Published: 19th August 2019
From Jaffna to Montreal, how Navz-47 escaped war and is making music to fight bullies
The Canadian-Tamil singer's latest single has 81,000 views on YouTube and has been praised by musicians in the Tamil music industry
Naveeni Athanasious Philip was just starting Carnatic music classes when one day, she was scolded by the teacher for wearing her hair loose. The next day, she braided her hair in cornrows (African style of braiding) and got an even louder yelling. But Naveeni did not take it lightly; she responded saying that she had done only what she had been asked to do. For that, she got kicked out of class. That was the last time she tried to get trained in music and the first of many, many instances where she stood up for herself. It is probably this feisty attitude and 'untrained-ness' that makes Naveeni such a relatable and promising music star in the Tamil music scene. The Tamil-Canadian singer AKA Navz-47 has not always had it easy and her latest song Pattasu will not give you the slightest hint of her battles. But her first-ever song, that she wrote when she was 15, Mallika, is more her story. She says it was based on a dream she had, about a young girl surviving a war.
At the age of 10, Navz (as she liked to be called) and her parents went to Canada as refugees escaping the genocide in Sri Lanka. Even today, her family continues to be splattered all around the world and the last time she visited Jaffna was for her grandmother's funeral a few years ago. Navz has little memory of her time in Jaffna but her next few years in Canada weren't all that great either. "Since I didn't look like any of them, I was bullied a lot in school and faced a lot of racism growing up. Music became my biggest weapon to fight bullying," says Navz.
Despite living thousands of miles away, Navz never lost touch with her mother tongue and sees herself only making music in Tamil, at least for now. This is generally unusual for someone who has lived away from their motherland for so long but Navz gives all the credit to her mother for this bond she has with Tamil. "My mother was an RJ and was always involved in Tamil language and culture, so I never lost touch with it," Navz tells us. The Philip family even had a strict 'no English and no French' policy at home, "We were only allowed to speak in Tamil at home and I would read Tamil newspapers and practice. I also began to think and write in Tamil, it came naturally to me."
However, writing songs was something she got from her mother, Nanthini. "When my father was away, my mother would write poems in her diary and that's how I began to write songs as well," she explains. While there were no trained musicians at home, Navz was still from a 'sort of' musical family since her mother did sing, her father played the guitar and Tamil movie songs were always playing in their home. While she knows that Tamil doesn't have a very big market, she doesn't see herself composing in any other language; not that she completely dismisses the potential to do so in the future, "But this is my kind of music; I rap and I sing. And if people like it, then they like it, if they don't, then... well," she says laughing.
She says her three biggest music influences are are mother, Kannadasan and MIA. "Kannadasan writing was always so meaningful and he used the simplest of words to explain what he felt and I do that too, I use really simple words in my lyrics," she said.
Navz has released singles, the latest being 'Pattasu' which was shot in the bylanes of the Housing Boards of Chennai. She says that India is like her second home, "Since it is not very safe for me to visit Jaffna, Tamil Nadu is like a second home to me. I love India and I love visiting, love speaking the language and love wearing clothes. I've met similar-minded people and find it easier to collaborate with them," she explains. Pattasu is unlike her other songs, it's got Navz doing the thapankutthu with a bunch of other dancers, all 'Tamil hero' style. "Growing up, I saw Tamil heroes having these huge dance numbers with a light-skinned heroine. And he was always trying to save her from harm. That's why I wanted to do this, dance with a bunch of others and 'save the day' myself. Like you would see at the end of the video, I want to show kids that they can be their own heroes, they don't need a man to come and save them. I tell them to be their own superhero!" Navz says.
While her last few songs have featured similar themes of love, fun and self-confidence, we ask Navz if she would ever talk about the genocide in Sri Lanka and what it was like for a family to move to Canada as refugees, "Yes, definitely. My parents have talked to me about it but I've done my own research as well. But I want to reach a more mature stage in my career to start talking about it and I want to shoot a video in Jaffna as well. I don't feel it is my place yet to voice my feelings but I will in the future," the 30-year-old says.
When asked if she aspires to get into mainstream Tamil music, Navz says that she does but not before she creates a name for herself. "I don't want to be known as the person who got popular because I collaborated with someone famous. I have sung for a movie with Sid Sriram and a few independent artists have reached out to me too, but I want to make a name for myself first," Navz says.
If you go through her Instagram page, you can't help but stare at all of Navz's gorgeous outfits, "While growing up, my siblings and I didn't really have the kind of branded clothes that other kids have, so we mixed and matched our clothes. I do the same now, so there is a mix of French and Indian and none of my clothes are expensive. They are all bought on sale," she laughs.
Navz says she wants to continue writing songs about bullying, "I want to tell children to reach out for help and stand up for themselves. Find an escape." She says about 11 of these tracks will be featured on her debut album named 'FOB' or 'Fresh Off The Boat', a phrase she was often referred by growing up. But she tells me that it also means something else — 'fresh' is replaced by a popular curse work starting with the same letter and 'boat' is replaced with bullies. Now you do the math!
The last and final question we ask Navz is also the most curious one. We get that Navz is the short form of Naveeni but what in the world does 47 mean? She explains, "Well, I believe in numerology, so 4 is the date I was born and 7 is the number you get when you add all the numbers in my year of birth. But I also like to believe that 47 stands for AK-47. I want my music and lyrics to be as powerful as the gun!"