The first diasporic South Asian rap song I heard was called ‘Kiss my Chuddies.’ It originated as a sketch on the BBC’s popular late 1990s television show Goodness Gracious Me and as comedic raps go, it was fairly innocuous: it rhymed its titular line with ‘… When uncle says do your studies’. But it caused a lot of hand-wringing among proper Brits, particularly for ushering the word ‘chuddies’ into the Oxford English Dictionary.
The show, which parodied the behaviour of desi sub-groups in Britain, ended months before 9/11. Still, that vein of comedy runs through current politically conscious rap. The rapper and actor Riz Ahmed (known as Riz MC when he performs), one-half of the transatlantic duo Swet Shop Boys, had his first hit with ‘Post 9/11 Blues’, where he sings, ‘I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.’
His other half, Himanshu Suri – better known as Heems – got his start in the group Das Racist, who were initially stuck with the label ‘joke rap’ by the New York Times for songs such as ‘Combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell.’ (Chorus: ‘I’m at the Pizza Hut/I’m at the Taco Bell/I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.’) Even when their first mixtape, ‘Shut Up, Dude’, displayed complex and hyper-literate examinations of brown existence in America, some critics thought they were just joking. (They were not joking.) Heems later went solo, releasing two albums that complicate the brown-boy-from-Queens narrative with confessions about depression and alcoholism.
‘Cashmere’, produced by Englishman Redinho, is their first full-length album from Swet Shop Boys. Ahmed is Muslim and Pakistani-British from London; Heems is a Hindu Indian-American from Queens. The album weaves in samples from Bollywood music and devotionals alike; songs are buttressed by quotes from creative South Asians like Malala Yousafzai, murdered Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch and Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi. Throughout the album, the two trade unfailingly witty – and sometimes just funny – verses back and forth, with Heems’ appealingly lazy drawl a good counter to Ahmed’s accelerated style.
Cultural theorist Paul Gilroy has written about the ‘black Atlantic,’ looking at shared culture across the African diaspora in the West. With ‘Cashmere’, Heems and Riz MC introduce a brown Atlantic. Swet Shop Boys’ style, which mixes anti-establishment lyrics with steady 808s and generous, eclectic sampling, fits in smoothly with a genre invented and perfected by black Americans. The album balances the personal and local experiences of young, urban brown men with the cross-continental politics that affect them both – the racist and intrusive anti-terrorism security apparatus that has continued to grow since 9/11.
Its tentacles are everywhere: city cops, air travel, iMessage. Multiple tracks call out these offences in the song titles themselves – ‘T5’ (referencing the international terminal at Heathrow), ‘Phone Tap,’ ‘Shoes Off,’ and ‘No Fly List,’ on which Heems reminds us that he’s still ‘so fly, bitch.’
‘T5’ was the first single off the album and the only one to have a video so far: It tracks Heems and Ahmed through airport security, with little subtlety but maximum style. (‘Cashmere’ might name-check Hermes turbans and Reebok Classics, but I want to know where Heems got his ikat bomber jacket.) It briefly addresses what it’s like to get a pat-down from someone who looks like you, alluding to the many South Asians who work security in Heathrow.
Ahmed’s topical rhymes reference Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London, as well as Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. ‘Trump want my exit, but if he press a red button/To watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on,’ referencing his nascent television and movie stardom. After gathering indie acclaim for Nightcrawler and this year’s HBO series The Night Of, he’ll be seen this winter in the latest Star Wars story, Rogue One. Still, heartthrob status doesn’t inoculate bearded Muslim types against TSA profiling: just ask Shah Rukh Khan, thrice detained at various American airports. (Though at least you might get a personal apology from the ambassador.)
The Swet Shop Boys turn the tables on Heathrow
airport security in this video for ‘T5’
It would be irresponsible to talk about border patrol rap – and, for that matter, South Asian rap – without referencing its most fierce and famous voice: M.I.A. For all its considerable merits, ‘Cashmere’ is undeniably from a male perspective (and not just because of its maybe-purposefully uncomfortable lyrics about picking up girls on Twitter). Nearly a decade ago, the woman whom Nicki Minaj referred to admiringly as ‘a bad bitch from Sri Lanka’ was rapping about visas, prepaid burner phones and woke boyfriends. The combination of her intensity with a futuristic glamour made socially conscious, militantly left-wing rap cool.
Where Swet Shop Boys register protests (‘always get a random check when I rock the stubble’), M.I.A goes, for better or worse, on the offence: gun shots lace the chorus of her biggest hit, ‘Paper Planes,’ and on ‘Bad Girls’ she raps ‘Don’t go screaming if I blow you with a bang.’ Aggression is a privilege of supposedly unthreatening femininity: it’s a risk brown men can’t run. Their lyrics keep within the well-traveled lane of sharp but necessarily civil dissent.
There is more cultural capital in being brown in the West now than when M.I.A. got her start (or, for that matter, when Goodness Gracious Me did). America has Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling and several other comedians and television stars. The rest of the world has Zayn Malik (mashallah). The Swet Shop Boys have named a single from ‘Cashmere’ for him. Malik, a former member of the wildly popular boy-band One Direction, has universal appeal. As Ahmed sings, he has ‘more than 80 virgins on him’ without having to resort to self-sacrifice: he represents the fantasy of rosy multiculturalism.
In a year of combustible anti-immigrant sentiment, it doesn’t look like there’s much hope for a post-racial, post-TSA future. But works like ‘Cashmere’ help us critique – and joke about – the circumstances trying to define our identities.
Simran Bhalla is a writer and Ph.D student in film and media studies. She tweets at @smbhalla