Meet Swet Shop Boys, the Desi Hip-Hop Group Powering Through Racial Profiling

By Sameer Rao Oct 19, 2016

Of all the moods expressed throughout “Cashmere,” the expansive debut album by hip-hop trio Swet Shop Boys, the most palpable is anxiety. This thread unifies the record’s quick tonal shifts between irreverence and damning social commentary. When Himanshu “Heems” Suri and Riz “Riz MC” Ahmed, two of the world’s most prominent Desi MCs, spit their Gatling-gun rhymes over frantic Bollywood and qawwali samples, these shifts channel the existential struggles of South Asian and other Brown people more clearly than any rap record to date. 

On album opener “T5,” the rappers trade verses about the perils of racial profiling. “Do it so proper, looking like a doctor, At the check point sayin’ my visa’s doctored/IDF all around running with them choppers, Wanna shoot my papa, got me drinking vodka,” raps Heems, evoking a traveller turned distraught by American-allied Israeli military. Ahmed later critiques Western handling of the Syrian refugee crisis with a clever literary comparison: “Stopping refugees is just silly blud, Well you know about Aeneas in the Iliad/fled Turkey and he just founded Rome, what if he had drowned in a boat?” 

These lyrics explain the tensions that Heems and Ahmed, despite growing up on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, share with millions of Americans and Brits with hybridized identities moving through a world that too often reduces them to a threat. 

“Yankee hat to kufi on top, Still dealing with these goofy-ass cops/’cuz I like Islam, 
they think I build bombs”— Heems, “Shottin’

Ahmed affectionately refers to people like him and Heems—not just Desis, but people growing up between cultures like theirs—as “mongrels.” “I’m representing hybrids, that’s what I’m shouting out,” he says when we speak to him and Heems over the phone. “That’s where the future of global culture lies. We’re the great unlabeled, all-seeing culturally homeless that make the world go ‘round.” 

If only political leaders saw it that way. The Indian-American Heems and British-Pakistani Ahmed, who respectively grew up in working-class immigrant communities in New York City and London, are natives of countries with historic xenophobia currently uplifted by the political upheavals of Donald Trump’s candidacy and Brexit. Ahmed addressed the Brexit tensions more explicitly earlier this year on his “Englistan,” a celebration of U.K. multiculturalism amidst bigotry. “Cashmere,” in contrast, leans more on the language and experience of Islamophobic paranoia and surveillance in America. Ahmed and Heems agree that America’s scarier for Brown people than the U.K., with Heems citing our lax gun laws and Ahmed noting how British Desis compose a larger percentage of the British population than the American one. “It’s recognized that we’re a bigger part of the U.K., so we have a place at the table, but we struggle to turn up on time and we’re not wearing the right shoes,” Ahmed explains.

“My only heroes were Black rappers, So to me, 2Pac was a true Paki”
—Riz MC, “Half Moghul Half Mowgli

Like many kids of immigrants, both men found solace in hip-hop after key introductions by their older siblings. “My brother’s almost like more of a parent to me, which is something quite common for second-generation immigrants because your parents can’t necessarily equip you with the tools needed to navigate an environment they didn’t grow up in,” says Ahmed. The two also grew up surrounded by formative rap movements—New York’s Golden Age for the Queens-bred Heems and burgeoning drum-and-bass and U.K. garage for Ahmed—that influence their flows. 

Ahmed and Heems have track records of art that meaningfully confronts bigotry. Heems is best known as a member of the now-defunct Das Racist, which similarly mixed hyper-literary irreverence and cultural criticism to great acclaim. He’s furthered this creative M.O. in a productive solo career after the group’s 2012 break-up. Ahmed’s highlighted the perils of profiling in a series of well-received solo releases dating as far back as 2006’s wry “Post-9/11 Blues.”  

Their exploration of Brownness also permeates other creative realms. Heems pursued a sitcom deal with Fox last year “about an Indian rapper who moves back with his family,” similar to his own life. Even though the project didn’t land, “The opportunity to put a story like that on a mainstream network was definitely cool,” he says.  

Ahmed, on the other hand, is more widely recognized for his television and film acting resume. As he explained in a recent essay, his first acclaimed film role in 2006’s “The Road to Guantánamo”—in which he portrayed Shafiq Rasul, a non-fictional British Muslim held with two others in the detention center over suspected terrorist ties—led to both increasing roles and negative attention from airport security agents. You’ll likely recognize him in the new trailer for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” his highest-profile role to date. 

“We’re the same cuz, Jedi, Jew or Hindu, Sikh/
From East African plains like Guji refugees”—Riz MC, “Phone Tap” 

Although they’ve known about each other for at least a decade, the rappers started working together soon after Das Racist’s split when Ahmed came state-side to research for his role in HBO’s “The Night Of.” In that miniseries, which aired this summer, Ahmed plays a Pakistani-American son of a cab driver suspected of a ghastly murder. “My dad being a cab driver was similar to the experience of the character he was researching,” says Heems. “The first time we met, I was showing him around [Queens neighborhood] Jackson Heights, where he’d later come back to film the show.” 

Heems’ previous trips to London helped him learn more about that city’s vibrant local Desi culture, while Ahmed found empowerment in meeting American Desis. “Coming to the U.S. and connecting with people who had been through a similar experience but different enough that you almost see yourself again with new eyes has been really healing,” says Ahmed. “I want Desis across the diaspora to connect with each other and see waht’s happening in these other places, so we can cross-pollinate our aspirations and cultural expression.” 

While the two made music before as Swet Shop Boys, the project didn’t come fully together until producer Tom “Redinho” Calvert joined the fold. The White Englishman, the third official band member, produced all of “Cashmere,” saturating it with the South Asian musical influences. “The second I heard his production, I thought, ‘this is exactly the sound I’ve been wanting to rap over,” says Heems. 

Redinho’s instrumentals also ground Heems and Ahmed’s unapologetically Brown POV, which is important to the creative credibility of a non-Black act working in a Black art form. “We not only look towards our rap roots in London and New York, but we also look to our poetry roots in qawwali and Punjabi culture,” explains Heems. “Rap makes the most sense as a medium, because if I was telling my stories in literature, I can’t say that a lot of the kids I grew up with would read that novel. At least with rap, I know I wouldn’t be performing my class or race for an audience’s entertainment, but telling stories so people could relate to them and feel good that somebody’s telling them.” 

And so they accomplish this on “Cashmere,” affirming the lives of those who, like them, understand their identities within the complexities of societies that both imperfectly deal with race while pretending everything’s okay. And if Ahmed’s prediction about global culture proves correct, this album will resonate with a lot of people for a long time to come. 

Sweet Shop Boys’ “Cashmere” is out now via Customs Records in CD, vinyl and digital formats. Check out their website for purchase info and tour dates in the U.S. and U.K. in November.