How Swet Shop Boys Turned Conflict Into Cashmere

Heems and Riz MC on how making the LP, Cashmere, flipped their perceptions of their own cultures.

How Swet Shop Boys Turned Conflict Into <i>Cashmere</i> Photo by Erez Avissar

Cashmere, the excellent new album from Swet Shop Boys, was a different kind of rap project for its creators, Himanshu Suri, known to most as Heems from Das Racist, and Riz Ahmed, star of HBO’s summer miniseries The Night Of and the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One, who’s been rapping for over a decade as Riz MC. Heems, who lives in New York, and Riz, from London, met on Twitter in 2014 – via a digital dap from Heems acknowledging another South Asian rapper — and subsequently released a four-track EP.

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The new full-length was recorded with London producer Redinho in New York City over five intense days, forcing Heems to keep pace with the ferocious work ethic of his partner Riz, a self-described perfectionist. The finished project is a tightly constructed showcase of who they are, and their many differences: Heems, the “pound-for-pound sad clown” who wields as many measured, spacey ad libs as lyrics about topics like depression, sex, and suicide, and Riz MC, whose rapid-fire delivery is rooted in battle rap. It’s fun to listen to, and they frequently cover themes that are the pet passions of online social justice movements: representation, government surveillance, imperialism. But Cashmere is revolutionary in its focus on untold working class stories and perspectives — Heems grew up in a Punjabi family in Queens, NYC, while Riz grew up London’s Southall, a hub for Pakistani migrants.

Heems and Riz spoke to The FADER about how Cashmere was put together, and the specificity of experiences for South Asian diasporas in the U.S. and U.K.


Did either of you learn anything about your respective cultures from Redinho’s music?

Riz: Having it refurbished, re-housed, and displayed in a different setting makes you see it differently. The biggest eye opener was when I started seeing his qawwali samples, taken from old-school qawwali videos, [and I realized] that these guys are basically MCs. Outside eyes don’t necessarily see it in that domestic family tradition context. I think it was slightly different for Heems, correct me if I’m wrong, because you’d already studied a lot of South Asian culture and art at university so you already made an independent adult connection to a lot of that stuff. Is that fair?

Heems: Yeah. I re-approached it, both in my travels and in my work from an academic perspective, so I got to deal with a lot of the first-generation identity angst I had. I liked Bollywood a lot growing up; I just liked the idea of seeing people that looked like me on a big screen, that alone just does so much for confidence. I’m a super visual person, I need to see something before I do it. But yeah, I had studied a lot of [South Asian arts] and already started working in this world of taking rap and working-class immigrant experiences and mixing them up. With this project the beats were on a whole other level and having somebody else to share with and go back and forth about that experience kind of added to that.

If someone from your culture is highly visible, even if you dislike like what they do, it can be a very empowering thing.

Heems: I remember a couple of moments that were instrumental in my deciding to rap. One is definitely seeing M.I.A. and being like, ‘Oh shit, this is possible,’ and the other was the U.K. [Asian Underground] ’90s scene and looking at Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation. That’s why I was really excited to work with Riz: For a lot of my role models that were Asian I had to look across the pond.

Riz, when you started freestyling were there a lot of other South Asian rappers?

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Riz: I was pretty much the only brown dude doing it. So on the one hand being the only brown dude at Jump Off or Battlescars, those kinds of events, was easy in a way. I knew they were all just going to be like, ‘You smell of curry,’ or whatever. It was perfect because I just fucked them all, I destroyed them because I knew what was coming. It was so easy to flip like, ‘No, I’m not Apu from The Simpson’s my friend, it’s your mum that always says Please, sir come again.’ Easy.

Heems: The Apu bar stage of the Desi rapper, whether battle or not, you have to have it. When you’re 15, 16 and coming up there’s gotta be one bar about Apu.

“Communalism has been rising steadily since Partition, I would say. It’s real and tragic because, culturally, these places are pretty similar: the food, the vibes, the language, the atmosphere. It’s crazy how we always hate the things closest to us.” — Riz MC

Heems, you showed Riz around New York City as part of his research for The Night Of. What were some things you thought a New Yorker should know?

