Sofia Ashraf’s incredible music video of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” touches on a social justice issue that goes beyond the realms of human rights.
The Tamil-Indian rapper and singer exudes confidence and self-assurance while vividly depicting Unilever’s spill of mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal, a small city in the Tamil Nadu district of South India.
Ashraf’s rap has seen more than three million hits on YouTube, and it also prompted a response from the head of Unilever—the world’s third-largest consumer goods company—Paul Polman.
Her petition has reached 86,000 signatures but needs more to reach their goal of one million. [Sign her petition here.]
Most people have heard of Minaj’s “Anaconda,” not only is it incredibly popular but extremely catchy as well. Ashraf was brilliant in her thinking, by using the well-known tune and remaking it with her message it would be better spread, especially since the original tune is highly listened to in Western and Eastern countries.
Ashraf’s activist song speaks volumes on the issue of Kondaikanal’s unfortunate toxic waste spill, but it also gives a platform to the greater conversation of protecting our planet.
“I’m not consciously trying to become a social activist rapper,” Ashraf said. “But everyone has a conscience, and I knew I had to do something, especially after I met the people affected by the mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal,” Ashraf said to The Guardian.
The subject of taking care of our environment, as well as the bountiful amount of resources we have on it, is the deeper meaning behind her rap. It touches on human rights and educating people on the destruction of our beautiful planet by chemicals and other such deadly and lethal materials.
Listening and watching Ashraf’s clever and poignant song on the effect of Unilever’s contamination of Kodaikanal is heartbreaking. It has halted many children’s educations and killed many men and women. It is my sincere hope that Ashraf’s petition meets its goal and that Unilever finally cleans up their mess.
Payal Shah is the new summer intern at Brown Girl Magazine. She is a student on her way to do big things. She is a lover of lifestyle and culture related writing and 90s sitcoms. Shah is also passionate about life.
In her new book “Dear Durga,” author and life coach Shanita “Shani” Liu takes a different approach to self-help. Liu guides readers by providing a courageous framework. She writes to the Hindu goddess Durga Ma, who is a symbol of courage to Liu. Durga Ma represents power and protection in Hinduism.
Liu ties together the personal. She shares her experiences in witnessing fear-based patterns from her own Guyanese family and culture and noticing them in herself as a mother while proving coping strategies as a life coach. In this candid conversation, Liu explores the journeys of motherhood, writing, overcoming fear and leading future generations by example.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It came from a diary entry I wrote in 2018 or 2019. I wrote that I was going to write a book called “Dear Durga.” I created a folder on my computer and it said “Dear Durga Book” and it was almost like I was setting the intention. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, but I did know that Durga and writing to her was an important part of my journey. And so I just had this intuitive feeling that I was going to be able to share this story one day.
In 2021, we were going through the pandemic, I just had my third child, and Durga was very much like, ‘okay, now you’re going to go write your book.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m sorry. I’m, like, trying to navigate motherhood again and my business and everything else that was going on.’ And she was like, ‘no, you’re going to participate in this writer’s workshop. You’re going to learn how to write a book proposal. You’re going to enter it into this contest. You’re going to win the contest, and you’re going to write a book.’ And I thought she was nuts. And all of my fears started coming up – who am I to do this, I can’t do this, I’m not enough, what am I writing about?
I had to muster up the courage to write this book. And so Durga was a catalyst for me to call on my courage and say, ‘it’s time.’ This moment made me realize what I’ve been doing professionally for the last seven years is walking folks through my framework to help them activate their courage. So even though I was terrified, I realized this book can take the personal and the professional pieces of this puzzle and really put it all in one place.
When you say that Durga was your driving force for action, do you mean spiritually and religiously, or something else?
For everything, yes—emotionally, spiritually. In 2015, when I was falling apart and embarking on these major life changes in my life, she came through. It was the catalyst for me to say, “I have to start breaking myself out of these fear-based mindsets and really start entering these new phases of my life with courage and disrupting old patterns.”
Describe the writing process for this book. How did you find that courage to move past your fears?
Definitely writing to Durga. Knowing that the book was going to be about this journey of me connecting with my courage, I had to accept the challenge. I’m a writer by training. I’ve been writing my whole life. I was an English major, so I knew I could write, but I had to sit down and excavate six years of my life. I had to go into my journals from 2015 up until when I started writing the book at the end of 2021.
