Tamil-Canadian rapper Shan Vincent de Paul is fighting to claim space in Canada's music scene

The Toronto artist also talks about finding space in the international music scene and the controversy over his appearance on Rolling Stone India

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      Last summer, Toronto singer Witch Prophet and her producer Sun Sun pulled up to rapper Shan Vincent de Paul’s downtown studio out of the blue. They were there to hand him an award, just for being dope.

      “It meant a lot,” says Vincent de Paul, on a Zoom call from that same studio, describing the one-off gesture that Witch Prophet and Sun Sun bestowed on a handful of local artists. Vincent de Paul’s never been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize or nominated for a Juno, never mind the bangers he’s been putting out over the years from 2016’s operatic Die Iconic to his firestorm verses about the Tamil genocide on 2020’s One Hundred Thousand Flowers

      But Vincent de Paul holds that moment with Witch Prophet and Sun Sun dear.

      “These artists are taking their time, resources and money to create these awards to give to other artists, being like, ‘I see what you’re doing.’ Another artist knows the work that it takes. It just meant that much more to me.” 

      That support is essential to Vincent de Paul, who often feels like he’s got his back up against the wall, swinging wildly.

      In our last interview, Vincent de Paul called out the Canadian music industry for sleeping on him for years. At that time, he was just blowing up in India due to the popularity of his Mrithangam Raps collab series with fellow Tamil-Canadian musician Yanchan, in which Vincent de Paul would body verses over a traditional South Asian beat. It seemed for a minute that Vincent de Paul didn’t have to curry favour with Canada anymore since he was amassing a large following in South Asia.

      “That chip on my shoulder that I had from our last interview, I’m slowly learning to make it productive,” Vincent de Paul says. He focused on completing Made In Jaffna, an album that has been in the works for five years and dropped earlier this month. He’s also been collaborating with a brand new Tamil music label and platform called Maajja, which is backed by Indian music legend A.R. Rahman. “I’m learning to turn it into a positive.”

      Last month, Vincent de Paul appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone India alongside Chennai-based singer and fellow Maajja artist Dhee this summer. A shitstorm followed. After popular Indian movie director Pa. Ranjith cried foul on Twitter, saying that the cover story was erasing another local Tamil artist named Arivu, fans and trolls descended on Vincent de Paul. They claimed he doesn’t write his own lyrics, leaving the rapper feeling compelled to respond with a fiery diss track called "Take Cover (Rolling Stone Freestyle)".

      We’ll unpack the beef later (“It’s hardly tofu,” Vincent de Paul corrects me). For now, let’s just say that all this drama has been a distraction from what’s most important to Vincent de Paul: the art.

      Gajan Balan

      Made In Jaffna

      Vincent de Paul’s been that rapper whose rhyme styles recall everyone from Eminem to Kendrick. He breathlessly switches up the tempos and flows, sometimes mid-verse, like an acrobat schooling a decathlon.

      “He is one of the most talented and riveting rappers I’ve ever known,” says singer and composer TiKA, who croons alongside Vincent de Paul on Made In Jaffna cut "Hard Times". She’s observed his craft in studio, watching him deliver unbelievable rhyme schemes off the dome. “His word choices, his approaches to cadence, how we places is words, he’s very intentional and clever. He’s definitely your favourite artist’s favourite artist. I get that energy from him.”

      Vincent de Paul doesn’t settle for just rapping either. He directs his own music videos, taking inspiration from artists like Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, and Gaspar Noé. And he’s often given to experimentation. He’s been cooking up NFTs while we’re still out here trying to figure out what crypto art even means. And when we all went into lockdown last year, Vincent de Paul made Purgatory: The Isolation Tapes, a documentary mixtape where he dons a bejewelled COVID mask while taking to the streets with an iPhone to show off his isolation music.

      “I need to feel challenged,” Vincent de Paul says. “Anytime I get too comfortable with art, it makes me anxious and makes me feel like I’m not evolving. When I get to that spiral, I will slip into depression. It’ll actually affect my mental health.”

      Like so many artists, Vincent de Paul treats making music like therapy. And he pours his heart out across the 14 tracks on Made In Jaffna, which is named for the northern city in Sri Lanka that so much of the Tamil-Canadian diaspora had to flee during the country’s civil war. He lays down his refugee story off the top on the title track, about living in Caledonia and discovering Outkast, which turned him onto rap. Then he takes us through the peaks and caverns of his life and his emotional state, opening up about his vulnerability in the music game, relationships that have come and gone, and dealing with divorce in a Tamil community that frowns on such things.

