“Do you want to know why your skin is brown?”
I’m five years old and sitting at a fold-out wooden table in the canteen of my primary school. I can’t quite remember why there is an older girl sitting directly opposite me, I don’t know her. Still my innocence means that when her question reaches me, it is stripped of the heart sinking, gut-wrenching anticipation that such a question inevitably brings. Childhood curiosity gets the better of me.
“When you were born, your parents rolled you around in shit.”
This was perhaps the first time I ever became aware that the colour of my skin could make me vulnerable, even in a place I called home. That my skin would sometimes be regarded as nothing more than a canvas upon which others would take it upon themselves to scribble out the terms and conditions of my stay in the home that I thought was mine, too. They would come knocking at the door to remind me that I was from Britain but I wasn’t from Britain.
Being asked “where are you from?” is a question which can bring about powerful connection and conversation, but it is also one which often carves out a pause before an answer. It’s a pause that is noticeable only to those who are accustomed to considering their identity through the eyes of the majority. Those who are held suspended in the tension created by a prevailing definition of “Britishness” that fails to include minorities, despite the fact that their physical existence refutes it.
Inside that pause, therefore, is where one packages together their identity into a neatly formed response, whilst simultaneously feeling it divide into splinters: city, nationality, ethnicity, religion, accent. “But where are your parents from?” Most times I feel my response become a kaleidoscope, shifting and arranging depending on who is asking and what aspect of myself I assume they are referring to. “I’m British but my parents are from India”, or,“I’m Indian and from London.” Answering with just one of those feels like an erasure of the other; answering with both feels like a qualification, and so I chain together the sum of my parts with a ‘but’, ‘and’, or ’also’ to form an explanation.
It’s an ongoing experience to which the transatlantic musical collaboration between British actor/MC Riz Ahmed and Queens rapper Himanshu Suri provides a soundtrack. Known as the Swet Shop Boys, their verses respond to being asked “where are you from?” with stories which resonate on a personal level as much as they do across the diaspora. By drawing from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as India and Pakistan, they are able to fill that pause carved out by hesitation by flooding it with sounds from genres that include grime, qawwali, and hip-hop.
The two released their first EP as the Swet Shop Boys last year after connecting in New York while Riz was researching his role as a Pakistani-American from Queens for the HBO drama ‘The Night Of’.
The release of a debut album from the duo feels both natural and timely given the parallels that run across their personal lives, and the political climate of both the UK and US. Both Riz and Himanshu have working class South Asian roots and are no strangers to creating politically conscious music. Their solo work is perhaps best known for fusing politics, poetry, and punchlines into verses which capture the experience of being a brown person in post 9/11 in a way that keeps them very much them ‘in’ on the joke.
Though decades of racism and Islamophobia preceded the events of 9/11, as a teenager in the UK at the time, it felt like a substantial turning point. In the years following, hate crimes crept into the lives of those close to me. Friends were spat at and told to go home, an ex-boyfriend was attacked with a knuckle duster, and medical students were tailed by police cars on their way home from the library. Whether we acknowledged it with silence, anger, or humour, the way in which it was anxiously anticipated no longer felt irrational. Instead it became reminiscent of the things I had heard from my parent’s and grandparents’ generation. I learned quickly that my place within the ‘us vs. them’, ‘good guys vs bad guys’ rhetoric that 9/11 established was not as blindingly obvious to others. Instead, the lines were blurred with a million little suspicions and associations that came with being South Asian. I learned to consider myself through the eyes of others. I learned to breathe a little easier or feel, stupidly, grateful when I saw a white person show any form of sincere kindness to the Indian person serving them.
It is these micro narratives and complexities that diffuse across the solo work of both artists.
In 2006 Riz released a song titled ‘Post 9/11 Blues’ which was banned from radio play in the UK for being ‘politically sensitive’. The track, which included lyrics such as “shave your beard if you’re brown, and you best salute the crown,” used satire to address the sweeping islamophobia that made anyone with brown skin hyper-visible.
In 2015, Himanshu released his solo album ‘Eat Pray Thug’ which he defined as “post 9/11 brown man rap.” While some tracks dealt with heartbreak and personal relationships, the more ‘political’ songs similarly addressed the “I was Osama, we were Osama/Are you Osama?’ narrative that he had witness infiltrate the day to day lives of South Asians in Queens. Like shaving your beard, his song ‘Flag Shopping’ calls out the need to present yourself positively in an attempt to separate yourself from that rhetoric:
We're going American flag shopping/Red, white, blue on our crib/The neighbors threw rocks at the house/They making it harder to live. Patriotism became an act of self-preservation.
