From the havoc and bustle of Chennai to the distant shores Calgary, Cartel Madras is a voice for immigrants, and for women everywhere. With a musical style influenced by themes of gender identity and radical acceptance of one’s self, infused with raw, sexual energy, sisters Priya, “Eboshi” and Bhagya, “Contra” Ramesh are taking the global music scene by storm. We got talking to the eclectic duo, as they revealed all about their music, their perspectives on immigrant and queer identities, and the deeply personal stories that influence their art.
Blending the musical stylings of Trap, House and Gangster Rap, the Tamilian sisters aim to be the voice of queer people of colour. With a sound influenced by their desi roots, the sisters are spearheading a new genre of Trap music that they call “Goonda rap”. Known for their confrontational, high-energy style of performing, Cartel Madras hopes to subvert the normative roles which are applied to immigrant women and to unabashedly and authentically represent the under-represented.
Often compared to watching a full-blown riot unfold before one’s eyes, the sister’s stage presence is one to be reckoned with. Combining elements of the underground trap, queer and punk scenes, the sisters take to the stage like an explosion waiting to happen, rapping with impressive ease over booming beats that blur the lines between genres, genders, languages and continents.
Their new single entitled Goonda Gold is a party anthem with a vital message; that of empowerment, and of unapologetic individuality. The video for the track, which released on the 7th of October, 2019 chronicles the artist’s desi influence in the form of compelling visuals and the Goonda’s own brand of eye-catching fashion. Here are excerpts from our tete-a-tete.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves, where are you from? Where did you grow up?
We’re originally from Chennai, we were born in Tamil Nadu. We moved to Calgary, Canada, when we were quite young. It was quite a conservative province, possibly the most conservative Canadian province, and a very interesting place for two South Indian girls to grow up.
When did you embark on your musical journey?
We’ve been making music for our entire lives, but the decision to create Cartel Madras, and become a rap group started a little bit later. We had been writing rap for a long time, but we started writing together probably only in 2016-17, and Cartel Madras became an entity in 2017.
What is the significance of your monikers/stage names? What inspired the name of the band?
C: My stage name, well, it wasn’t that intricate. I wanted something that was short, that was punchy, something representative of how I wanted to be seen, as an immigrant Desi woman in Canada. I wanted something dangerous, something exciting- which is how Contra came to mind.
E: I went with Eboshi, I found it to be a name that I could identify with, it’s from an earlier Miyazaki movie, Princess Mononoke, where the main female antagonist in the story is named Eboshi. She’s set and cast to be the villain in the story, but she’s actually a really well-written, well-crafted character who stands up for her community and offers a lot of representation for the women in the context of the politics of the film.
Before we started Cartel Madras, it was just the two of us in our houses, writing and recording in secret, so when we got together, we wanted to be very clear that we were from India, and Madras. I think as Indian women in Canada, we were exposed to sort of racier South Indian identities, which were distinctly different from what is typically represented in Western Media about what it means to be desi or Indian, so we wanted to advocate where we were from, Chennai too, because Cartel Madras has always been a project about reclamation, about taking something back and reclaiming something.
Cartel, you know, I think we’ve always been two individuals who are exciting and dangerous. The things we are trying to say are, at times, controversial, in terms of our community and where we are from- we’ve always been moving at a kind of different speed, and we wanted Cartel to be representative of the image we had of who we were, and what it means to be a Goonda, what it means to be female rappers in the 21st century. A lot of our stories are about our sexual experiences, about our experiences as women, as immigrants, there’s a certain danger imbibed to come of the things we are saying, and Cartel, as a word, really works to represent that.
How have your Tamilian roots influenced your lives and your artistic ventures?
We’ve always been very aware and vocal about the fact that we are South Indian, and that we were born in Chennai. Our dad is Tamilian and our mom is from Kerala, so we’re half Tamilian and half Malayali, and in that regard, we are a fairly accurate representation of two different South Indian identities. We’ve always been really informed and influenced by South Indian culture, in reference to music and art. From a very early age we have watched a lot of Tamil and Malayali cinema, we’ve listened to a lot of Tamil music, it’s always been a part of the soundtrack to our lives, and so, having this artistic influence shape our soundscape from a very early age has definitely played a role in how we interpret that with our hip-hop music.
