by Pranav Trewn
There’s a performative element to existing as a minority in the Western world; external expectations dictate how you’re perceived, affirming guidelines you’re compared against as you bear the responsibility to represent your community. It’s present in the persistent tension that follows both when you try to blend in without phasing out, or sell yourself without commodifying your ethnicity. Inherent in that is a cultural friction in finding the balance between your identity and your role. The harder you try and forge ahead, the stronger this force holds you down, backwards into the background, refining the edges of what may offend the majority. But this resistance generates static, one that given enough pressure can strike like a match and light.
The arrival of Swet Shop Boys feels like this moment of ignition. Comprised of British-Pakistani actor and rapper Rizwan Ahmed (a.k.a. Riz MC) and Indian-American rapper Himanshu Suri (most commonly known as Heems of Das Racist), Swet Shop Boys draw from a wide swath of perspectives commonly neglected by mainstream Western conversations. The timing of Cashmere, their bold and brash debut full-length, is prescient alongside the new wave of unhinged xenophobia hitting the US and Europe, and proves that today these voices are more necessary than ever before.
We’re living in a regressive moment in history: a climate where my mom discourages me from growing a beard because she’s fearful it will lead to aggravated assault. It’s a worry I subsequently echo every time my turban-rocking dad travels outside our suburban bubble. These tensions have not dissipated since the immediate geo-political aftermath of 9/11, but seem to only now be reaching their apex with the rise of an unprecedented lack of shame in the public discourse, one that’s barely even trying anymore to assuage our fears through coded language. Minorities are used as subversive deflections: the relabeling of sexual assault as "locker room talk," racial harassment as "stop and frisk," and identity censorship as "don't ask, don't tell." Even nationalism as it's used today is just another euphemism masking ethnic purging as patriotism.
Coming from this context, Heems and Riz have every right to be frustrated, if not downright spiteful in their response to the marginalization of their heritage. Yet on Cashmere they approach their targets with reason, nuance, and most importantly, humor. Their argumentative acumen is impeccable, yet their message is stronger for not letting the constant hostility keep them from celebrating the richness of their respective identities. While both are masters of rhythmic wordplay, Heems adopts a more conversational delivery, where Riz is more pointed, delivering his lyricism in precise jabs. Yet the balance of the two approaches makes Cashmere all the more effective, keeping it heady without being too heavy, and accessible without settling to pandering.
Take lead single “T5,” which zeroes in on an infamous microaggression and blows it up into a chest-thumping anti-discrimination anthem. Riz and Heems draw upon lessons from both eastern and western mythology in their takedown of closed borders, Donald Trump, and state-sanctioned racial profiling. The atmosphere is loose and charming without losing any of its charge, both rappers packing in their rhymes with cultural allusions and historical references both resonant and irreverent. Riz’s tightly wound verse bemoans immigration policy by boasting about his acting career, with Heems comparing himself to a martyred Detroit union organizer, touching on violence incited by the Israel Defense Forces, playing into Indian occupational stereotypes, and facing airport harassment all in the span of four lines. It’s illustrative, but more importantly, it’s incendiary.
London producer Redinho manned the boards for the entire project, which was recorded in the span of five days in Riz’s London apartment. For a white dude from Britain, he’s exceptionally skilled at wielding the unique timber of South Asian instrumentation into something potent yet playful. The beats ripple, seethe, and rumble – menacingly bracing, yet with a festive shuffle. "Tiger Hologram" flips a harmonium into club-ready house stomp, meanwhile the aforementioned "T5" takes a blearing shehnai and positions it as a defiant melodic lead. There’s 808s, but there’s also tablas, and Redinho reminds us that the two are simply different tools used in pursuit of the same means.
Cashmere continues rap’s essential role of advancing a dialect; illuminating a community’s language to be opened for the masses. It fills me with a particular delight to hear of Gurudwaras and Rahki on a rap record, not only because it allows me the rare opportunity to connect my own heritage to the music I listen to, but also because I know that listeners unlike me are being exposed to these ideas for the first time. Heems and Riz are paying homage to tradition of the form, one that enlightened my perspective of worldly experiences through my initial exposure to the narratives of Nas and Outkast. Growing up, it was the story of rappers that I most closely connected with my own, finding inspiration in their earned pride in the face of institutional obstacles. Or as Riz more succinctly puts it, “My only heroes were black rappers/ So to me 2Pac was a true Paki.”
Most importantly, Heems and Riz are reclaiming the mischaracterized geographic and religious vocabulary stolen from their communities, helping to restore their value to their original owners. The duo’s perspectives detail personal experiences, but they also speak to a larger character of the displaced South Asian in a country not ready to commit to their integration. They aren't coloring between the standard lines allowed of South Asians in the form, and they're revealing the deep intricacies of their many shades.
Up until now the closest we've come to brown people breaking into contemporary hip-hip relevance is Aziz Ansari's friendship with Kanye West. The spotlight has typically been bestowed rather than earned, and more often through a tokenizing association rather than true recognition. But Swet Shop Boys weren’t granted permission to hold the platform they command; they're storming the stage without reservation and finally being heard by refusing to dial it down. Because when you're seeking representation to no avail, there's little else you can do but represent.
Cashmere is out now. You can stream it below, and buy it in the Vinyl Me, Please store when it opens today, at 12pm EST.