On September 19 and 20, Justice Rocks – a Chennai-based youth initiative – and The Wire will co-host an online concert called “Armed & Dangerous” on The Wire’s YouTube channel. The event will feature musical and poetic responses to the pandemic of violence unleashed by police around the world.
September 19 will mark three months since Jayaraj (59) and Bennicks (31), a father-son duo, were tortured by the Sathankulam police in the southern town of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu. Their crime: to have kept their mobile phone shop open in breach of COVID-19 lockdown rules. They subsequently succumbed to the injuries sustained as a result of the police’s brutality.
The deaths of Bennicks and Jayaraj sparked off a wave of protests, as the brutal killings highlighted the impunity enjoyed by police forces. On May 22, 2018, 13 innocent civilians were gunned down in Thoothukudi, hundreds injured and many others tortured by the police during and after a mass protest against the pollution caused by a copper smelter owned by UK mining multinational Vedanta Resources. Till date, no police person has been arrested.
Going beyond the insipid domain of facts into the realm of emotions, music, dance, art and poetry have been among the most powerful of weapons wielded by those fighting oppression and authoritarianism. In the recent protests against George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in the US, and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India, ordinary people confronted the violence of the state and the police with a peaceful riot of poetry, slogans, dance, music and street art.
The idea of Justice Rocks began as a challenge by Chennai-based youth to the culture of corporate-sponsored events even inside educational institutions. In 2005, barely a month after the tsunami laid to waste coastal regions in several countries, IIT Madras celebrated its annual cultural festival Saarang with a budget of more than Rs 50 lakh and generated more than 3.5 tonnes of trash. According to We Feel Responsible, an inter-collegiate youth group that studied the festival, the Saarang organisers felt beholden to their corporate sponsors and were reluctant to hold them to standards of responsible behaviour.
The idea of unsponsored concerts was born. The first concert ‘Unilever’s Mercury Fever’ was held in 2006 to draw attention to the problem of mercury pollution in the hill town of Kodaikanal.
The volunteer-organised, crowd-funded concerts offer a platform to young debutante musicians and satirists to write and perform original content. In December 2008, Chennai-based Youth for Social Change organised a concert in solidarity with the campaign for justice by survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal. The packed theatre saw a hijab-clad rapper rock the stage with her hip-hop duet ‘Don’t Work for Dirty Dow’. Dow Chemical, Union Carbide’s owner, was at that time trying to recruit from IIT Madras. Dow was forced to cancel its plans to recruit from IIT and also Anna University.
The first song sung by Sofia Ashraf, the rapper, at the event was an Islamic prayer, ‘Salaatullah’. Performed with haunting backing vocals by her college-mate Ameena barely 10 days after the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack. ‘Salaatullah’ was a defiant rejection of those who painted all Muslims as terrorists.
Ashraf went on to attain worldwide acclaim with her 2015 viral rap video ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’. Less than eight months after this video was released, Unilever was forced to accept the demands of workers poisoned by mercury at its thermometer factory in the hill town of Kodaikanal.
Drafted by Reclaim Our Beaches, another city-based youth group, a press release from the 2011 concert ‘Unclear Energy’ – a satirical take on the nuclear establishment – summed up the spirit of these irreverent events:
“Justice Rocks is a medium to expose youngsters to serious social issues using satire and music. It is also a demonstration that one can have fun without selling one’s soul to corporations, creating loads of trash or burning wads of cash. Unlike the norm of hosting concerts and events sponsored by big and dirty corporations, Justice Rocks organises ‘Unsponsored Concerts’. In sponsored concerts, the organisers sing praises of their sponsors. In ‘Unsponsored Concerts’, we make fun of our ‘unsponsors’.”
The issues chosen for unsponsored concerts varies from year to year. In 2013, it was ‘Culture Unplugged’ unsponsored by culture bullies and fundamentalists of all hues. That was the year of the strident responses to the Delhi rape case, the threat by Tamil political party PMK to couples contemplating inter-caste marriages, the anti-Dalit caste violence in Dharmapuri, the violent attack by Hindu fundamentalists on youngsters in a Mangalore resort, the fatwa on the Kashmiri girl-rock band Pragaash by fundamentalist Muslim clerics and the violent attacks on non-Sinhala ethnicities by right-wing Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka.
‘Culture Unplugged’ was the stage for one of the first public performances by young singer song-writer Kaber Vasuki. It was Kaber’s lyrics and T.M. Krishna’s voice that made the 9-minute long ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’ a viral hit, projecting the Save Ennore Creek campaign’s objective of revalorizing the word ‘Poromboke’ and the concept of the commons.
Organised in 2016, ‘Un-Making India’ satirised the Make In India campaign that threatened to hand over the nation’s resources on a platter to big corporations.
The latest Justice Rocks production, ‘Let Chennai Breathe’ aka “காத்த வர விடு” is set against the smoky industrial wastelands of North Chennai and uses Tamil gaana and English rap to highlight the environmental discrimination inherent in the concentration of polluting industries in this working-class neighbourhood.
Justice Rocks is a copy-left initiative, free for use by people fighting hate, authoritarianism, discrimination, corporate crime and environmental injustice.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a volunteer with Vettiver Collective, which organises Justice Rocks events.