In terms of a social context, we are very vocally representative of the South Indian community, because there isn’t very much representation of our community both in India and around the world, even in America, where the Western world usually sees the focal point of India in the North, and specifically Bollywood, which is a really inaccurate depiction of the wide array of identities that the country has.
What does making music mean to you? How has it shaped/affected your lives?
We’ve always been people who wanted to be artistic in a visible way. We’ve always been writing music, writing stories, writing essays- we’ve always been a creative bunch. The thing about being an immigrant in Canada is that those spaces are not typically for you, I think you’re either left out of it, or you yourself don’t really think you should be allowed to be a part of them. I don’t think you grow up being told you should be an artist- I think you are told you can train, to dance, to sing, to write, read and debate, but you’re not encouraged to have a career.
I think we’ve always known that the pulse of society is dictated by the media, by the culture of it, and finding and creating narratives about people like us, about women, and immigrants and people of the LGBTQ+ community- I think we’ve always known that the most immediate way to do that is through entertainment. So, we’ve always had this obsession, with trying to be seen in that way that was kind of like loud and eclectic and in that sort of immediate manner, and I think making music was the obvious vehicle for us. Being able to do that, and finding success in it, and being validated for what we do as stakeholders in Hip-hop and music has been really great. It’s not something we saw coming. It’s been really affirming, and it’s an important step for us as Indian women to be able to represent our community properly.
Your music contains themes of immigrant culture, what was it like growing up as immigrants in a foreign nation? What challenges did you face? What support, if any, did you receive from others in the same situation as yourselves? From those that you interacted with?
Growing up as an immigrant in Canada has definitely been an exercise in coming to terms with your identity, and feeling comfortable with who you are and what you look like, because for both of us growing up, we didn’t have too many people that looked like us in school, and beyond that, there weren’t many people that we could turn to in the media that looked like us in any way or reminded us of ourselves in any way that we could be excited about. So, finding that inspiration within ourselves, and motivating ourselves to keep creating, and keep pursuing the passion for art and community is definitely one of the harder aspects of being an immigrant, anywhere.
Not being able to connect with the media presences in film and in music, and not seeing anything that is reminiscent of your experience is extremely isolating when you’re a kid in Canada, surrounded by a bunch of kids that don’t look like you, and so a huge element of finding versions of ourselves in the media is that it never really happens fast enough, and when it does, it’s not always very indicative of who we were and so anytime there was someone who was even remotely Indian or Indian-adjacent, or queer, it was always really exciting, because there was the hope that there could be more of us that could make it with the arts, and I think that the immigrant experience for a lot of kids growing up, even for those who come as teens or young adults, is the tribulations of maintaining your cultural identity while remaining close to your roots and where you’re from, while also exploring this new, authentic aspect of your identity that you’re developing as you grow up. Synthesizing those two, and finding that balance and confidence is how you discover who you are, and who you want to be in the world.
What are some of your influences when it comes to music and ideation? What sparked your interest in the genres that you work with?
I know everyone says “Oh me? I love all types of music!” but from an early age we were put into a lot of different music classes, and having parents who are Tamilian and Malayali- our dad has family from Andhra- So, growing up, we had a lot of languages in our house, overlaid with the ever-present backdrop of Hindi, which is spoken by a majority of the Indian population (We speak Tamil and Malyalam). So, from the very beginning, we had lots of different languages in the house, and each one of those languages came with their own styles of music. Then we jumped to Canada, which is an English-speaking country, and you’re trying to make sense of the world here. I think because of how musically-inclined we always were, we kind of gravitated towards the more obscure and underground, living on the internet quite a bit. We were very much people of the internet, combing through music blogs, looking for what to do, what’s next, looking through historical archives of music.
