The former Das Racist star on living in America as a member of a vilified community
Since the mind-boggling brilliance of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ landed in all our ears this month, along with the depressingly foul response to Kanye West’s Glastonbury headliner announcement, it’s likely that most of 2015’s discourse around the politics of hip-hop will be consumed by these two, contextually seismic, events. However, in the same month a record was released that garnered much less worldwide media fanfare and drama – Heems’ ‘Eat, Prey, Thug’. In that record, however, we have perhaps one of the fiercest, most personal and political rap records of the year.
Heems is the solo project of Himanshu Suri, one-time member of the Queens-based alt-hip-hop group Das Racist. He has released some solo mixtapes, such as 2012’s ‘Nehru Jackets’, but this marks his first album release proper, and it weaves from the pop-leaning, Dev Hynes-featuring end of things, to the heavy melancholy that only too much self-analysis and a break-up can create. I spoke with him whilst he’s at SXSW, where not only is he playing shows but also featuring in a documentary and acting in a feature film that is screening there.
“It’s all fuelled by alcohol,” he tells me in a rare bit of downtime in Austin, whilst also taking in the hugely positive response to his album. “It’s amazing to actually see people buy the music because I’m used to putting it out for free.”
Within two minutes we are into the politics of the record, a political angle that comes from Suri’s position of being an Indian living in post-9/11 America. The attack on the World Trade Center is something that runs through the core of much of the record, or at least its on-going impact and detrimental fall-out on minority communities throughout the U.S. “It’s been a long time coming for a piece of work like this to come out,” he says. “9/11 is like this dark cloud that hangs over New York in the same way that, in certain communities of colour, things like mental health and alcoholism are just dark clouds that hang over families and they don’t talk about it.”
Despite this being an album that needed to come out, it was not without apprehension and anxiety on Suri’s part. “I mean, I’m not very confident at singing,” he says, “and some of the reviews – or one – did mention that. But yeah, to put myself out there and be so vulnerable is definitely different. As I’ve said in other interviews, I felt like I was hiding behind humour and samples [in Das Racist]… I always had trouble accepting that my story was important or that my voice was important and now I’ve come to a point where I have accepted that. Even if it is depressing, that’s the reality.”
Is it, I put to him, a case of it becoming increasingly impossible to have a sense of humour in regards to race relations and racism in the U.S right now?
“You know, honestly, I didn’t even think about that” he says, slightly taken aback, “but the thing that happened with Ferguson last year had a huge affect on me, personally. It was a personal thing; it really put a lot of weight on me. So, yeah, I think to a certain extent you can’t fucking jump around with these things anymore, you need to be straight forward and it’s exhausting sometimes trying to figure out the best way to approach these things and, like, educating the fucking white man on the experience of being a person of colour. It gets exhausting over the course of five years – it’s just, like, how can I get it out without beating around the bush?