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Swet Shop Boys Showed Me How To Embrace Both Sides Of My Culture

There’s a moment in every native-born minority’s development when they first learn they aren’t white. That’s not to say that prior to that discovery they were clueless as to their skin color, but that the significance of the difference doesn’t truly phase you until you’re explicitly presented with it: that being of one identity inherently means you cannot be of another. Or at least those are the rules we’re repeatedly told. So while you don’t consciously register initially that no one looks like you on TV or in the classroom, you are forced into awareness that the word “community” has a very specific definition for you preclusive to other demographics.

We’re taught what box to check for self-identification on standardized tests, and each time flush with an undercurrent of guilt because we know there’s a “right” answer we don’t have access to. We learn that white is neutral, a default that doesn’t wave any flags or presumptions, but we also learn it to be the standard, in that everything else is defined by its “otherness.” You exist as an alternative, and as “your people” — as they’re so callously, casually called — are relegated to the sidelines in mainstream stories, you too begin to view yourself as a supporting player in your own narrative. You seek to belong without standing out, knowing that the latter is in direct conflict with the former.

So it goes that minority children grow up in a world built with them on the outside, left to stare in at the same culture without an equivalent opportunity to be involved. Yet the staples of adolescence remain the same across ethnicities, and I too moved along the quintessential American timeline of exploring rebellion and introspection in my teens: listening to music deliberately chosen to confound my parents, watching television intended for mature audiences as an escape to a world less inhibited than the one constantly dumbing down its logic before expecting me to buy it. As is customary at those ages, I was repurposing pop culture into the collage that would define my identity. Yet almost everything I invested in growing up was created by and for white people, and even when you know it’s not made for you the lack of alternatives presents little else to latch onto. You learn to love what you aren’t, not out of shame or self-deprecation, but because there’s nothing that resembles you otherwise available to love.

It wasn’t something I would explicitly understand until much later: that I didn’t not want to be Indian, but that I also wanted to be white, and it just didn’t seem possible that I could be both; that I could like Bhangra equally as I did hip-hop, even though the former is essentially the Eastern parallel of the latter (there’s an established history of Western rappers hopping on Panjabi bangers). There was a binary: My identity had to be defined by how removed I was from the background I was born into as much as how close I was to my adopted ideal. In that vein I shunned cultural inheritance for assimilation, perhaps due to the classic young romanticism of revolting against your parents’ roots, but more likely because my parents’ roots weren’t marketable to my peers. There had always been a tension between these two worlds I couldn’t ameliorate. All my role models were musicians, so by extension almost all my role models had been white.

This perpetual friction between the identity I sought out and the one I had been unwillingly labeled with influenced how I navigated my surroundings. I resented my parents for their symbolism as a remnant of an ideology that I couldn’t possibly hold if I ever wanted to be fully embraced by the country they supposedly moved here to offer me. In turn, I attempted to abandon all signifiers of being Indian, from tuning out the music my parents graciously tried to share with me to rejecting at every turn their attempts to pass onto me their language and religion.

Yet pushing myself away from my heritage didn’t get me any closer to finding a seat at the table of “being American.” It simply wasn’t enough to play the part and abandon the pretext. I listened to the same albums as my friends growing up, but my love was treated as mere curiosity rather than the prerequisite to joining in on the cultural conversation as I had hoped. As much as I’d tried to meticulously meld my identity to fit the established norms of my adopted scene, I would always be reminded that my narrative was incongruous by the white kids who assume all music is made for them. To be a “model minority” within Western culture, as self-limiting of a goal as that was, I still had to be a minority. It’s a lesson I’d have to constantly reaffirm throughout my adolescence: to never mistake blending in for actually belonging.

Regretfully, I was only proud of Indian musicians through their associations with white ones. It was a significant point of pride that the Beatles were greatly inspired by my country of origin, but I hadn’t actually listened yet to Ravi Shankar before I began touting “Within You Without You” as one of the band’s most inspired tunes. The Beatles validated Eastern art, not the other way around or in some mutual exchange — and when I finally began to grow an inclination for Indian devotional songs, I could only credit my interest as originating from popular British music and not the ragas my parents otherwise had playing throughout the house.

