On ‘Half Moghul, Half Mowgli’, a track from the new album by the Swet Shop Boys, London born Riz MC reflects on the fluidity of the migrant identity:
Raised like a concrete jungli,
And a junglist and a Londonist,
But my DNA wonder where my home should be
In a few bars, Riz captures the essential struggle faced by first generation migrants: how to navigate cultural expectations while ‘assimilating’ into the Western mainstream. Through sharp satire, the Swet Shop boys encapsulate the precarity of the first generation experience: the ‘floating’ feeling of statelessness.
The Swet Shop Boys are the hip-hop iconoclasts Riz MC (actor Riz Ahmed, famous for playing Naz on The Night Of) and Heems (Himanshu Suri of Das Racist). Heems is a Punjabi-Hindu from Queens and Riz Ahmed was raised by Pakistani parents in suburban London. They have parallel experiences of marginalisation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Their 2016 album Cashmere explores this common ground: the experience of brown migrants in a post September 11 world. Both Riz MC and Heems have explored similar themes in their solo work. In 2006, Riz Ahmed attracted controversy for his song titled ‘Post 9/11 Blues’. The track is set to a jarring, childish tune, with a singsong chorus: ‘Blair and Bush/Sitting in a tree/K-I-L-L-I-N-G’. It was deemed ‘politically sensitive’ and banned on British radio, suggesting ‘freedom of speech’ is only permissible when it fits into a Western paradigm. An axis of Western countries invaded a sovereign nation on a flimsy pretext, resulting in the death of at least half a million Iraqis, yet a satirical rap song protesting this atrocity is deemed to be a ‘threat’.
Cashmere adopts a similarly subversive approach, blending absurd comedy with social commentary. It is a charged protest against the right-wing renaissance. With his spitfire style, Riz Ahmed taunts Trump on the track ‘T5’:
Trump wants my exit
but if he press a button to watch Netflix
bruv I’m on
The album is deeply concerned with the consequences of the ‘war on terror’: the refugee crisis, radicalisation and the rise of Islamophobia. With laconic humour and swagger, Heems reflects on the tyranny of airport security:
Oh no, we’re in trouble
TSA always wanna burst my bubble
Always get a random check when I rock the stubble
These lyrics encapsulate the current political climate: an era of ‘extreme vetting’ and intense xenophobia. Airports serve as fraught transition zones where brown bodies have to justify their presence on Western soil. In his essay for the Guardian, Riz Ahmed describes his experience being interrogated at a US airport, where he attempted to evade suspicion by ‘making Hugh Grant noises’. He was required to perform whiteness to gain acceptance. ‘Whiteness’ here represents centrality; a neutral individualism.
Owning a brown body is an inherently political act, and those who are most visibly ‘different’ – women in hijabs, bearded men – face the greatest threat. Racial profiling is predicated on the idea of the ‘ethnic monolith’, where migrants are stripped of their individuality and tainted by the presumption of guilt by association. The Nigerian writer and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said: ‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’
Migrants are denied complexity because it is easier to dehumanise a caricature. On the track ‘No Fly List’, Heems raps over a growling synth, lamenting this tragic paradox: ‘I’m so fly bitch/But I’m on a no fly list’.
Cashmere subverts the ‘single story’ of South Asia by presenting the migrant experience in all its multiplicity. Riz code switches between ‘observant Muslim’ and ‘Brit-rudeboy’ and Heems is a ‘sexy mother-fakir’. This duality is echoed in the instrumentation, which combines 90s trap music with a palette of desi infused sounds – traditional instruments like the dholak, tabla and shehnai. The album samples prominent South Asians: murdered women’s rights activist Qandeel Baloch, Nobel prizewinner Malala Yousefzai and iconic qawwali singer Aziz Mian.
Cashmere is a revelation. With the exception of MIA, the South Asian experience is rarely reflected in rap music. The Swet Shop Boys adopt the tropes of hip-hop, combining flexing masculinity (‘Sweatsuit on with an Hermès turban/Pull up on a bad, brown ting out in Durban’) with nuanced social commentary. It illustrates how African-American culture is a proxy for the experiences of other marginalised minorities in the West. Riz raps in a South London staccato: ‘My only heroes are black rappers/So to me Tupac is a true Paki’.
Like Solange’s masterwork A Seat at the Table, Cashmere defiantly refuses to cater to the white mainstream, and offers an eloquent critique of appropriation. The propulsive anthem ‘Zayn Malik’ (a reference to the high-profile Muslim member of One Direction) offers a scathing critique of the westernised Hare Krishna movement. Riz describes a vivid image: ‘My flow like a ponytail/when I spit on a skinhead/he becomes a Hare Krishna’.
Similarly, the closing track Din-E-Ilhai skewers cultural imperialism:
They comin’ for the culture man, like they was on a mission
Ask me bout the Kama Sutra, different sex positions
Used to hate the clothes, they ask where’d I get the stitchin’
Used to call me curry now they cook it in their kitchen
As a teenager in Australia, the signifiers of my South Asian culture were reviled. The way South Asians spoke and dressed, our ‘smelly’ food and ‘strange’ religious practices were a source of shame. South Asians were a punchline; most notably Hank Azaria’s servile portrayal of ‘Apu’ on the Simpsons.
In recent years, South Asian culture has been decontextualised and rebranded as ‘fashionable’ by corporate interests. Perky white women on Instagram share ‘pimped out’ dosa recipes and taut yoga-toned arms. Social media influencers douse themselves in coconut oil. Cafés serve five dollar ‘turmeric lattes’. Foreheads are adorned with bindis, hands with henna. Popular culture capitalises on the South Asian ‘lifestyle’, without regard for its people or history. Heems calls this out, describing it as, ‘Hinduism in the bottle/Marketed and sold like fairness cream by the model’.
Cashmere is a tribute to the unique cultural lexicon of the South Asian diaspora. It is peppered with Hindu and Urdu slang, Bollywood references and jokes about parental expectation (‘Yeah you rap/but you should have been a surgeon’). The album name itself is a pun on the way Westerners pronounce ‘Kashmir’: the violently disputed territory between India and Pakistan which serves as the site of a proxy war. ‘The Swet Shop Boys’ is also a playful reference to the British group ‘The Pet Shop Boys’, a clever reappropriation of Western culture and a statement about how South Asia is perceived as ‘the sweatshop’ of the world.
This album feels timely. In an era of Trump and Farage, it is an impassioned defence of globalisation. It is a rebellious, chaotic work, presenting an expansive vision of South Asian identity. Despite the specificity of its concerns, Cashmere promotes a common language: hip-hop as the lingua franca of dispossession.