Heems: We went around Jackson Heights and then I took him out to Long Island to meet my family, because the real deal is once you talk to family here, you’ll get a sense. One thing that I suggested is it’s a lot of code switching. But this is stuff that Riz has grown up with too. I mean I just compared Jackson Heights and Southall, and we compared nuances of diaspora, which was the foundation of us doing Swet Shop Boys eventually. I’m thinking now about how those diasporas are different.

Riz: I think that was something I clocked, like something's kind of different here. Often it can be a more middle class experience in the South Asian community in the U.S. than in the U.K. because there are different stipulations imposed on who could come to the States from South Asia. Like, ‘No, we just want your doctors, your engineers, PhD people.’ Where in the U.K. it’s more blowback of empire and refugees: these kind of people are a bit more working class.

Heems: Also, [In New York City] the middle class controlled the narrative to South Asians here. So you don’t get the stories about the underbelly of the city, or working class communities, or the gas station guys or the taxi drivers; you get the stories of the doctors and engineers who came first and painted the narrative.

Riz, when you last spoke to The FADER, you said Swet Shop Boys embodies “the idea of reaching out across this Indo-Pak border.” That divide has it roots in the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947, but what does the divide between these communities look like today?

Riz: With my grandparents’s generation, I think India and Pakistan got along together a lot more. I think that has changed partly because there’s been a slightly different trajectory for the two communities politically and economically. Economically, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are pretty much the two most deprived groups in the U.K. in terms of life expectancy and unemployment, whereas Indians are near the top now. Then, politically, one group is under the scrutiny of the lens of post-9/11 security.

So, there’s been that divide within the diaspora and the communities but in India and Pakistan right now the two countries are basically at war, and it’s all over this region of Kashmir which is probably the most beautiful part of South Asia. It’s fucked up, man. Just now, what’s happened is that all Pakistani actors are being banned from working in Indian shows and vice versa. Indian TV networks have been told they can’t carry popular Pakistani dramas on satellite, and vice-versa. An amazing, famous Muslim-Indian actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, was just told he couldn’t act in a play in India because he was going to play a Hindu character in a traditional play. Communalism has been rising steadily since Partition, I would say. It’s real and tragic because, culturally, these places are pretty similar: the food, the vibes, the language, the atmosphere. It’s crazy how we always hate the things closest to us.

Do you feel this divide in New York City, Heems?

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Heems: I grew up in a house of Hindus and Sikhs from Punjab, so my family was affected by partition just like Riz’s was. But my neighborhood had a lot of South Asians from different backgrounds so, at least in the Queens community, the idea is ‘Oh, yeah you can hang out with Muslims but you can’t marry them.’ That is a no-no. One thing that’s interesting for me is the alignment of the U.S., Israel, and India [along] Islamophobia and hate for an entire group of people, and India wanting to be like ‘Hey U.S., we’re just like you! We don’t like Muslim people either!’ For both parts of my identity, there’s that theme [of Islamophobia]. That’s pretty disgusting.

Riz: Our parents generation is from a different time. They lived through two or three wars with the neighboring country. They grew up being told stories about how the other side was raping and killing. Like, it was genocide. Some say between four and six million people were killed during partition. I think it’s inevitable that sometimes you get that kind of sentiment expressed. In a way it’s a sign of how similar the communities are. The racism in South Asia is the most specific racism in the world. It’s like racism against a slightly different language group. It’s like micro-racism.

Heems: We’ve compared little comments that we’ve heard around our families, and it’s basically the exact same thing they’re both saying. I grew up with a lot of Pakistani kids and when you talk to everyone’s family they’re super nice, but later when me and my friends are having our open chit chat, it’ll be like, ‘Your mom is so nice,’ ‘Oh, yeah? You know what she said about you after you left? About Punjabi people?’

Finally: Heems, what's the status of your Eat, Pray, Thug pilot and novel?

Heems: The show was developed but didn’t get picked up. It was an awesome learning experience and probably not the last thing I’ll dabble with in that world. God, the book is very difficult for me to do because I’m still collecting life experiences. It has to do with cab driving and drugs in New York in post 9/11, but the last conversation I had about it was two nights ago and involved turning it into a sci-fi film, so it’s still very much in the idea stage. I started putting some pages down but it’s a long road ahead with that project.

How Swet Shop Boys Turned Conflict Into Cashmere