It went beyond music. I wanted a beard of my own because George Harrison grew one, not because my dad had one. My father’s facial hair had signified fear to the establishment and invited misunderstood conflicts towards my family. Harrison’s signified, at least in my eyes, an unwavering commitment to creativity and artistry and insulating introspection. My dad resembled “the enemy” to most of my friends’ parents by the time I came of age post-9/11, meanwhile George Harrison was revered as a hero that I dreamt maybe one day I too could be. This aversion to championing the culture I might have been expected to went so far as to leave me actively hoping that whenever my white friends caught wind of it — on the days they visited my home and my grandpa was watching melodramatic Indian soap operas on our living room TV, or when my parents made me participate in class culture shows as a tactic in our ongoing battle over who I’d grow up to be — that the displays wouldn’t suggest onto me a disguise I wasn’t wearing. As I was courting entry into genres made in absence of my image, my mentality was that I had to apologize for every time my background made its presence known.

Yet for as much as I distanced myself from Indian art, I was very protective of it. I held as much respect for the classical composers as I did the pop music crafted in Bollywood. But I didn’t want how I perceived others’ beliefs of my family’s music to distort how I could see it. The safest way to do so was to keep it from them so they didn’t have a chance, which meant that for as long as I’ve been culturally attuned, I’ve largely tuned out my culture. I didn’t believe there was a way I could embody both, and if representing one meant sullying the other, I knew which of the two I had to abandon. I was going to live in this country presumably forever — India was merely a summer vacation once every few years.

As I grew older this mentality gradually began to fade as I escaped my insular hometown, made more non-white friends, and discovered a wider range of pop culture outside what I restricted myself to throughout adolescence. Yet I still never fully accepted the plausibility of a true hybridity of my conflicting cultures until last year, when I began to see a seemingly binary-based hip-hop environment be broken into by a more diverse range of voices: raucously queer women, gender-bending street kids, and — most essential to my own worldview — brash children of immigrants.

Trans-Atlantic hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys released their debut album Cashmere last year. It’s an incendiary — and, more importantly, illustrative — reflection of the perspective of Westernized second-generation Desis. Himanshu Suri, aka Heems of Das Racist, is a Hindu-Panjabi whose family is from Pakistan yet grew up himself in Queens, New York. Meanwhile burgeoning movie star Rizwan Ahmed is a Pakistani Muslim with ancestral roots in India whose hometown is London. Together the two unlikely MCs seamlessly connect their unique cultural backgrounds with their own global upbringings, both in their use of language and in the array of Eastern instrumentation woven into producer Redinho’s otherwise unmistakably hip-hop rhythms. Beyond the expressive craftsmanship of their music, the group is speaking to a lived experience that otherwise never gets highlighted by their contemporaries — that of the South Asian immigrant child whose dual-identity precluded them from ever belonging wholly to either.

Yet rather than find themselves isolated and oscillating from one demographic to the next, the duo embraces their hybridity and boldly presents themselves as an amalgamation of twin perspectives. While the two undoubtedly faced similar struggles as myself growing up — whether in microaggressive tactics of exclusion or outright racism — they proudly present a unified perspective that has roots in both their Westernized upbringings and their Eastern ancestries, one that is aware of the war of cultures creating fault lines between the two but undeterred in understanding them as part of one mentality. Representation matters, and prior to Heems and his compatriots Kool A.D. and Dapwell in Das Racist there were no visible figures of brown descent that had proven you could be simultaneously proud of your heritage and infatuated with the country you were raised in. Das Racist didn’t position themselves as American in spite of their skin color but in tandem with their ethnicity. That was revolutionary for a young teenager whose school survival strategy was to become white in every way possible short of bleach itself.

I was never looking for diversity — to rock out to Bollywood as much as I did indie rock — but rather to see brown people embraced by the culture I had so openly embraced. When Heems shouts that he is a “college dorm room poster” on the ferocious “Zayn Malik,” that isn’t a status-defining boast so much as it is an aspiration. Western role models raised from non-Western households are few and far between, so growing up you had to make due substituting foreign heroes with spiritually related struggles as icons of your own. I never found a mutual understanding in the Hindi music my parents played at home, nor could I in the vague-to-the-point-of-vapid classic rock my friends “discovered” at my age. Instead, hip-hop seemed to voice a tension that, although specific and removed from the context of my own history, dealt with similar themes: that of embracing your skin color in spite of oppressive prejudices and forming your own confidence built on self-defined notions of value. As Riz puts it on “Half Moghul Half Mowgli”: “My only heroes were black rappers/ So to me 2Pac was a true Paki.”

