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Heems and Riz MC Are Telling Unapologetically South Asian Stories You Need to Hear

With 'Cashmere,' Swet Shop Boys use Bollywood samples, poems in Urdu and their messy lives to explore their brownness.

by Kamna Muddagouni
25 October 2016, 7:14am

Cashmere, the first full-length album from Swet Shop Boys, traverses a narrative of South Asian identity rarely told in Western media.

The opening verse of the album's opening track, "T5," goes "Inshallah, Mashallah but hopefully not Martial law"—readying the listener for what is about to come; An unapologetic protest against the portrayal of young brown men in today's socio-political climate. And one that's not afraid to be tongue in cheek.

Swet Shops Boys is made up of two parts, Riz Mc (aka Riz Ahmed) and Himanshu 'Heems' Suri. Both Ahmed and Suri are not new to being contradictions to South Asian stereotypes ingrained in western society. Ahmed, a British MC of Pakistani origin, who may also be familiar to you from his acclaimed work as an actor, appearing in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the latest Jason Bourne flick and the Star Wars Origin story releasing this December, Rogue One. Suri, a Punjabi and Queens-raised rapper, is too a seasoned artist, having released music both as part of noughties cult outfit Das Racist and as Heems.

In Swet Shop Boys, and with Cashmere, you not only see both artist's talent but also their activism coming to a hard-hitting and catchy climax.

The record  covers a lot of heavy, heavy topics. Racist stereotyping by white communities, rising islamophobia, youth radicalisation, police brutality, anti-globalisation and the geopolitics of India and Pakistan to name a few. Despite this, Cashmere is not a heavy album.

It—maybe more so to me as a member of the South Asian diaspora in Australia—feels like a celebration. A celebration of the ability for two brown men to rap about the messy shit that is their lives, without signing up to a white paradigm of how they should be, and to some bold beats.

In 2016, we have been lucky to see a number of seminal albums by Black artists telling their stories of how tumultuous it is to be Black in America. A Seat at the Table and Lemonade —and that's just from the one family.

Through Cashmere, Swet Shop Boys tell their narrative as People of Colour navigating a world dominated by white supremacy and in doing so, show the complexities of their own identities frankly. For the Western listener, it's a rare insight into South Asian communities whose popular portrayal has for decades ranged from Apu to Surgeon with not much nuance in between. And it's an insight gained through Riz's razor sharp spits, Heems' endearing stoneresque style drawl, and some pretty slick beats. Cashmere's victory is that it speaks so clearly of Suri and Ahmed's different but similar experiences as members of the South Asian communities in New York and Southall London respectively.

The timing of Cashmere could not be better. In the wake of Brexit and the rise of Trump, Swet Shop Boys present the voice of the targets of anti-immigrant rhetoric sweeping across the globe including in Australia. The effective collaboration between Ahmed, of Pakistani origin, and Suri, of Indian origin, is also timely given rising tensions between India and Pakistan which are aimed at showing the differences between the two nations for political and communal benefits, the flow on effects which can often be felt in diaspora communities.

"No Fly List" and "Half Moghul Half Mowgli" are standout tracks as both rappers address not only the tiring labels placed on them by the Western societies they exist in—terrorist, fundamentalist, exotic—but also of the expectations they have both struggled with as brown men choosing the 'alternative' career paths of actor and rapper. This is brilliantly and comedically done by sampling a Desi Aunty and Uncle reprimanding them in Hindi and Urdu for their questionable 'galli' (swear word) ridden lyrics while also providing them with tips how they could be more like the Tupacs of their profession. Ahmed has written previously, in his moving piece 'Typecast as a Terrorist' of stereotypes a Muslim Person of Colour, and in Cashmere, Swet Shop Boys show in a complex manner, that those labels are just as tiring when handed out by your own community.

But putting aside the politics of their lyrics, perhaps Cashmere's greatest achievement is just how fucking catchy it is. 'Tiger Hologram' is a sure to be a club banger for no other reason than the fact that you cannot listen to it without feeling you need to get up and shake.

In aiming for a good hook, Ahmed and Suri turn confidently to representing their respective cultures. Cashmere is interspersed with samples of 70's Bollywood soundtracks, shayiris (poems) in Urdu and Punjabi and the track 'Aaja' has a melodic Urdu chorus as its base. Added to this are many cultural references to the realities of growing up as a South Asian living away from your country of origin but also imbedded in a community which continues to provide a sense of culture and tradition. Perhaps, for this reason, at many points, Cashmere also feels like the album is explicitly for a Hindi or Urdu speaking audience. Kind of like a call saying we see you, and we see the world like you do.

Cashmere's message is impossible to be summed up in just a sentence - but it shows that despite the hypocrisy in how the West perceives South Asian culture, there are many intricate layers to South Asian identity. Each is political, and exploring that can be a shitload of fun.

Follow Kamna on Twitter.

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