The hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys has only been together a few years, but its members have been individually well known for quite some time. Riz Ahmed, also known as Riz MC, is an actor with high profile appearances in HBO's mini-series The Night Of and big Hollywood productions like Nightcrawler and Jason Bourne. Himanshu Suri, who goes by Heems, made his name as one-third of the New York rap crew Das Racist. Their debut album togther, Cashmere, is produced entirely by a third member, London-native Redinho.
Heems and Riz met first on the internet, when Heems reached out to Riz about one of his tracks. Their first face-to-face came later — during filming for the The Night Of, in which Riz, who is from London, plays Naz, a Pakistani-American from Queens. Riz wanted to get ready for the role, and Heems, a Queens native, was his guide into that community.
The conversation that follows between Heems and Riz is in some ways a series of origin stories. It begins with the story of how they met and formed Swet Shop Boys, and continues into how the new album, a deeply personal project for both of them, came to be.
"If you really mine the specificity of your own experience," Riz says, "it resonates beyond where you think it might." Read Heems and Riz's resonant discussion of music, diaspora and identity below — and hear the full segment at the audio link.
Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. Heems: We met in the context of being two brown artists — different sides of the pond, but who deal in similar work.
Riz Ahmed, a.k.a. Riz MC: Yeah, it was when I was having to prepare for The Night Of, the HBO pilot, that we actually got to meet in person. My research meant I would have to come and kind of get to know Queens because my character was from Queens, so I thought, "Oh yeah! That rapper that hit me up a while ago — I'll reach back out to him." And we hit it off from there. The following Spring, I was back in New York for the premiere of Mira Nair's film The Reluctant Fundamentalist that I acted in, and I invited Heems and some of his friends to the premiere. And at that event I just suddenly had the idea of a name for a band — The Swet Shop Boys.
That name itself just seemed to say so much: talking about refurbishing Western pop culture, taking something like the Pet Shop Boys and flipping it with a kind of ethnic take on it — but also speaking to issues of exploitation, as encapsulated in the image of a sweatshop. Something that I think you sometimes have to think about as an artist of color is when you're tapping into your ethnic identity to express yourself freely, and when you're actually being forced to commodify it for the benefit of someone else.
Heems: Like Riz said, it touches on so many issues that it functions not just as a name for the band but, in a sense, a blueprint for it. It touches on colonialism, exploitation, working class, underground kind of stories, black market. So it had this grit to it. And then the album being called Cashmere is another play on that idea.
Riz: Both in cashmere being a kind of luxury good that is sometimes made in sweatshops, but also speaking to the Indo-Pak element of this group, with Heems' family being from India, my family being from Pakistan and Kashmir being the disputed territory between them. Just kind of acknowledging what we have in common as well as the rivalries and points of conflict.
Heems: A lot of times, South Asians just aren't given a platform to voice these stories. But in other ways, our immigration here started from a pretty academic perspective, and rather recently, really — I mean, it was 1965 when most of the people came with science degrees. And so out of that, as time progressed, now it's been long enough where we've had the "luxury" to work on things like art and music and media. That kind of pressure of the first generation isn't really on us, and so we get to do more interesting things.
Riz: I think there's a difference between the South Asian community in the U.S. and the U.K. Mainly the difference is the class profile. Whereas a lot of the U.S. immigrants from South Asia came here with master's degrees and Ph.Ds and worked in academia and the professions, the immigrant wave to the U.K. was a lot more working class. And so, to this day, I think the South Asian experience in the U.K. is a bit more hood, and it's a bit more common maybe to find people that might rap.
I'd kind of liken the South Asian experience in the U.K. more to the Latino experience in the U.S. — but I know certainly, growing up for us, we really looked to the African-American experience as expressed through hip-hop as a way of kind of articulating some of our own outsider struggles. And I think we are definitely cognizant that we are engaged in a black art form. Having said that, on the Cashmere album, we're also eager to trace the lineage of what we do back to the tradition of South Asian poetry and qawwali singers, who are very much about punch lines and dropping bars to whip the crowd up into a frenzy.
Heems: My favorite song [on Cashmere] is "Aaja." I just think it's a sweet song.
Riz: I started singing this hook, "Aaja o meri jaan e man, aaja o meri..." which means, "Come here, my beloved / Come here, my heart is thirsty." I sang the kind of temp hook on it until we managed to get hold of Ali Sethi, who's an incredible rising singer in Pakistan. He really elevated the whole thing.
Heems: I think one thing we wanted to be conscious of — and Redinho did a really good job of this — was not just having an album of sitar beats. You know, when somebody thinks about South Asian instruments in rap music, the first idea would just be, "Take a sitar and throw some drums under it." And I think initially when Riz first sang the beginning of the hook, we were kind of joking at how [it sounded like] this cartoony Bollywood-type song. We stuck with it and then when Ali Sethi put his vocals on it, it just clicked — like okay, this is cool.
Riz: And it is a kind of homage. There are lots of moments on the album that do pay homage to the music of our parents that we grew up around, whether it's qawwali or bhangra or Bollywood music. I guess it's an opportunity to reconnect to that heritage.
Heems: I like to think of it as a reclamation of the sitar from George Harrison.
Riz: I think from the outside, this record might feel like a kind of ethnomusicology project or some kind of polemic or political record, but it's really just very, very personal. We almost had no discussion about what the themes of the album would be. The name of the band served as a blueprint, and we just kind of started rapping and writing from a very personal place, very off the cuff — often kind of improvised what we did in the booth. So I think it's natural that the lyrics and those mix of cultures and languages and slang reflect us and who we are in a way that we probably couldn't have planned if we sit down and tried to.
But I think that's something that I'm trying to embrace a lot more as I get older: If you really mine the specificity of your own experience, it resonates beyond where you think it might. I mean, there are many people who might not be able to relate to growing up South Asian in New York or London from a working class background and then being educated into the creative class. But there are a lot of people that can relate to feeling like an outsider or feeling misunderstood.
Heems: And I think it's also really rewarding, just exactly what Riz said — when you mine your personal experience and then it speaks to the larger human experience. That's a really validating moment, where you make something in your bubble and then you put it out there and you know that, "Oh, other people feel like this!" There is a certain vulnerability to making art and throwing it out there to the world, but when it comes back, it feels nice.