It was wild to re-experience myself going through these various obstacles, these discouragements, these discomforts and then find the strength through this courageous energy I had within me, to take these small steps and overcome each obstacle. The excavation of my own life was an interesting part of the process for me to get clear on the themes based on what I remembered.
The writing process was very spiritually and emotionally transformative because I’ve been doing all this work with my own courage that I sort of had to channel it with my own creativity to write and to marry what I had been doing professionally and what I had been going through personally. So, once I formed the book proposal, the blueprint for what I was writing, and submitted it to the Hay House contest, I then learned I won the runner up prize, I was able to write the manuscript pretty quickly. At that point, I was like, ‘okay, I know what I’m writing about now. I know I have the courage to do it.’ Durga was right, after all.
Walk us through the four steps for somebody who is just hearing about this and is interested in your way of approaching courage.
I have a Courage Kit framework, and I’ve had to walk my talk through it, but I’ve used it with hundreds of clients. It’s a four-phase process to support you with activating your courage and keeping it alive. The first phase is activating your courage and calling it in, identifying your courage metaphor, how to access that energy and how to commune with it and build a relationship with it. The second phase is about aligning with your needs because, as mothers and women, we don’t ask ourselves what we need due to this societal expectation and cultural conditioning. That’s an important part of emerging victorious. Victory is important because it means to attain fulfillment. Being victorious means having the courage to honor yourself so that you can be victorious, whatever that is like for you. The third phase is alleviating stressors so you can feel your best. Then the fourth phase is taking action so you can start making baby steps towards your goals.
How was this journey impacted by being Indo Caribbean? What role did your culture play in this?
The role that my culture plays is huge. In the book, I talk about the legacies of sacrifice that I come from because of indentureship. I’m three generations removed from that history of colonizers exploiting indentured laborers. When you come from these legacies of sacrifice, fear-based mindsets and behaviors accompany it. When I was acting from a place of martyrdom and sacrificing my own needs, I realized I learned that from the women who came before me, who learned it from the women before them.
When you zoom out you realize this has happened across cultures. Why are women in our culture asked not to use our voices? Why are people telling us to shut up, play small and don’t cause trouble? Our voices have been collectively suppressed, and over the last few decades, we’ve been liberating ourselves. We’re going to honor all parts of ourselves and express ourselves as we need to, and we need courage to do that.
Why dedicate the book to your younger self?
I had to dedicate this book to my Little Shanny because her voice was suppressed, and due to cultural and societal expectations, she wasn’t allowed to be her fullest self. She’s very lively and creative. In the book, she is writing and we make rap songs and other things to call on our creativity. This book is an honoring. As I was honoring all parts of myself and healing my own emotional wounds, I was liberating her at the same time.
How would you describe your relationship with Durga Ma? How can others who are not Hindu achieve that sort of relationship with their metaphoric courage figure?
Regarding Durga and myself, I don’t say, ‘I got this courage metaphor, now help me.’ You have to build a relationship with it. In the last eight years, I’ve been able to build a solid relationship with her where my courage is almost automatic. If I feel or think about fear, my automatic courage alert starts going off. The stronger connection I build to her, the stronger our relationship becomes, and the more self aware I become about making courageous choices.
But, in the introduction of the book, I clarify that folks can use the Durga archetype or work with Durga whether they are Hindu or not. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from because she embodies victory over evil, maternal protection and an unapologetic courage that we need for fulfillment. So I encourage folks to connect with her because people who are meant to resonate with it will resonate with it and if Durga doesn’t resonate with you, you understand you have this courageous wisdom inside you. If telling my story about the way it looks for Durga and I, inspires somebody to ponder a relationship like that, that’s great! In the end, I just want folks to walk away feeling comforted and equipped with tools to be their most courageous selves.
How do you take this idea, this archetype, and apply it to yourself or anybody?
We’re human beings and I think sometimes we just need something visual or tangible to hold on to. Sometimes I need an idea or person to help ground what’s coming up for me, so the metaphor is really helpful because I can visualize and interact with it.
