Heems: On Inspiration and Influences

Sitting in a studio at midnight in Stoke Newington, I came to realise the appeal of Himanshu ‘Heems’ Suri. He was in Melbourne, in the midst of a world tour that has lasted for nearly half a year, where he has performed in a number of cities, to a multitude of different identities. From London to Goa, with stops in Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai, Suri exists in a space similar to another South Asian artist, M.I.A. Globalised, in not just their brownness or immigrant narratives, both look at the world as a place to explore, rather than be confined in. However where M.I.A. explicitly attempts to open up Borders, Suri’s approach lies in his personal development as an artist, building on the lived experiences he has collected throughout his time as a travelling artist. 

Over a late night FaceTime call, I spoke to Suri and immediately this passion to explore was articulated. ‘I like to write songs about cities’ he says, in his distinctive Queens accent. This fascination with cities is one that is contextualised personally on his debut studio album, last year’s brilliant Eat Pray Thug. On the song Suicide By Cop, Suri emotionally raps

‘It go, first we lost everything with that partition, Cross the borders, then the waters, they was on a mission, Parents got arranged and moved to Queens in 1980, From the UP’.

Here his story, one ubiquitously known throughout the diaspora, shows the cognisance of Suri, in recognising the metropolis effect and its relationship with his own familial history. This self-awareness has clearly provided him with the knowledge to understand the importance of a city, at specific times. 

Image credit:  Himanshu Suri

Image credit: Himanshu Suri

In an article for Vice, Suri gave his own explanation for why he performed in Paris, in the immediate aftermath of November’s attacks. Rather than taking an ‘if I don't, the terrorists will win’ stance, Suri approached the situation from the point of view of an artist wanting to help a city ‘breathe and survive and move on’. This decision, influenced in part by past experiences of 9/11, gave Suri the chance to show the world his beliefs regarding the role of art and its usage in the grieving process of a city, post an attack. With this in mind, I asked Suri how the performance went. His response was, that whilst ‘a decent amount of people [coming] out to see [him] was nice’, his next performance, in Antwerp, caused airport security to ask him ‘what are you doing going to Belgium and what were you doing in Paris?’. Here Suri shifted the conversation and confronted the associated problem brown men face when visiting a new city; travelling. A week before our interview, Waris Ahluwalia, a model and friend of Suri’s had been stopped on his way back from Mexico. And just days after, Jus Reign, the popular comedian, had been forced to take off his dastar in a Californian Airport. Both these cases, as well as Suri’s, are just a few examples of a climate where being brown, in not just an airport, means you're open to suspicion and embarrassment, every time you want to visit somewhere new. Fuelled by a rhetoric of xenophobia and Islamophobia, the likelihood that this will stop happening anytime soon is minimal.

So then would Suri be reflecting this climate in his new music? Given his penchant for politically conscious songs, most notably ‘Patriot Act’ and ‘Flag Shopping’, his answer was simply that he ‘hasn’t done them but [is] sure they will come up’.Yet when Suri described the process of recording this new music, the topic of cities came up again. Recorded across New York, London and Mumbai, he expressed that he wanted the songs to reflect ‘moving around the world and travelling’, a now defining feature of Suri in 2016. 

Suri’s artistic oeuvre is also not just restricted to music. An upcoming TV show he wrote, named after Eat Pray Thug, is tentatively still in the works. I ask him too about his friendship with Sanjeev Bhaskar, co-creator of the hit TV show Goodness Gracious Me. A man Suri has ‘always looked up to’, they both spoke ‘for over two and a half hours’ about ‘America and London’. Suri, consistent with his desire to learn, used the opportunity to ‘pick the brain’ of someone responsible for some of the greatest comedy moments in South Asian culture. 

Image credit:  Himanshu Suri

Image credit: Himanshu Suri

The conversation then segued into a territory that showed another dimension to Suri. His form of transatlantic art, influenced by his position as an Indian-American, looking in on the culture of British South Asian culture, depicted an artist unwilling to be compartmentalised by his location. From ‘Meera Syal to Goodness Gracious Me to musicians like Talvin Singh’, Suri used the global communality of South Asian kinship as part inspiration for his music.  As well as communication with Bhaskar, Suri can also count Salman Rushdie, author of Midnight’s Children, as a friend. Humbly commenting on these friendships, Suri said that ‘the fact they [Bhaskar and Rushdie] are even open to talking to me, meeting me and giving me advice is cool’. This cycle of knowledge, from which Suri continuously develops from, has given him the mindset that ‘a sense of community, as artists, writers and journalists makes it interesting [to create]’. By wanting to be in an atmosphere of shared understanding, Suri has surrounded himself with the skills he needs to make the art that he wants to.

And with this the appeal of Suri, to me, was realised. Here is an artist attempting to use his experiences to transcend the confines of a world designed to box people like him in. Whether it be through the medium of rap, writing or acting, Himanshu ‘Heems’ Suri is a creative that the South Asian community can be proud of.