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Swet Shop Boys
Photograph: Courtesy Erez Avissar

Hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys aims to break down borders with Cashmere

By Ro S

Queens rapper Himanshu “Heems” Suri, formerly of hip-hop trio Das Racist, and British actor-MC Riz Ahmed have a knack for devising charged monikers. After meeting while researching his role for the HBO series The Night Of, Ahmed approached Heems with a name for a potential joint rap project: Swet Shop Boys. Along with British producer Redinho, the two address their conflicted racial history—Ahmed is Pakistani and Heems is Indian—post-9/11 Islamophobia and South Asian diaspora through irreverent rhymes and beats inspired by Islamic Qawwali music. We discussed the group’s debut record, Cashmere, in advance of its two NYC shows.

Riz, you grew up in battle-rap scenes. How did that inform how you rap now?
Riz Ahmed: I went to the opposite extreme for many years. I stopped freestyling, avoided punch lines and moved toward longer spoken-word poetry.

How did each of your rapping styles influence the other while writing the album?
Ahmed: Well, the usual method of tweaking and rewriting I came into wasn’t going to work when we had five days to finish a record. Heems encouraged me to freestyle again and forcibly massaged that back out of me.
Heems: That’s one way to put it. By the end of the process, Riz was freestyling, and I was rewriting; it was a kind of role reversal.

By naming the album Cashmere, after the disputed region, how were you trying to comment on the idea of conflict or borders?
Heems: Both our respective families’ histories are enwrapped in partition, where his had to leave India for Pakistan, and mine vice versa. But in many ways, the idea of this project is to break down borders and boundaries. For that reason, airports come up often as a no-man’s-land.

You’ve both spoken in the past of either moving to India or touring there.
Heems: I was recently based out of Goa doing a performance-art residency, and [my last album] Eat Pray Thug was about even South Asians in the diaspora being susceptible to spiritual tourism. We definitely formed this band to perform in Pakistan and India, but now that Bollywood organizations are banning Pakistani actors and Pakistan is shutting down Indian TV channels, it doesn’t really feel feasible in the current political climate.

How did rap become your mode of addressing these kinds of issues?
Heems: It’s about offering an aspirational model—though I might not be a role model—of telling stories of working-class South Asian backgrounds. Stories like [those of] my father, who drove a cab, and my mother, who bagged groceries with a master’s degree in economics. I could’ve done that in novels, but my cousins don’t read Jhumpa Lahiri, they listen to Hot 97.

So it was the musical form most accessible to you.
Heems: Yeah, and beyond that, it's also about reclamation—reclaiming our historical tie with poetry, not only in the context of diaspora and hip-hop, but in the context of Qawwali and Sufi poetry. For instance, there's an interlude on the album with Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalavi.

Conservative ideology surrounding that Pakistani-Indian border disseminated so widely throughout my own hometown Indian community—what's your experience with that?
Heems: I actually just gave a performance where I touched upon Hindutva nationalism. It's an issue of how Indian immigrants thrust between a cultural binary of white and black become readily willing to fall into the trend of Islamophobia post-9/11, when ironically much of that violence is pointed toward Indian people.

How does Redhino fit into your dynamic? 
Heems: Instrumentals on mixtapes like Nehru Jackets often only had, say, Bollywood samples with drums thrown underneath, but Redhino delved into our interest with Qawwali by doing tons of research—he gets pretty academic, ethnomusicology-wise—and made some amazing beats. His contributions made the album way more cohesive than the initial Swet Shop Boys mixtape. 

Swet Shop Boys play Rough Trade NYC Thursday, November 17th and the Studio at Webster Hall Friday, November 18 at 8pm. $17.


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