By ROBERT MACKEY
Sofia Ashraf, a young female rapper from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu who rose to fame by riffing about social justice while wearing a burqa, released a new single this week about corporate responsibility that draws inspiration from an unlikely source: the risqué Nicki Minaj hit, “Anaconda.”For the song, “Kodaikanal Won’t,” Ms. Ashraf borrowed the tune to “Anaconda,” but crafted entirely new lyrics, with which she calls on the multinational corporation Unilever to help former workers at a thermometer plant that its Indian subsidiary closed 14 years ago, after mercury contamination was discovered there.
“Kodaikanal Won’t,” a new rap by Sofia Ashraf, set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.”
Jhatkaa, via YouTube
Hindustan Unilever has acknowledged that it shut the factory in 2001 — when Greenpeace and other environmental groups made the company aware that tons of mercury-contaminated glass from the plant had been sold to a scrap dealer near the plant in the town of Kodaikanal — but disputes the claims of former workers who say that their health has been adversely affected by exposure to mercury. The former employees attribute dozens of subsequent deaths to toxic pollution at the site.
In her new rap, posted online by Jhatkaa, a nongovernmental organization that leads campaigns for social justice, Ms. Ashraf employs the occasionally crude idiom of the genre to argue that Unilever has shirked its responsibility to look after the workers and properly clean up the soil and water around the former plant.
A local environmental monitoring group reported last month that high levels of mercury could still be found in vegetation and sediment in the vicinity of the former factory in Kodaikanal. The company disputed those findings in a statement posted on its website, calling them “in contrast to the results and conclusions of several site assessment and risk assessment studies that have been done by independent experts and institutes over the years.”
In another internal publication, a former Hindustan Unilever executive even called the company’s response to the “Kodaikanal issue,” an example of its “strong values and beliefs.”
“When the local NGOs drew our attention to improper and unauthorized disposal of scrap from our mercury thermometer factory,” the company’s retired director of corporate affairs, Gurdeep Singh, wrote in the Hindustan Unilever employee magazine in 2009, “we could have easily chosen to sweep the matter under the carpet. But that’s not the way we work. We immediately shut our factory operations and initiated, with the help of leading global environment experts, a thorough investigation and remediation which is even now ongoing.”
The rap song is part of a wider social media campaign aimed at shaming Unilver, and its chief executive, Paul Polman, into looking again at the complaints of the former workers.
For Ms. Ashraf, rapping about chemical companies that do business in India is nothing new. She first attracted attention in 2008, with “Don’t Work for Dow,” in which she excoriated the chemical company for its response to the Bhopal disaster in 1984.
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