Yet hip-hop, while able to address my feelings, couldn’t mutually accept my presence. Minorities have to achieve twice as much to be taken half as seriously, especially in the domain of rap music — where they can’t rely on “whiteness” to sell records nor “blackness” to earn conventional credibility. It’s an environment inhospitable to triangulated identities existing outside binary spectrums, and thus the genre’s major representatives of such have had to resort to either being taken as in on a joke they didn’t tell (Das Racist scored attention from the irreverent half-song “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell,” Rich Chigga seems to have become popular because he’s problematic) or embracing a niche as the only seat made available at the table (the button-pushing, hard-stanced M.I.A.).

Heems succinctly exemplified the dearth of brown rappers in an editorial back in 2014: “My predecessor: Kevin G from Mean Girls.” For a long time, and arguably still today, Aziz Ansari could be considered the most important Indian figure in hip-hop — a reputation built solely on knowing Kanye West. In every sense of the word, our most vocal presence in the game existed solely as a token.

That’s what makes Swet Shop Boys’ arrival such a crucial development in the genre. Cashmere wasn’t simply a good hip-hop record; it was a good hip-hop record from brown rappers who were taken seriously without having to be too serious. While they had a handicap in receiving the initial attention they did — Heems is perhaps the most widely accepted Indian rapper, although he’s still relegated to a distant underground, meanwhile Riz is officially well on his way to becoming a bona-fide movie star after memorable roles in Nightcrawler, The Night Of, and the latest Star Wars — they still presented a singular achievement that stands strong independent of professional context. It’s important not because of who they are, but how they are. There’s never been an album that spoke so directly to my culture without pandering to my “identity.” Swet Shop Boys are cheeky about stereotypes, but they also address them in an honest way that rings true to my own perspective. They speak how my friends and I speak. “Used to call me curry/ Now they cook it in their kitchen,” isn’t simply a funny duality, but a succinct timeline of how the aggressive name-calling of my youth transitioned into socially accepted appropriations as I grew older.

It’s almost impossible to be a minority musician carving your lane in a largely white-hetero industry machine and not be reduced to your ethnic sales pitch. The caricaturization leaves a catch-22 whereby through your perceived identity you’re unwillingly applied with talking points no matter what it is that you’re actually saying, but because of your actual identity you are naturally predisposed to have had experiences that would incline you to care about those same issues. Of course immigration, prejudice, and geopolitics are relevant topics on the minds of Heems and Riz; their worldview has inescapably, dramatically been shaped by each. Yet understanding the record simply as brown men finally vocalizing their presence on these issues — no matter how important that is on its own — would be to miss what truly sets Swet Shop Boys apart as a singular presence in music. They are brown, yes, but they are also unequivocally Western.

Their impact is in the language. On “Phone Tap,” Heems drops a line about hooking his sister up with a “stack” for the Indian holiday of Rakhi in the same stanza as a line about watching Rocky, and never have I resonated with a rap lyric so directly. Cashmere is full of juxtapositions like this. Some of them are woven into the music itself, such as on “Tiger Hologram,” which flips a harmonium into a stomping house beat beneath Roger Troutman-inspired talkbox accents, or the use of a ney flute loop to redefine trap music in a South Asian hue on “Half Moghul Half Mowgli.” Whereby “traditional” hip-hop had taught me the vernacular necessary to be fully engaged in contemporary culture, Cashmere spoke to me in my native tongue — an amalgamation of pop-culture lingo and Desi staples. There’s little else I’ve experienced that has reaffirmed the validity of my unique demographic position as hearing of Gurudwaras and “Chaaya Chaaya” alongside British slang and Outkast.

For once I hadn’t had to keep a Genius tab open whilst hearing a rap album to break down all the allusions and metaphors that would otherwise fly clear over my head. It was as though I was holding in my intuition the Rosetta Stone for Cashmere the first time I heard the album, which was a revelation after years of approximating resonance the best I could with the other rappers I was a fan of. I didn’t just audibly laugh when I heard a line like, “You out of place like a brown Hare Krishna,” but I finally felt seen — or more exactly that someone was finally seeing everything I had long observed. I understood what my white friends meant whenever they said an album was “made for them,” because while I don’t have a whole lot of friends with whom I could boldly shout out “I’m a sexy mother fakir,” I at least had Cashmere to be in on the joke we had told.