The metaphor offers information because when you’re scared and fear is clouding your judgment, it’s easy to default to doubt. Your courage metaphor offers information, encouragement or directions – targeted guidance. As long as you connect, communicate with and build a relationship with it, it will help you. That’s why I use “Dear Durga,” channeled writing, as a common thread throughout the book, it’s one modality that works. If this modality doesn’t work for you, then try interacting with it differently. But at the end of the day, regardless what modality you find, you can leverage that metaphor’s information to inform your next step.
How did motherhood and becoming a mother play a role in writing this book and also your career as a life coach?
I started life coaching when I became a mother. I was pregnant while I was in my Life Coaching Certification Program, and Durga Ma showed up just a few months before I found out I was pregnant. I think she knew I was going into the next phase of my life, and I couldn’t continue on my own anymore. So motherhood was a huge act of courage for me. I left a toxic job so I could embark on motherhood and begin making professional choices that would support me once I became a mom.
The beautiful thing about motherhood is that you become a different person – you change. Your ability to care, give, create and grow changes. Motherhood informed the work that I did with other women in their mind, body, spirit wellness and it forced me to focus on my own wellness. Also, Durga Ma just happens to be this maternal archetype, so maternal protection and nurturing felt important to my process as I was healing wounds. This is a powerful energy that can support other moms because we need support. We’re caring for little human beings and, as it is, most moms are under-resourced. Courage is a resource that doesn’t cost any money, that can help with life’s challenges.
Did you have to endure little battles with people around you to gain support for the kind of work that you do?
I don’t think anyone around me discouraged me. The battle was within myself and having the courage to say, ‘I’m this life coach who’s going to focus on courage.’ I had to get over my own impostor syndrome, self doubt and fears that were weighing me down about coaching with this mindset among many other coaches. When I started, I was focusing so much on self care, but then I realized it’s so hard for women to self care because we have a fear of doing it. Everything goes back to fear. That’s why I realized the root of all of this is coming back to our courage.
As an Indo Caribbean mother, there can be a lot of expectations. Did the courage framework also help with that?
Absolutely. Most moms are givers, especially those of Indo Caribbean heritage. We saw our moms constantly sacrificing everything so we can have high-quality lives. But this trajectory of motherhood and bringing my courage in through my own framework forced me to ask for help, set boundaries and put my needs first. Obviously we put our children first, we’re always protecting them. But I began to honor myself. To realize I can honor myself and my needs while managing motherhood felt really important. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to do that because we’re breaking out of old patterns from our family’s example. This is why, in ‘Dear Durga’ I tell a lot of stories about my grandmother, because she was a major influence in what I thought motherhood should look like.
Can this in turn create a healthier experience for the child?
Absolutely. You’re a demonstration to your children. Your children do not do what you say, they do what you do. I have daughters and a son, and I don’t want my daughters growing up thinking that when they get married or have kids and start a family, they have to clean the house all the time and never experience joy. I want them to see that Mommy can experience joy and fun and she can work, and she can do these things. It may not look perfect, but they can see that I can do all of these things without it costing my mental health and sanity.
Do you have a favorite story that you use in this book for reference?
It’s not my favorite, but the story about my grandmother’s death and the shock that my family and I felt stands out the most. She was the matriarch and anchor to our maternal line. So, when she passed away, it created chaos. As a little girl, it wasn’t until she passed away that I questioned: ‘Who was she? What was her life like?’ It allowed me to see what my grandmother was like outside of being a grandmother. When the funeral happened, I heard stories about how she sacrificed, whether it was for her education or her family. It gave me perspective on everything that went into my family coming to the U.S. But it also made me think, now that I have the privilege and the opportunity to change things, am I going to take advantage of that?
Liu champions personal growth and overcoming fear, emboldening us to find our courage, be vocal about our needs and refute the age-old myth that Indo Caribbean women must struggle to be successful. “Dear Durga A Mom’s Guide to Activate Courage and Emerge Victorious” is now available for purchase.
Bharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form and the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Bharatanatyam, originally a dance performed by women in temples of Tamil Nadu, is often used to convey Hindu religious tales and devotions. It is taught by a teacher known as a guru. The dance costume resembles that of a South Indian bride and the dancer wears anklets, called ghungroos, to keep the rhythm while dancing to the music. While Bharatanatyam is still taught all over the world in the traditional way, the styles of teaching have changed over the years. For the last six years, my sister and I have been taught modernized styles of Bharatnatyam in the USA.
An Arangetram lasts approximately three hours and has nine, or in our case 10, dances in total. It begins with an introduction dance called a Mallari or Pushpanjali following the guru’s nattuvangam (rhythm kept using symbols). In the middle of the program is a Varnam — a centerpiece dance that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. This dance tests the dancer’s endurance as well as their storytelling ability. The performance is concluded with a Thillana which is seen as the last glimpse into the dancer’s full capacity. The Thillana is followed by a Mangalam, the closing dance of the Arangetram.
My sister and I began learning Bharatanatyam in 2016 when we were nine years old. Despite our instant attachment to the art form, we were always daunted by the idea of having an Arangetram of our own. It would be challenging, mainly because we are twins, and our performance would have to be suitable for two people to perform side by side. We began preparing for this event in the summer of 2021. Our guru would make us run for the first half hour of class to build our stamina — much-needed for a three-hour repertoire. We would spend the next two and a half hours learning our repertoire. The first dance we learned together during this time was our Varnam. Learning this dance took a month and we spent a lot of time memorizing it. Our Varnam was dedicated to Lord Krishna, one of the many Hindu gods, known for his charm, wit, and being a master Guru whose philosophies were immortalized through the Gita — the Hindu Holy scripture.
An Arangetram is the on-stage debut of a traditional Bharatanatyam dancer following years of training and discipline under the able guidance of a guru. This is a milestone for young artists as it opens up the opportunity for solo performances, choreographing individual pieces, and instructing other dancers.
By January, we had learned our entire repertoire and were starting to memorize it while adding expressions, poses, and building up our stamina, making them look effortless. Some dances were more difficult to memorize than others, particularly dances that were story-based. Because most Bharatanatyam dance music is in either Sanskrit or Tamil so we couldn’t understand the lyrics right away. Our guru helped us interpret the stories before teaching us the choreography making them easier to commit to memory. We also had help from our mother who listened to all our songs and gave us keywords that corresponded with our dance moves. Listening to dance music on the way to school, dance, or while getting ready for bed, became a part of our daily routine as it helped us internalize the rhythms.
Although a year seems like a long time to prepare for an event, the day of the Arangetram came before we knew it. The morning started off with family and friends coming to our house to help us transport decorations and essentials we would need backstage. We arrived at our venue — the Balaji temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey — and made our way to the green rooms. Our makeup artists assisted us with hair and makeup, which lasted four hours. During this time we were going through the dances in our heads and mentally preparing for the performance to come. Once we were dressed in costume, we headed for the stage pooja, a prayer session on the Arangetram stage with close friends and family, to invoke a successful performance. This was also the time when jitters started kicking in. It had just occurred to us that the performance we’d been preparing for our entire dance careers was about to happen and this was the only chance we had to show the audience our very best.
A person can only have one Arangetram in their lifetime, and this huge milestone comes with pressure given how special the performance is.
As the masters of ceremony were introducing our first number all I could do was stare at my sister standing in the other wing, and I knew we had the same thoughts going through our minds.
As we began dancing I felt almost a sense of relief because of how well we knew the dance. Every single dance was so ingrained in our muscle memory that it felt like second nature even in front of such a large audience. During the repertoire, we had two costume changes, with three costumes in total. Each costume change took 15 minutes while the audience was learning about SAMHAJ or listening to speeches from our friends and family. Backstage, our makeup artists and backstage moms were busy helping us change our costumes and jewelry, adjusting them to make sure nothing would move while dancing. We also had some of our fellow dance girls backstage giving us water and fruit as well as tightening our ghungroos so they wouldn’t fall off on stage.
Our Varnam was a huge success, resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. After the Varnam, we performed a slower dance called Ramabajanam, telling all the stories about Lord Ram, another Hindu god known for his chivalry and virtue. We decided to dedicate this dance to our parents since it was always their favorite to watch and listen to. My mom was heavily involved in helping us memorize this dance by telling us the stories so we wouldn’t forget the choreography. Right before the last dance, we acknowledged all of the people who helped us backstage and were presented with our graduation certificates. In order to give the audience a peek at the effort that went into the performance they were watching, we shared our experience with the audience as well as our guru’s message during this time. Our last dance surprised the audience, as our mother joined us on stage and danced with us. She always dreamt of being a dancer as a child but was never able to learn. Sharing one dance meant a lot to us, and watching it was very entertaining for the audience as well. After all the dances were over, all our guests proceeded to the banquet hall for dinner where we were able to greet all our guests and thank them for coming. When the night ended we were exhausted but still full of adrenaline.
Even though the tension that had built-up in my head over the last few months had now subsided, I was somewhat disappointed that the process had come to an end. I wouldn’t exactly call my Arangetram journey perfect or effortless, but I grew so much this past year as a dancer and as well as a person. The lessons I learned from dance about hard work and resilience will carry on with me for the rest of my life and for that I am forever grateful. The event itself brought so many people together such as my aunt and cousin, who came all the way from India to attend, as well as so many relatives that we hadn’t seen in years. Grandparents, as well as young children all gathered in the audience to watch a display of their culture, or for some audience members, learn a new one. Not only did we spread awareness for this beautiful art form, but we also raised awareness on mental health amongst South Asians — an issue we’re passionate about.
Along with our guru, we decided to leverage this event to create awareness for mental health amongst South Asians in the United States. We decided to advocate for SAMHAJ, a charity that provides education and support for South Asians affected by serious mental illnesses. In order to educate people about mental health, SAMHAJ offers workshops to social service organizations, schools, and mental health professionals as well as provides culturally competent mental health services by creating bilingual support groups. You can donate to SAMHAJ via this link.
Overall, this process has been immensely gratifying and I simply cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me with Bharatanatyam.
“How could the British bring the Indians without the cows?”That’s one of the jokes you’re very likely to hear at comedian Priya Guyadeen’s show. In fact, the 53-year-old just wrapped up a set of shows with her troupe: Cougar Comedy Collective. The Guyanese-born comic spearheads the group of mostly women of “a certain age,” as she puts it.
She says the group was formed in 2021 but she started dishing out jokes back in 2020 during the pandemic, over Zoom. She was always labeled the “funny one” in her family and decided to take her jokes to a virtual open mic, hosted by her friend, where she says failure was less daunting.
Cut to 2023, and the comic was able to take her show on the road. Guyadeen and her fellow performers recently hit the East coast for a set of shows called “Cougars on the Loose!” The shows even featured two male comics.
Guyadeen’s comedy routines touch on her Indo Guyanese background, highlighting stereotypes and a clash of cultures. In one of her jokes, she tells her audience that her Guyanese mom is bad with names when she introduces her white boyfriend, Randy, and he gets called Ramesh.
Out in the Bay Area — where she spends her days now — she tries to connect the sparsely Caribbean population to her jokes.
That includes talking about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre which had ties to San Francisco and ended in Guyana. She uses this as a reference point — trying to connect her audience to her background with historical context. She says this does come with its challenges, though.
The single mom also practices clean jokes. Once she finishes up her daily routine with her eight-year-old son and day job as a project manager for a biotechnology company, she tries to find time to write her material.
It’s a balancing act. I’m like the day job-Priya for a few hours or for a chunk of time. And then I’ve got to put on my comedian hat and do that for a period of time because with comedy, I’m not just performing. I’m also producing, managing the shows, booking talent, seeking venues.
Though it’s not easy, she says she’s learning through it all — the business side of comedy and discipline.
Guyadeen, who’s lived in Brazil and Canada, says her young son really contributes to her comedy. A lot of her material focuses on jokes for parents, and single parents like herself, because she feels:
[We live] in a society that doesn’t really create a support system for single parents.
Her nonprofit, Cougar Comedy Collective, was born out of all the great reception she received. She noticed a “niche market” of women in their 50s who loved to get dressed up and come out to the shows to hear jokes that related to their own lives that aren’t typically touched on. These were jokes about menopause, aging and being an empty nester. Guyadeen says her nonprofit,
…bring[s] talent together in our age group to celebrate this time of life; celebrate this particular juncture in a person’s life.
As Guyadeen continues her comedic journey, she says she hopes she’ll be a role model for other Caribbean women to follow their dreams despite their age. She also hopes to see more Caribbean people carving out their space in the entertainment industry.
Featured Image of Priya Guyadeen taken by Elisa Cicinelli Photography