      “The character in the beginning is not the character at the end,” Vincent de Paul says of the emotional journey he goes through over the course of the album, moving from failure and disappointment to a search for hope. “Then it finishes with 'Die Iconic 2', which is like, ‘I am fucking untouchable.’ ”

      It’s a major statement, but Vincent de Paul’s not counting on getting his flowers from the Junos or whatever other cultural institutions are meant to support Canadian artists.

      “I was naive to think, ‘Hey, I’m making incredible art and people are just gonna recognize it’,” Vincent de Paul says, realizing that seeking validation from four people on a jury isn’t helpful and can only lead to self-doubt. “We’re talking about a system that wasn’t built for me.”

      “Would NOW Magazine care about my story, if you weren’t there,” Vincent de Paul asks bluntly, knowing that it’s because I’m Tamil that I pay such keen attention to his music and the shared experiences expressed in songs about finding our place. He doesn’t blame white editors and gatekeepers who may admire his music but just don’t know how to navigate it or do it justice, given where they come from.

      “If we had our own systems, we don’t need to worry about that,” says Vincent de Paul. “We can just write about our own stories and we’re going to be way more connected to the stories and the people involved in it anyway.”

      That’s partly the impetus behind Maajja, the indie music label and platform that counts Vincent de Paul, Toronto’s Navz-47, and India-based musicians Dhee and Arivu among its core artists. The label founded by Tamil-Canadians Noel Kirthiraj, Sen Sachi, and Prasana Balachandran—provides promotional and distribution services for a percentage while allowing the artists to retain ownership of their own music. And it’s already helped Vincent de Paul reach millions with his latest tracks.

      “I would rather just build our own platforms, our own infrastructures, our own systems so that we don’t have to rely on anyone. And that way we can tell our story the way we want to tell it, the most genuine way, without compromise, without having a crabs-in-the-barrel mentality.”

      Gajan Balan

      The Rolling Stone India controversy

      Imagine you’re a musician spending five years pouring your heart and soul into your most personal album to date. You anticipate its release. You do everything you can to make sure the rollout goes smoothly. You even land a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone India to help promote it. Then, on the eve of the album’s release, one tweet ruins the whole thing.

      That’s pretty much how the drama around Vincent de Paul and Indian movie director Ranjith went down. But let’s back up a bit.

      Both Vincent de Paul and Dhee were on that Rolling Stone India cover promoting their upcoming albums. The cover story highlights two big hits in particular: Dhee’s debut single "Enjoy Enjaami", featuring Arivu, and Neeye Oli, the theme song from the Indian boxing movie Sarpatta Parambarai, on which Vincent de Paul spits straight fire opposite Navz-47 and the film’s composer Santosh Narayanan.

      "Enjoy Enjaami" is an epic and addictive circle-of-life tune, warmly inviting everyone to honour generations of Indians who have toiled the lands in an oppressive feudal and caste system that still keeps so many down today. Vincent de Paul agrees that "Enjoy Enjaami" is probably one of the greatest Tamil songs we’ve heard in years. 

      The connective tissue between both these songs is Arivu, a fellow Maajja artist who wrote "Enjoy Enjaami" and penned the Tamil lyrics delivered by Navz-47 on Neeye Oli. But Arivu doesn’t have a pending album. Dhee and Vincent de Paul do, which is why they were promoted on the cover.

      That didn’t make a difference to Ranjith, the director of Sarpatta Parambarai, who we tried to reach for comment to no avail. In an August 22 tweet, the director complained about Arivu’s absence on the cover to his million followers. “Is it so difficult to understand that the lyrics of both songs challenges this erasure?” asked Ranjith, who has been collaborating with Arivu since co-founding the Casteless Collective, which the latter belongs to.

      “It was just irresponsible,” Vincent de Paul says. “It would basically be like me asking the director, ‘Why wasn’t I on the poster of your movie? I contributed to it! I did the theme song!’ His response would be, ‘Why the fuck would you be on the poster of my movie?’ You see how absurd that question would be.”