Heems and Riz are gifted emcees capable of connecting without pandering, but while their skin color isn’t simply the full extent of their message, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be heard. Most Americans understand South Asian politics through the perspectives of pundits viewing these issues from a distant, detached lens. Swet Shop Boys provide the context that matters more concretely in their young, vibrant analyses of the rise of neo-nationalism and identity warfare. They’re clever enough to discuss the geopolitics of a place as far both physically and mentally for most Americans as Syria in casual bursts of boasts, such as “I run the city like my name Sadiq/ Not the Syrian city of Dabiq.” There Riz draws a hard line between the typical Westernized Muslims such as London mayor Sadiq Khan and the namesake of an ISIS propaganda magazine, being explicit for the many who contextualize foreign words as inherently “no bueno” (some white people don’t even want to have to use English to describe things they consider bad).

There are lines on this album that feel like little secrets for brown listeners to hold over the heads of all other fans, and some that seem so obscure as to actually teach those same listeners something further about their backgrounds. I did eventually end up back on Genius, seeking meaning and subsequently walking away enlightened about 17th century Mughal emperors and the Sufi devotional music of Qawwali. At one point on the defiant TSA takedown “T5,” Riz even decides to throw a bone to those with European backgrounds and puts his logic into their own historical vocabulary, noting that “Aeneas in The Iliad” fled Turkey to establish Rome before ruefully asking, “What if he had drowned in a boat?” The warning against anti-immigration sentiments is clear, but rarely has this message not been soap-operatized by well-meaning but tonally clueless white folks — and even they couldn’t have as relevantly or concisely expressed it to their audiences as Riz had.

Cashmere even managed to reach an audience that had never once been privy to the same broadcasts as I had growing up. My mom doesn’t particularly enjoy hip-hop, partly because the rappers speak too fast for her to make any sense of what they’re saying, but also since even when she does pick up the words they are too far removed from any graspable point of reference to her own experience. The closest she’s come to intersecting my tastes is her affinity for Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown,” and I’d venture a guess that it’s because the African drumming that provides the song its propulsive march reminds her of the steady thump of the dhol. So I figured Swet Shop Boys would be another lost cause, and that no matter how many times I prefaced the album as a product of two fellow browns, she’d still lose interest by Heems’ second “swish swish bitch.”

I was mostly right, in that even though she was startled to hear Eastern instrumentation provide the backbone of rap songs, she couldn’t sink her teeth into either Heems or Riz’s perspectives since they were so emphatically delivered through Westernized outlooks still largely foreign to her. Yet throughout the album’s 35-minute runtime my mom paused on a number of occasions in complete transfixion. Cashmere is littered with sampled codas of various sorts, which explicitly tie in both rappers’ roots to the thematic fabric the same way heritage becomes the bedrock in which assimilation begins. Each of those breaks was where my mom found an entry point into the album’s world, and she subsequently explained further their origins to me in a way that wound up revealing more about her than I would have otherwise ever thought to know.

“Half Moghul Half Mowgli” ends on an interview with Panjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, and when my mom first heard the track she described, unprompted, how he had attended the same college as my Nanu (maternal grandfather), before pulling up effortlessly on her phone the exact interview from which the sampled clip came. It was the most engaged she had ever been while interacting with art I had shown her of my own discovery short of Wipeout (my mom loves Wipeout). Batalvi, who shows up again at the end of “Shoes Off,” was one of her favorite poets when attending college in Chandigarh, the capital city of my ancestral region of Panjab, yet until Cashmere he was completely unknown to me. Whatever it is my mom heard in him, so too did the generationally removed Heems and Riz, who are so fond of the poet that even before Cashmere they sampled Batalvi for the beat of a song named after him on their first EP.

That’s the most recent gift Cashmere has granted me since I’ve continuously revisited the album during its five months in this world: a newfound interest and opening to explore a culture I had previously turned my back on in fear of losing my place in the one I was actively courting. Heems and Riz became role models to prove to me the validity of an identity I had felt ashamed of, and then went on to bring me back up to speed on what I had missed in that interim. And, crucially, Heems and Riz presented an effortless confidence in a medium that’s otherwise alienated immigrants or the offspring thereof. Cashmere fearlessly granted me permission to embody a role outside the margins, reaffirming that it too was vital amongst the parts I had otherwise been taught to perform. It didn’t carve out a new space, but rather filled in a necessary gap. Now it’s time to print up those dorm room posters.

Cashmere is out now via Swet Shop Boys’ own imprint Customs. Purchase it here.