A sword and a gun: these are the weapons that Eboshi and Contra, together the duo Cartel Madras, brandish at the end of their striking video “Goonda Gold.” “Striking” feels like the perfect word for what Cartel Madras puts out. Their music, part of a new style of trap that they’ve dubbed “goonda rap,” strikes with both content and sound, simultaneously artful and arresting. They are here to redefine the place of violence in understanding brown femmes, the place of revolution in music made by brown women, and the place of the sword and the gun in pop culture.
Eboshi and Contra are sisters, evident from their rapport, the way they cut in and out of each other’s words during conversation and in their songs. They are rappers who care about their craft and who grew up hungry for wide-ranging sounds, sifting through the internet for inspiring gems.
“You spend a lot of time on the internet in your basement when you live in Alberta and you’re a weirdo. We were like the internet versions of crate-diggers for music,” Contra told Kajal.
They talk about their transition from being two creative sisters to a trap duo as though it was inevitable. They both wanted to explore the space that they came from — as immigrant kids, women of color in Calgary, members of the South Indian diaspora, and South Asian voices who were wondering about what narrative they could write for themselves.
“In 2017, we said, let’s put this out there into the world, and then Cartel Madras was formed,” Contra said.
Eboshi and Contra are intentional about naming. “We don’t want people to get it twisted,” they repeated multiple times during the interview when referring to their own identities and positionalities. Cartel Madras, therefore, was the perfect name for them to claim their South Indian heritage, to not be co-opted by a predominantly North Indian, Bollywood diasporic culture.
They see their work and their movement to get others to write goonda rap as one of expanding the frame to include more voices. From the trap scene in Kerala to the “Dravidian movement in art” they see happening to new trap coming out of Toronto, they feel Cartel Madras is part of a community of artists who are claiming space for themselves.
With this space, Cartel Madras is putting forward a character that they see as missing in pop culture: a queer, brown, radical-to-the-point-of-violence woman. Their most recent EP, Age of the Goonda, deals with a grand narrative of this character in a way that “goes for your neck a bit both sonically and lyrically.”
In terms of inspiration for this character, Eboshi and Contra point both to musical sources and personal ones. They are often compared to MIA — everyone’s touchpoint for a revolutionary brown woman rapper — but they never tire of this comparison.“Ultimately, there is a philosophical connection there… MIA’s a brown woman who’s also rapping and she’s Tamil. Seeing someone brown make this rift in pop culture the way she did, we were like, holy shit, right?” Contra said.
They also are inspired by radical movements in South Asia and want to prevent erasure of those histories, especially in diaspora art.
“We grew up on stories about our great-grandmothers who wielded guns and were radical women in Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” Contra said.
These stories inform the questions they are trying to ask with their songs. Can you imagine a brown woman as revolutionary? Can you see her shifting a system? Cartel Madras wants you to see what they see, to imagine these women as the forces of nature that they are.
When it comes to the music, Cartel Madras doesn’t want to get it twisted either. They see themselves as guests in the bigger genre of hip hop, and they want to pay tribute to gangster rap, rap from the South and New York, from the West Coast and East Coast. But being Canadian, feeling separate from the physical locations where those subgenres of hip hop were formed, they decided to pioneer their own space — one that includes queer brown people, immigrants, and others who are racialized in various ways that have gone unseen due to the repetition of predominant narratives.
Eboshi and Contra want to be known not just for their message, but for their music. They start with the beat, and write their own verses separately, tying it all together later to figure out the structure of the track. They don’t rap each others’ parts, preferring to put their own voice into the lyrics that they write themselves. They don’t take the label “rapper” lightly, and want to showcase their innovative sound and lyrics. They’re constantly experimenting, pushing the boundaries, and looking for new ways to push their narrative forward.
“We want to be recognized for our lyricism, our skill, our ability to rap, how well we write, because those are things that make a good musician someone we want to listen to as well,” Eboshi said.
With respect to the violent imagery present in a lot of their music and visuals, Cartel Madras wanted to subvert expectations that were placed on them growing up. They wanted to give off a true air of danger so audiences would understand, wouldn’t misinterpret their intentions. They’re not here to make audiences comfortable, but rather to tell this story that extends generations before them.
“It’s a mix of trying to represent yourself and your beliefs, and then paying homage to people you know and have known,” Eboshi said. “But these are all facets of our identity and our character, and these are the conversations we have with the people closest to us. It all goes into the music we write to the world.”
Header image by BNB Studios & Friday Knights