      “[The tweet] ignored what the actual [article] was about—these upcoming albums—and shifted the narrative into the conversation of erasure,” Vincent de Paul says. “I was used as a scapegoat. He tossed me under the bus. Because he has so many followers, people started throwing stones at me as if I’m the guy that took another person’s spot.”

      Angry fans came out of the woodwork, accusing Vincent de Paul not only of stealing Arivu’s cover spot (which probably would have come along in due time) but also his lyrics. They assumed Vincent de Paul couldn’t write his own raps. He responded by giving them a sick diss track called "Take Cover (Rolling Stone Freestyle)" to clear the air and remind everyone why he deserved to be there.

      “I shifted the conversation back into the art,” says Vincent de Paul, who once again is having to use music as therapy. “I always have to remind myself that no matter how difficult a situation may seem, I could create my way out of it.

      “The sad part about it is that I’m 100 per cent in support of what they are fighting for,” Vincent de Paul adds. 

      As an Eelam Tamil whose family had to escape a genocidal state, as someone who really has no country to call his own, he knows a little something of erasure. “Our struggles are very common and we should be supporting each other. But then that [tweet] created a divide within our own community.”

      Vincent de Paul doesn’t necessarily blame angered fans. He calls them innocent, misinformed bystanders. He also sees a bitter irony in all this. Brown people are made to feel like they have to fight for scraps at the table in Canada and the U.S. And when someone does make it, there’s the question of whether they should be the ones representing an entire community. Never Have I Ever star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan faced that pressure when her character Devi didn’t represent the entire South Asian diaspora experience. People complained whenever they felt a disconnect between their experience and Devi’s.

      “When you’re dealing with a small community, people always feel entitled to who is going to represent us,” Vincent de Paul says. He didn’t expect the crab mentality to follow him from Canada to India, where caste and colourism issues create a whole other set of pervasive representational issues.

      Now he’s caught in a fight for space with brown people. But he blames white people for creating the mess; I mean, colonialism.

      “We’re essentially fighting each other for the spot on this white legacy magazine,” says Vincent de Paul. “Do you think that there would have been an issue if it wasn’t Rolling Stone? No one would care if somebody was on the cover of a Tamil magazine. It’s the fact that it’s Rolling Stone, a legacy magazine, which is associated with the western world and the systems that white people created.

      “Look at how colonization has affected countries that have civil wars,” Vincent de Paul continues, zooming out to the bigger picture. “A third party has come, divided up the land and then let the natives fight each other. Colonizer goes in, fucks shit up, dips and then we’re left fighting each other. That is so reflective in art and music.”

      Gajan Balan

      Die Iconic 2

      There’s a narrative playing out in Shan’s recent music videos, one that may unintentionally be a response to colonization, the trauma of which is in his DNA. Colonization, after all, is the root cause of the civil war in Sri Lanka that left Eelam Tamils without a home.

      You could describe Vincent de Paul’s distinct videos as Tamil futurist. Time is blurred. The costumes are wild. Aspects of traditional Tamil heritage, conflict and trauma are collapsed in a space with a mechanical planet hovering in the sky, coming closer and closer.

      In "Savage", French-Tamil dancer Usha Jey escapes a conflict zone, finding refuge in a theatre space, as the mechanical planet hovers in the distance. In "Neeye Oli", Vincent de Paul and Navz-47 don some outfits that I can only describe as Phantom Of The Opera meets Andy Warhol. They rap together on green hills not unlike the ones seen in Indian cinema, where a couple often break out in musical numbers to profess their affection. But that mechanical planet is near.

      The planet is also framed in an animated photo in the futuristic dance party in "Hard Times", hovering over the desolate black-and-white farmhouse in Uyire and approaching market streets of Chennai in Made In Jaffna. And finally in "Die Iconic 2", Vincent de Paul stands there between a Hindu temple, ancient ruins, and this mechanical planet, floating just above a beach ready to scoop him up.

      “I just wanted to create this very cool futuristic world where there’s brown and Black characters and avant-garde fashion,” Vincent de Paul says, describing the thematic and aesthetic connection between these videos. “I’m just creating my world.”

      That all adds up. The guy who got put onto rap because of an Outkast CD has been feeling a bit like an outcast everywhere he goes. And he’s been fighting to create a space he can call his own. That’s what it means to be Made In Jaffna