it. It immediately blew up, and we knew we were onto something,” says Shan. However, he did delve a little into Carnatic music before recording, and the one thing he found starkly different between his experience in rapping and Carnatic was less about the technicalities, and more about the attitude.

“Rap is a culture where you are bragging and boasting, trying to tell you are the best by being loud and abrasive,” he says, adding, “Carnatic, on the other hand, is humble. You perform sitting down on the ground. So rapping while I was entering that world, I learnt how humbling and spiritual it is. You can see it on the performers’ faces too, that they are tapped into this higher energy, connected to something greater.”

Despite Shan’s understanding of how different the two worlds are, his videos have received their share of flak from purists, clutching their pearls at the ‘divine’ mridangam being used next to curses so common in raps. “That’s inevitable, when someone’s world as they are used to is being interrupted,” says Shan, not too bothered. “But it is not even about the swear words, some come with their own prejudices against rapping and black culture, and I have no tolerance for that,” he adds.

India Tour

  • February 11: Mumbai – Master Class @ True School of Music
  • February 12: Dharavi – Workshop @ Dharavi Rocks
  • February 14: Bengaluru @ Fandom
  • ‪February 22: Chennai @ Global Isai Festival 2020
  • ‪February 29: Chennai @ Bay146

The challenge now for Shan is to focus on how to evolve the series, both visually and sound-wise. “I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing,” he says. Remarking that India was going through a renaissance of hip hop, he says, “The culture of rap fuses with South Asian culture effortlessly.” On this India tour, he looks forward to collaborating with the artistes he meets here.

For now though, he has a loyal collaborator and critic in his four-year-old daughter, Mimi, who spits bars in her toothy way, while he beatboxes. “If she has liked any of my songs, I will know it is good,” he adds.

Shan will be in Chennai at the Global Isai Festival on February 22, and at Bay 146, Savera, on February 29.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *