If YouTube views were quantified into a Dirham per view, Rene Sharanya Verma’s rap parody at the Delhi Poetry Slam that saw 850,000 views in four days (at the time of writing this piece) should make her a millionaire soon. Her feisty one-minute rendering is cited as an example of a strong counter to regressive lyrics that have been part of recent popular songs. A second year History Honors student at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, Rene Sharanya Verma has been a CBSE All-India Topper for Humanities for Class XII in 2013, and ‘academically inclined’. At college, she is a joint coordinator at The Gender Studies Cell, which engages with questions of gender, media and culture, among others. The aspiring Feminist Film Theory scholar who plans to write fiction and non-fiction speaks to Manju Ramanan on combating regressive lyrics in popular culture through poetry
What triggered the poem?
I first wrote the poem for an inter-college poetry slam. I had an hour to make this, and the topic was “The Portrait of a ‘Lady’”. I thought of doing a rap parody, a composite of many rappers and musicians through a satire on the tropes and euphemisms they deploy. Pop culture invariably ends up defining normative ideas of hypo-agency and hyper-agency, of the ideal man whose rite of passage is the successful wooing of a woman (her say in the matter being immaterial), and in contradistinction, the ideal woman. I then tried to deconstruct this image through defining what I’m not. This piece was never about confronting two or three individuals, it was about more. It was about the transcendence of labels, of embracing body diversity, of trying to locate who we are in a culture of hashtags and Instagram filters, where consumerist tendencies and anxieties play a very real role in shaping our self-worth.
What angers you the most about regressive lyrics?
What angers me the most about regressive lyrics is the normalization of words. Words are powerful. A lot of the lyrics that are packaged within catchy songs represent the female. The problem is with how. The female subject rarely finds mention. Serenades relegate three stanzas to a woman’s heels, coloured eyes, vital statistics, fair skin—almost never to her opinions, her subjectivities, her intellect, her reciprocation of romantic/sexual feelings. There is also a unanimous heteronormativity in lyrical discourse. Rejection is responded to with harsh, violent lyrics. What disturbs me even more is that these songs are consumed almost uncritically, meaning that we are equally complicit in legitimizing these damaging narratives.
Flawless is a state of mind. Flawless is more than the clothes and brands you wear, it’s more than the man-woman binary, it’s accessible and profound and mundane. Human beings are perfectly imperfect, regardless of how they identify and perform the paradigms of gender and sexuality. Flawless is about being inexplicable, about loving your body and about loving yourself.
Does popular culture push us to have unrealistic concept of yourself?
Popular culture is both reflective of, and refracted in social realities. I think that music, films, literature, and advertisement operate in consonance and collusion with social needs and expectations. The construction of the ideal man and woman is a lifelong process, from womb to tomb. We have to understand that cultural products operate in insidious ways, and through the absences and presences, define how to be. Standards of beauty, the function of relationships, ideal vocation, they are all inherited patterns of behaviour that are being challenged, but we still have a long way to go.
It is not the brand, it is you? Elaborate?
When I penned those lyrics, I was responding to these catchphrases that operate with a curious rhetoric. For instance, fairness creams in India cash in on the anxieties of complexion, and do not just present an ideal of beauty, but conflate that idea with professional and personal success. Other cosmetic brands promote empowering messages of self-worth, which is all good on paper, but again, who has access to that self-worth? There are deodorant ads that promise men the fantasy of ‘getting the girl or many’, something that is harmful both to men and women. Advertisements have, for long, defined not just our shopping choices, but our lifestyles. We need to be more critical of the same, and negotiate those questions. My message was to reorient the discussion to the individual’s choice to use a product or not, and not the other way around. I was asserting that our self-esteem should not be contingent on the products we use or don’t use.
Do you plan to set your poetry to a more formal platform?
I shall continue to perform poetry as a hobby, but I’m very happy with being associated with independent collectives like the Delhi Poetry Slam. I don’t intend to be a professional rapper or monetize my poetry, but I think I shall continue to raise my voice for issues that are important to me.
Did you encounter opposition or negative feedback after the performance?
Oh yes. I think roughly ten to eleven percent of the feedback has been negative. There have been some poorly spelled and articulated threats, comments on my physical appearance, sexual proclivities and of course, the classic misogyny of sending me back to the kitchen. Many of them are offensive, but hilarious, simply because they are so unoriginal and pointless. A lot of people took up the cause I was supporting and called out the trolls. Moreover, the negativity validated whatever I was speaking out against, so they did me more good than harm.
How do you deal with hate mail?
Surprisingly, apart from two people, none of the irate individuals have chosen to respond to me personally. It’s sort of anticlimactic. I hopefully responded to the two people (whose messages were only mildly offensive) well. One dared me to never perform again, and I told her that her daring me had zero consequence on my life choices.
Do you plan to pen more?
I have penned stuff before this, about violence and war, the environment and other issues. I write a lot of poetry, but this was my first public performance. Hopefully, I’ll come up with more pieces that are both personal and political.
Has Honey Singh responded to you?
What would be your response?
No he hasn’t. Like I mentioned before, the piece was not just a takedown of Honey Singh, it was about more. It was a challenge to society, reclamation of rap and the public space through rap, and I’m glad it’s generated a mostly conducive dialogue. My inbox is flooded with thank-you messages, from the UAE, Pakistan the United States, school teachers, fellow poets and feminists. I couldn’t be more elated.