Heems debuted the music video for "Sometimes" this week, in which he plays a infomercial host shilling skin-lightening cream that promises to help customers win the hearts of the white women they love. If anyone else made it, it'd probably garner a lot of furrowed brows and at least a little bit of outrage. But how seriously can you take yourself when the guy rapping is parodying Busta Rhymes with a bindi? For years, Himanshu Suri framed his art through humor, rapping about the Brown Man's Burden and laughing to keep from wilding.
But his latest album, Eat Pray Thug, is shorter on jokes and longer on meditations about being Indian in America, being American in India, and being neither in both. We sat down shortly after the release of his record to catch up on where he's been, and where else he'd like to go.
When was the first time you went to India? I went when I was five for my uncle's wedding, then again when I was twelve. I had a real sense of pride about India, even at an early age—we would all go to the Indian Day Parade, I wanted a flag, and all my friends were Indian. When I went at twelve years old, I was like, "Damn, it's mad dirty here." I was a spoiled American, but even though they couldn't afford it, my cousins went out of their way to be hospitable. Then I went again in 2005 with my sister and my cousin. My cousin is an anomaly in the family because she's into art, so we went to these galleries and art dealers. That was the first time I got into South Asian art. Then we went to clubs—my parents weren't there.
Where specifically? Delhi, Goa, and Bombay. Goa is the beach where all the foreigners and the Bombay elite come—the water is beautiful. A lot of it is overcrowded and spring break-y, but there's still pockets that are super low-key. It's where a lot of the artists and writers who get sick of the hustle in Bombay go and live. My family there isn't well off—they're very middle class—but when I went alone, I was hanging out with the upper class India elite and I'm living the same type of city life I do in New York. When I tell people here, or in Delhi or Bombay, that my dad is from Haridwar and my mom is from Meerut, they look at me kind of in the same way as when I tell people in Manhattan that I'm from Queens.
Like, "does not compute"-type shit. "That's not where rich people live!" Then I went after three months of studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where all I did was take courses on India—Indian economic history, Indian mogul history, Bollywood cinema. Academically, I was really into it. I went and I really enjoyed it but I never thought about living there. Fast forward to 2011, and I started having this feeling, like, "Everything will be fine once I get to India. I just need to get there. Whatever my problems are whatever I'm dealing with when I go to India, for some reason it'll all make sense."
Did that happen? No, and that's kind of what Eat Pray Thug is about. I'm guilty of the same type of exotification of India that this white lady [Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert] is. I was like, "Oh, I'll go to India on this spiritual journey," and that's the same kind of shit I'm critical of other people for—spiritual tourism. But I'm guilty of it too.
Compared to your solo mixtapes, this album is sonically disparate. It's a messy record, like you're going in six or seven different directions. Oh yeah, I still am. It's interesting, I feel like the Das Racist and the Heems records were always disparate. On this record, I'm singing, which is what makes it different. The Dev indie joint is like blatant pop.
There's a hundred trap rappers that can talk about selling coke, but you're the only rapper that can talk about Himanshu shit—college, Queens, the TSA, NYPD, rap nerd shit. It's cool to see you participate in the sounds that are relevant right now, with your own specific perspective. I'm the only person who's lived my shit, so I still don't get why it resonates with people. I think it's because they're fans of mine from Das Racist, and I can see why Das Racist resonated with people. Unless you're Indian, though, for me it's like, "Why do you like this?"
You always get "formerly of Das Racist." At its best it's a news peg, right? The Voice titled their cover story "Heems gets past that stupid group with that dumb name," and I'm just like whoa, whoa, ay, ay. It's still with the backhanded compliments. To a lot of people, it's a valuable tidbit of information that I'm one of the guys from Das Racist. As an artist, I want to move past that and just be Heems, but I can see why certain publications or people feel inclined. It's just the way music blog culture is. After the group you become "this thing."
"I'm guilty of the same type of exotification of India that this white lady is. Spiritual tourism."
Have your parents heard the references to drug abuse in your music? I was very concerned about [them hearing it], but they know what I went through firsthand. There was a little bit of, "Why would you put that in a song for the world to hear?" At the same time, they know it was quite therapeutic for me, and they know that it's not all who I am—also, it helps younger people who struggle. They've been supportive to the point where I'm more anxious about it than they are. They are my entire crutch, my family. I spent so many years running away from home and being out on the streets and being away from them, so it feels good right now to be about that.
You're with both your parents right now? My parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, and their two babies. She's got two beautiful kids that are at my house right now.
Family is so crucial to South Asian cultures. It's a very American thing where you have to "get out the house," you "leave the nest." Do white people feel this automatic urge to buy their mom a house? Or is that just us? We share everything. To white people, I think my narrative is, "Oh, he must've gotten broke and moved in with his parents." That's the only way they can comprehend moving in with their parents. I was chipping in on bills while paying a second amount of money in Brooklyn on an apt. Why do that? I want space—and as the eldest son, that house is mine, and they drill that in my head constantly, More than anything, they want me to get married and have a family in that house, especially now that my sister has been comfortable with her husband living there.
We built that house together out there five years ago—we knocked down what was there and built this big, gaudy, Punjabi house. The neighbors think it's way too big, that we're totally stunting on the block—but you've been to Queens, that's what we do. White people always write in the comments online on the op-eds, "They move in and they build their Taj-Mahals, we should have some ordinances on the heights." [Laughs] You have this need to protect your parents. Even though you're younger, you feel proud of them, you feel these feelings that are normally associated with someone younger than you—but for your parents.
You know this world a little bit better than they do. Even though they know the world better than I do, I know this world better than they do. Part of that comes from the way that the world interacts with us as well. When you're a seven-year-old kid and someone speaks to you instead of your parents, when your parents just spoke to them in clear English, but because they have an accent the person feels more comfortable talking to you, and you're like "My man, I'm seven."
Now that this album is out, do you feel the impulse to create more? I feel the impulse to create at all times, but right now it needs to be in a different medium. I don't know what a rap song by me would look or sound like. I need more experiences to build and write on, otherwise it would be autopilot. I'm probably going to make another record, but I'm not 100% sure. The reception to [this album] has been so positive that I might continue, but right now I'm content with this. I just want to ride this out and play some cool concerts.
You've been doing some film stuff too? I've been acting a little bit. I also really want to write a novel. Junot Diaz took the way that we speak and got it on the page in a way that sounded genuine. Oscar Wao is probably my favorite book of the last 10 years. It's on some Dominican nerd Lothario shit. I co-directed my video and I'm more involved with the visuals on this, and all the while I'm still working in advertising tech, I'm still putting in that work every night doing the data stuff. I'm wild busy right now because it feels good. The worst thing to someone like me is free time.