swet shop boys make the music young south asians have been waiting for
Swet Shop Boys are a cross-border collaboration between actor and rapper Riz Ahmed (Riz MC), rapper Himanshu Suri formerly of Das Racist (Heems) and UK producer Redinho. Riz is of Pakistani heritage, born and raised in London; Heems is of Indian origin, hailing from New York. They met on the internet — where else? Their new album Cashmere explores South Asian identity and sounds, along with hip hop, trap, dance and grime. It's been widely lauded and sparked a lot of buzz, which makes sense. During a time where the world appears to be so intensely culturally divided, we need a record like Cashmere.
I didn't grow up around many other people of South Asian background. Where I lived in Sydney, it felt like people who looked like me didn't think like me. They didn't dress like me and they definitely didn't act like me. It wasn't cool to be South Asian. I always felt I didn't totally fit in with my white friends but definitely didn't fit in with my Pakistani family friends. I'd listen to hip hop, grime and electronic music, but also would spend large chunks of my weekend revisiting Bollywood classics with my mum.
When I was a kid, my older cousin idolised hip hop and RnB. When I asked her what she was so drawn to she said, "well there are no brown people to look up to — this is as close a thing as I can relate to". The comment stayed in my head for years.
The notion you don't fit in anywhere can be pretty depressing.
In Australia, people ask me where I'm from basically on a daily basis, and are often unwilling to accept "Australia" as the answer. When I went to Pakistan I was expecting to avoid that question altogether, but was shocked to hear people say "oh woh bahar say aii hay", which translates to "oh, she's from outside of here". The notion you don't fit in anywhere can be pretty depressing.
Perhaps that's what drew me to Swet Shop Boys, their sense of unity within the experience of not belonging. Cashmere is a shout out to all the "mongrels" out there — the culturally confused, the people who feel like they don't fully fit in here nor there and the ones who have grown up between two worlds. As it says on Half Moghul, Half Mowgli, "Raised like a concrete jungli/ And a junglist and a Londonist/ But my DNA wonder where my home should be".
On this track Riz raps a verse from the perspectives of a doting fan, an islamaphobic troll, a Muslim fan and then a disapproving Muslim. The schizophrenic familiarity of it is somehow draining and comforting after a lifetime of comments like: "Oh you're Muslim? But you're not like a regular Muslim. You're a cool Muslim," and "oh you're not really a Muslim because you dress so liberally." It's a song for those of us who are always too Muslim for some, not Muslim enough for others. Too Pakistani for some and not Pakistani enough for others.
Swet Shop Boys are giving a voice to people who haven't really had one before.
The themes Riz and Heems confront on Cashmere are everyday life concerns for those of us who grew up in the post 9/11 era — for people whose skin became a symbol of hostility overnight. Riz and Heems don't shy away from expressing contempt for South Asian cultural appropriation, anti-immigration rhetoric or islamophobia.
The contrast between lyrics about airport security like "I'm so fly, bitch/But I'm on a no fly list" and energetic Bollywood beats feels like a hail Mary to being from two worlds. Here, finally those worlds meet in a way that feels okay. Actually, more than okay — it's kind of awesome.
Swet Shop Boys are giving a voice to people who haven't really had one before. For so long, people of South Asian origin weren't granted their own space in pop culture. No people to look up to that look like them. No sounds that evoke their sense of home. Cashmere is just one piece of art, but it's also a metaphorical nod of solidarity with all people who have had to justify their race, their culture, their religion or any part of their identity. For me, it feels like a comforting figure wrapping their arms around me and saying "hey, it's okay to be from both places. You don't have to choose anymore."
Text Amna Qureshi
Image courtesy Customs Label