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Cartel Madras is stoked to have HipHopDX premier their latest single, Lil Pump Type Beat, now available on all streaming platforms! This single will be on their next EP, Age of the Goonda, which is out Nov 1st • Dir. by Asim Overstands and Vince Raquel Prod. by Oso Familiar • #hiphopdx #subpop #royalmountainrecords #lilpump #cartelmadras #thotpolice #hiphop #hiphopmusic #trap #guccigang #ageofthegoonda #goondarap #tamil #mallu #desi #tamilgirl #femme #feminist #queer #torontorap #fashion #drip #trapcanada #yycrap #yyz #torontorap #hotgirlsummer
Our influences have ranged from classical music to underground hip-hop to R.D. Burman- it’s really quite eclectic, and I think that’s what you hear when you listen to our music now, there’s a range of influences there that we are drawing from. That’s something that has really helped us frame ourselves as Cartel Madras, I think we are people who have always understood music, and how it works and how we want music to sound- what sounds entertaining and what sounds exciting, I think we’ve always been able to okay with those elements because that’s what we were always looking for when we were younger. Music can really change a person’s life, it can shape your identity. We didn’t have music like that, that we wanted to listen to in our lives, so when we made Cartel Madras, we really wanted to put that thought forward.
Trap music began for us when we were writing for Cartel Madras, the newer elements to our sound involving grime and house and trap and incorporating the elements of hip-hop that we’ve always been most attracted to, and interpreting it through our abilities and our soundscape, and our life experience, while also paying tribute to the sub-genres of hip hop that existed before us, that’s what Goonda rap is, it’s our interpretation of hip-hop, and us carving out a space for us as women, and immigrants, and people that are part of the LGBTQ+ community to exist in hip-hop, because there aren’t very many of us, and so using these sub-genres to create a new sound and explore our musical identities was very important to us, which is why we use these elements. At the end of the day we make music which that we want to listen to, and that means something to us, and so we’re always going to draw influence from the genres and sub-genres that we find most exciting.
Your music is heavily influenced by themes of rebellion, and gender and queer identity, can you tell us a little about the underlying message of your art?
I think there are certain things that Cartel Madras has been trying to say for our whole lives, and our music is representative of that, and I think there are still things that we are trying to say. Cartel Madras is an evolving project because we’re still young. From the get-go, we’ve been honest about who we are, and about imagining ourselves in a way that we feel we should be allowed to imagine ourselves, which is something I think women and desi women of colour don’t feel like we are allowed to do. I think growing up there has always been a representation of the Indian woman in western and Indian media, which has never aligned with who we are, and the sense of power and ownership and rebellion and radical thought that we have always associated with as women in Canada, and we really wanted to put that person at the front of our message.
It’s always been a common theme in conversations that we’ve had with other people, and with desi women of colour, and that is what we all generally feel the same way about the current systems of the world, and how they are working against us and how they speak to and de-authenticate our experiences by delegitimizing what we have to say, and so this aspect of rebellion, is very much us taking up room that wasn’t meant for us, and demanding the attention of people that wouldn’t normally give it to us.
For all our lives we’ve heard straight white people singing songs that have nothing to do with us, we don’t look like these people, they’re not talking to us or about us. So, it’s about making music for people who have not had music being made for them and about them- that’s a huge part of this artistic rebellion that we’re working on, a counter movement to representing people that have not been represented in the media is a huge part of this project, which is the communities that we have membership to, which is that we are women, we are POCs, and we’re queer, and these are people who have not had their stories told completely or accurately.
What were some of the challenges you faced growing up as queer women? What sort of support, if any, did you receive from other members of your community?
To be honest, I think that one of the reasons we wanted to be so vocal about our sexuality and being members of these different groups is that in our house, and our spaces and ecosystems, we were actually able to be radical and loud from a young age. It was a mix of having supportive friends, and being exposed to the media, being able to read other people’s stories, that stuff helped a lot of the times. But that’s something we wanted to be able to do for everyone, who is having a queer experience, which can be very difficult. A lot of the Indian people that are here and back home, I don’t think have come into their identities yet, be that queer or not queer, I don’t think a lot of us understand that we are allowed to be sexually vocal and figure out who they are and find their identities through that. I think that’s always been easier for us, for a variety of reasons, and that’s something we’ve always wanted to be able to do for others.
