Last week, Swet Shop Boys, a rap duo consisting of Heems (Indian-American rapper Himanshu Suri, formerly of Das Racist) and Riz MC (British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed) released the video for Aaja, the third from their album Cashmere, a title we imagine is a play on words, after T5 and Zayn Malik.
The video, shot in Flushing and Coney Island is turned on its head so Heems and Riz rap in the qawwali bit, but Pakistani singer Ali Sethi sings inside a pop-art-esque pop video. The rest follows a love story and culminates in the young lovers attending the Swet Shop Boys in concert.
The video ends with a recording of Pakistani celebrity Qandeel Baloch who was murdered by her brother in an honour killing, before a dedication to her is made. Important in our times when women exerting agency are still silenced or met with violence.
This week, we caught up with Heems.
You live in New York and Riz in London. How did you meet and how did Swet Shop Boys come about?
We first spoke briefly on Twitter, looking across the ocean at each other's Diasporas and the work that comes out of it. Shortly afterwards Riz was researching his role in The Night Of and reached out to meet in Queens for research on the neighborhood and the South Asian community here. The next time we met Riz had come up with a name on the flight over for a project, and it served as a blueprint for what we've always spoken about and would eventually speak about on Cashmere.
Tell me about your album Cashmere and what came before.
Cashmere is about breaking down boundaries, between India and Pakistan but also between the US and UK, and responding to divisiveness with defiant love.
Before Cashmere we released an EP with several different producers that found sonic inspiration in Bollywood, Punjabi poetry, Qawwali, South Indian music. It was a bit all over the place but cemented we had similar taste in sound and poetry from the subcontinent. When Riz brought Redinho into the fold was when the sound gained a more cohesive identity.
Aaja is produced by Redinho and Ali Sethi’s hook is an original and not a sample.
Redinho initially played it as a song we wouldn't like. I can't speak on his behalf but I could see why a song with a sitar sample might be a bit too straightforward compared to the more layered textures of other songs. Riz started jokingly singing what, with a tweak from me, would become the hook. I wanted to add the word Pyaasa because it rhymes and is the name of my favorite film. We weren't looking to have features on the album but love Ali Sethi and wanted to work with someone from the subcontinent. His voice brought it all together.
Who came up with the idea for the video? How did it come about?
I can't recall exactly but I'd imagine the Qawwali set-up was Riz's idea. When Sofian came aboard we knew we wanted to set it in South Asian neighborhoods in New York and tie it together with a Bollywood-esque subplot on love. One of the actors in the video was in one of my favorite films ever, Man Push Cart. Also, a highlight for us was bringing the community together in that theatre hall where aunties and uncles danced alongside desi hipsters, American folk, and the little kids they brought.
Why did you guys decide to include the Qandeel Baloch sample and dedication?
We had included that sample as an interlude in May. We wanted to include interludes from both Pakistan and India, like the Shiv Kumar Batalvi quote I added. It was only shortly thereafter she passed away and we knew we wanted to dedicate the video to her.
T5 addressed random searching at airports. This kid covers up a Trump poster with a poster for your concert. How does politics fit into your work? How does humour fit in?
I always think of this Arundhati Roy quotation in conversation with Howard Zinn: "And so we grew up sort of outside the realm of all the protections that that society chose to offer its members. So from a very young age, one was aware of the fact that you were not going to be given those protections. You had to constantly try to understand what was going on and how to survive in this space and how not to go under… And then politics is in your life. You have to ride the waves. You have to understand it.
And as for humour, I'd go with Langston Hughes: "Laughing to keep from crying".
The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve wanted to consume media from and about people that looked like me and I’ve read interviews in which you say the same thing. (I also used to follow your tumblr nehrujackets which has penis enlargement spam now.) How do you feel about representation? How has it changed?
I feel odd about my tumblr being hacked and turned into a penis enlargement ad, as far as representation goes. I think we're in a good place with visibility from which we can achieve the humanization necessary to have a voice that's previously been silenced. Although I think we have a long way to go from tokenization.
Who are some south-asian artists you follow (in any field)?
Riz Ahmed is my favorite South Asian artist.
Our new feature Conversations with Diaspora has us talking with South Asian creatives living overseas. Read our other interviews here.