Noel Kirthiraj, CEO Of Maajja, On The Arivu–Rolling Stone Controversy
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Maajja is a platform that helps South Asian independent artists find their space and monetize their work. Their biggest success, arguably, is ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ by Dhee featuring Arivu (produced by Santhosh Narayanan). The CEO of Maajja Noel Kirthiraj speaks to Baradwaj Rangan during a round table about the controversy over the non-inclusion of Arivu along with Dhee and Shaan Vincent de Paul on the cover of Rolling Stone India. He talks about why the primary credit for a song goes to the person initiating it and is left to the artist’s discretion, how Maajja has never tried to play down Arivu, and that they had little to do with the cover of Rolling Stone India. Edited Excerpts

I saw ‘Dhee feat. Arivu’ when Maajja released ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ and I was confused about what Arivu’s role in the song was. For example, one of my favorite songs from Lethal Weapon is called ‘It’s probably me’ and it is credited as ‘Sting feat. Eric Clapton’. So, the song is sung by Sting with Clapton backing him with the guitar. It suggests it’s not an equal contribution. Whereas Arivu and Dhee have an equal part to play in ‘Enjoy Enjaami’. Also, Arivu has written the lyrics. So, could you just explain how the word ‘featuring’ was used to refer to Arivu’s contribution?

One of the reasons for all the concerns is because the context of how the song came about was never really communicated. So, it’s understandable that there’s concern. So, I wanted to step back and give people a flavour of how the song came about. When Maajja launched, we saw how complicated it was for artists to monetize their intellectual property. We wanted to create an ecosystem for these artists to showcase their talent. 

In that context, we asked about twenty five artists to do a song for us. Arivu did a song, as did other artists. We also wanted Dhee to do a song. Even though Dhee has been successful in the playback world, she’s a brand new artist in the independent music world. When they were working on the song, Santhosh Narayanan and Dhee were keen to work with Arivu. And we believe in collaboration too as it elevates everyone involved. 

In the West, it’s a semantic thing, ‘featuring’ is used to indicate artists whom the lead artist has brought in to work on the song. From our perspective, we know the talent of Arivu and that’s why we’re working with him. With ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ there’s no question of Arivu putting in 200% and being a core part of the success of the song. But the song was a Dhee song. 

In an Indian context, the song is a ‘duet’ in the sense that there is a male and female voice. Here, you say a song has been sung by SP Balasubramaniam and S. Janaki and not ‘SP Balasubramaniam feat. S. Janaki’…

We don’t agree with a lot of things done in an Indian context. Otherwise there’s no reason for Maajja to exist. We’re intentional about what we’re doing and often it might go against the grain. In India, music is so intertwined with movies and because of that you have practices that are unique to us. We’re always looking at a global context. 

There’s nothing contractual. At the end of the day, it’s the artist’s discretion as to who the primary artist is and how they want to go about it. It doesn’t imply that somebody did less or more. It only means who is ticking off the song and starting the process.

Looking back at the backlash against the Times Square billboard, did you have internal discussions in Maajja? Because it’s also about the reputation of the company. Were there discussions about whether Arivu also should be included in the Rolling Stone cover. Or was it completely left to Rolling Stone to do their own thing?

When it comes to any form of journalism, just like I’m being very transparent with you, I trust that you would do the right thing when you write about it. We respect that boundary. Similarly, when Maajja does something we expect that space and benefit of the doubt to be given. We wouldn’t do anything if by doing it our lives would become easy. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. 

Arivu is still part of the story. There’s more to come and we knew that. We weren’t bothered by it. The reaction was surprising, to be honest, because we had a different context. We had given them all the images of Arivu. We knew that Rolling Stone is a credible organization and we don’t need to tell them what to do. We didn’t feel in any way that we were subduing Arivu. In fact, he’s still a part of the story. People will see that by the time the campaign wraps up. But we’re not here to please people. We want to do the right thing for the artist. If that means we get criticized for it, I hope over time things become clear and people see why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

In case you haven’t been following the controversy about the Rolling Stone India cover, here’s some context:

What is the controversy?

The controversy started with the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone India featuring Dhee and Shaan Vincent de Paul, as the faces of a rising South Asian music scene. The two songs that helped them get there were ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ and ‘Neeye Oli’ from Sarpatta Parambarai. While Dhee has sung ‘Enjoy Enjaami’, Shaan Vincent de Paul has performed and co-written the lyrics in ‘Neeye Oli’. The elephant missing from the room is Arivu who has written both songs, but more critically, is central to the appeal and success of ‘Enjoy Enjaami’.

Who is Arivu?

While Dhee has had a successful playback career, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ was her independent music debut. But Arivu, on the other hand, was already an independent music star with Therukural. He also has a thriving career in films with songs like ‘Urimayai Meetpom’ from Kaala, ‘Maathiya Seraiyile’ from Vada Chennai, ‘Vaathi Raid’ from Master, and ‘Single Pasanga’ from Natpe Thunai. Beyond just the music, Arivu’s ideology of emancipation and empowerment comes through in his art. He’s an artist–activist, as seen when his song ‘Sanda Seivom’ went viral during the CAA protests in 2020.

Why should Arivu have been featured on the cover of Rolling Stone?

Even though it might be true that the song’s primary artist is Dhee and it only features Arivu as someone roped in to collaborate during the song’s creation, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ eventually became more than just a catchy tune. It’s virality was coupled with an awareness it brought about those who have been excluded not only from our societies but also from our histories. Parts of the song paraphrase Arivu’s grandmother Valliammal as she speaks of a humankind united with nature and without differences among people. And the song also asserts how her lineage (and that of Arivu) goes back to the earliest settlers of these lands. Though it might have begun as a musical collaboration, Arivu’s lyrics make the song his own, as much as it is Dhee’s.

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