It’s an interesting space to exist in, because there’s a level of self-assuredness and comfort that you need to have to even be yourself as a person that is cognizant of themselves and their sexual identity, and so for a lot of young queer people of colour, there’s a lot of confusion there, because they are not sure what they are allowed to feel, who they are allowed to feel about and what those feelings really mean. Growing up, there’s always that confusion and so coming into that identity and convincing people to speak on it and own it with confidence, and to be able to share it with others, is a lifelong project in understanding your sexual identity and being able to access it earlier is a privilege that we wanted more young queer people of colour to have access to.
Tell us a little bit about your new single. What does being a “Goonda” mean to you? How would you define “Goonda Rap”?
I think being a Goonda, first and foremost- I know it’s a pan-desi word but it’s something we’ve always identified as a south Indian thing. We’d hear it a lot around the house, your parents use it as a word for being bad- it’s something they say when talking about someone dangerous- it’s a word that stuck with us.
Being a Goonda right now, in the context of the Age of The Goonda, and the Cartel Madras universe is being someone who is authentic to their identity, someone who is in touch with their true artistic selves, someone who is an underdog and is confident in that element of themselves. They are working against the current systems of the world, whether that be in music or in politics. Being a Goonda for us is being an exciting and dangerous individual who has a sense of responsibility toward their community but is also really excited to fuck shit up and have a party too.
Being a Goonda is someone who is controlling their own sexual narrative, being a woman who is loud and uninhibited about her sexuality, and being at the forefront of that and taking the power back and being people who enjoy sex and have sex and are not ashamed of it, the way women are always portrayed in history. A Goonda is wild and radical- which is how we have always branded ourselves.
Goonda rap – It’s a new form of rap, a new wave of hip hop. It’s a form of trap music with elements of grime and house, involving characters that have been left out of the current sphere of hip hop. It’s a true underdog genre of hip-hop, and that’s how we’ve always seen it.
Tell us a little bit about the new music video for Goonda Gold, what was the thought that went into making it? where was it shot? What was your experience like filming it?
The new music video is a really cool sort of visualization of the dream we had for the song. We wrote Goonda Gold while touring last year, and we would perform it. Our friend who is a desi producer currently living in Vancouver sent us this beat, and he told us he could hear us on it, and to let him know what we thought. We knew immediately that this was something special, something we wanted to be on. It was really exemplary of the Cartel Madras sound that we’re working towards, it had the desi influence, and it was trap-heavy and sounded really contemporary.
We wrote it quickly, and in a fit of inspiration, based on what we visualized for the song- which was this narrative of these two Goondas talking about their characters. The video is almost like the mythology of the Goonda, with a cast that features exclusively South Asian women and a crew that consisted of people of colour. It was like the coming together of all of the elements and ideas that went into the creation of our new EP, The Age of the Goonda. The video is colourful and exciting and employs elements of south Indian and Tamilian cinema, referential to India and desi culture, and with all the hero and bravado of Indian cinema infused with the underground criminal aspect of Goondas in India.
What is one message you would like to convey to fans and listeners of your music? What message would you like to give to other young immigrant boys and girls? To people of the LGBTQ+ community around the world?
What we try to impart to our listeners is this idea of fierce and unabashed self-confidence and representation, and being very ruthless in how you identify in the world and being unafraid to express yourself as such. Developing the skill of being sure of yourself is something that takes time, and once you have it, it’s something that is constantly being tried to be taken away from you, especially if you are a person of colour or a queer person. Sticking to your guns in that way has always been something to remember to a person like that growing up, and not doubting yourself simply because you’re not surrounded by people that look like you or that tell you that it wouldn’t be “cool”, because once you figure it out, and once you have that sense of self, getting there, being cool, feeling lit, it’s all just a matter of knowing where you are in the world and knowing who you are in the context of yourself.
The track Goonda Gold is featured on the duo’s forthcoming EP, The Age of the Goonda, which is slated for release on November 1st, 2019.
Watch the music video for Goonda Gold in this edition of TheVibe Curates here!
Photo Attribution: Cartel Madras