06 Aug 2015 21:11 IST

Holding Unilever accountable, one tune at a time

Rapper Sofia Ashraf’s ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ highlighting mercury poisoning has gone viral on social media and made the company take notice

This past week, Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf’s music video, Kodaikanal Won’t, in which she raps about the damage that Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory has caused in Kodaikanal, has gone viral to such an extent that even The New York Times thought fit to write about it. But the Vettiver Collective, which produced the video and launched this campaign online in collaboration with Jhatkaa, an organisation committed to building grassroots citizen power across India, doesn’t just want Unilever to clean up Kodaikanal, they’re also pushing for ‘honourable’ compensation for the victims.

Sofia says it was a conscious decision to set her rap to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s song. “ Anaconda is an earworm – it’s the kind of song that sticks in your head. Usually, people go for original tunes; but that doesn’t sell, satire does. From my experience in the advertising industry, I thought taking a parody angle would work.”

Leveraging social media

Speaking about how she came to be involved in the cause, Mumbai-based Sofia says: “I was brought on in a creative capacity a few months ago, but this song didn’t materialise until about a month back. The writing and recording of the song took about a day and shooting the video took another day. Then, the editing and mixing took another day, so I’d say we put in three days worth of work for the end product.”

According to Pooja Kumar, a volunteer at Vettiver Collective, the objective was always to leverage social media to target the polluter. “Unilever has a huge budget for advertisements, so mainstream media was never going to work for us. We knew right from the start that social media was the best way to get word out, but we didn’t think it would blow up like this. We had expected to have to use Sponsored Posts on Facebook and all,” she says. As of August 6, the video has 1.8 million hits on YouTube; it was uploaded a week ago.

“Jhatkaa and Logical Indian were very helpful,” Pooja adds.

Music and poetry

This isn’t Sofia’s first outing as a rapper. She was featured in a song in the movie Jab Tak Hai Jaan, with music by Academy Award winner AR Rahman.

“I love rap because it combines two of my favourite things, music and poetry,” she says. “I had done extensive research myself and had been given lots of it by Vettiver as well before I penned the song. The more I read about it, the more I was convinced that this was a cause I could get behind,” says Sofia.

Sofia's feelings about the sibject seemed to have hit the right notes and this was further proved when the video reached the Nicki Minaj, the rapper whose tune Sofia's rap is set to.

Mercury pollution

Unilever took over the thermometer plant in Kodaikanal from Pond's India Ltd. The factory was moved from the United States to India in 1982 after the plant owned there by its parent, Cheesebrough-Pond's, had to be dismantled following increased awareness about the pollution caused by such plants. Following serious backlash on social media, Unilever CEO Paul Polman tweeted, “Working actively solution kodai ‪#‎UnileverPollutes‬ for several years already determined to solve. Need others too and facts not false emotions.”

The petition on Jhatkaa demands that Unilever clean up Kodaikanal after having polluted the ground and water with poisonous mercury for years. To sign the petition, click here.