Most recently, the pair released the first single ‘T5’ from their upcoming debut album, Cashmere, which Himanshu describes as ‘Qawwali-influenced rap music’. A nod to Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5, the song draws from their personal experience of racial profiling while traveling. Much like the experience of being ‘randomly selected’ itself, they tackle the issue with an uneasy humour which runs through their lyrics:
Oh no, we're in trouble/ TSA always wanna burst my bubble/ Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.
The playful simplicity of it reads like the countless Facebook statuses and Snapchats received before a friend boards a flight. “Wondering if they have any rare Pokemon in the interrogation room?!”
The follow up single ‘Tiger Hologram’ puts the political on hold while the two spit game in ‘the club’ in an attempt to grasp the attention of a woman. Heems offers a stream-of-consciousness awkward flurry of disjointed thoughts which include asking ‘what’s your favourite insect mama?’ Riz instead boldly attempts ‘neggin’ before descending into chat sprinkled with London slang about his daily disposables. It’s what the reality rather than the expectation of your Friday night smooth talking sounds like. It’s also a reminder that both artists can hold their own as lyricists and tell a story whether it’s politically conscious or not.
It is no doubt timely that the two will be releasing their debut album this October, given that Britain is emerging from the decision to leave the European Union and the United States is confronted with the reality of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. The age-old sentiment of needing to justify, qualify, or reconcile your place as a minority feels as though it’s unlocked a new level of urgency over the past few months.
Racial profiling, Islamophobia, representation, anger, and displacement may be the terms we’ve all seen in headlines already, but we must not forget that they are physically experienced and lived experiences for people of colour first. There is, therefore, a danger in defining the Swet Shop Boys as producing purely politically conscious music for South Asians. Not because they aren’t, but because to do so narrows their relevance, and ignores the fact that their words are lifted directly out of these same lived day-to-day experiences. After all, to be a person of colour is to constantly exist at that intersection of personal and political.
Those same components of identity that can splinter when asked where you’re from seem to piece back together on the debut album, Cashmere. The beauty is in the details of their social commentary; the code-switching, humour, and continual intertextuality. Riz and Himanshu draw on pop culture, London slang, ancient Greek poetry, and the refugee crisis as they hop across worlds to the sound of Redhino’s production. There is a sense of reconciliation to hear them navigate through these spaces and cultures, laying claim as they exercise their right to pick and choose their slang and samples. They are theirs to take. Grime, hip-hop, UK garage and qawwali inspired harmonium synths, hand-claps and tablas are all part of the same story.
This contemporary writing of our own narrative is reminiscent of the boom of British Asian culture that transcended into the mainstream charts and pop culture in the 90s. Think Goodness Gracious Me, Truth Hurts ft Rakim, and Talvin Singh. Born out of the the ‘Asian Underground’ scene of the 80s, it was a sound that was both fuelled by and continued to form the cultural identity of second generation Asians.
It’s a golden era that was influential to both Riz and Himanshu. Riz recently directed a short coming-of-age film ‘Daytimer’ which harks back to the daytime bhangra raves. Himanshu describes the influence of the UK British Asian movement on him, especially during that era, as a diasporic pendulum.
“We grew up in the Diaspora looking across the pond to London and above the border to Toronto here. It’s like at yoga when you look at a classmate to see how to nail the right pose.”
It appears the hypervisibility that came post 9/11 for South Asians corresponded with a fade back to near invisibility in mainstream culture. Now we’ve reached a reality where Punjabi MC’s Mundian To Bach Ke playing in the club is the last remnant of British Asian music being recognised and enjoyed as British as well as Asian. The idea of British multiculturalism feels perhaps more like plural monoculturalism in practice in 2016.
Cashmere seems set to arrive at a point where much of the South Asian representation in British culture is two dimensional or negative. However, this record is not about replacing misrepresentation with positive representation. It is about reclaiming the colour of your skin as your own canvas and writing your story. It’s about “stretching the flag so that it’s big enough for all of us”, rather than displaying red, white, and blue out of fear or to justify our presence. It’s about feeling at home at a time when others question your right to do so, and playing your song so loud that you can’t hear them even when they come knocking.