Representing South Asian culture in rap
I still remember the first time I heard Riz Mc’s post 9/11 blues. The feelings it aroused are quite difficult to put into words. On the one hand, lines like, “Bush and Blair in a tree, K-I-L-L-I-N-G,” were clearly rage inducing but the tonal essence of the whole song was very satirical with lines like, “They’re even showing Bin Laden’s cave on cribs.” Fortunately, the other half of Swet Shop Boys, Heems, in an interview with The New Yorker described the song much more eloquently as having a “laughing-to-keep-from-crying vibe.” Both of them have come a long way since then, and, in my eyes at least, is the shining beacon of South Asian representation in contemporary hip-hop.
I am a Bangladeshi and a proud one at that. But the lyrical content of The Swet Shop Boys is such that any person with lineage from the Indian Subcontinent can immediately identify with these incredibly talented British-English (Riz MC) and Indian-American (Heems) MCs. Their latest album, Cashmere, is highly charged with issues that deal with the contemporary issues of identity, politics and brownness in media.
Enunciation of the fact that I am a proud Bangladeshi and yet finding representation of myself in hip hop through the music of two rappers who are of Pakistani and Indian decent has been done with purpose. For me, we are the same people, the people of the Indian subcontinent. Having suffered from colonialism, whose hangover still lingers in our minds, there are more things that unite us than raise differences.
These commonalities become even more evident if you were fortunate enough to experience living in any of the brown diasporas. Having lived in Canada for more than four years, The Swet Shop Boys were the only hip hop group that made me feel as though we (brown people) finally have a voice in modern hip hop. It made me feel like this is music, in the context of international music, that I can call my own. The brown cultural references, the sitars and tablas within their musical instrumentation, these brought the music so much closer to my heart and soul.
Then there are the lyrics of Swet Shop Boys, which are hilariously sarcastic and at the same time is thought provoking and stirs up anger for people with a relative abundance of melanin. The first single from “Cashmere,” “T5,” is an infectiously punchy song about the racial profiling faced by brown people at the hands of airport security (“TSA always wanna burst my bubble / Always get a random check when I rock the stubble”). I personally have been double checked at an airport once and hence to see another brown person speak about this kind of racial profiling feels like our voices are being put out into the media.
Having suffered from colonialism, whose hangover still lingers in our minds, there are more things that unite us than raise differences
What is refreshing about The Swet Shop Boys is that it seems that, even though their songs do invoke anger, the way it is done is almost hilarious. Because even though they are painting a very bleak picture of the current world, and particularly for brown Muslims, they way they do it is especially refreshing as they do not succumb to just writing the typical “angry” lyrics that a lot of other political rappers do. They talk about their experiences, in a very subtle and sardonic manner, as opposed to the typical political rap where you just hear recitations of facts of the sordid state of the world.
Take for example the song “Zayn Malik.” The opening two lines by Riz, “Oy, even hipsters ain't safe
You gotta be careful what part of your face's shaved,” perfectly highlights their ethos of satirical political lyrics that is more relevant now than ever before. But the line off of this song that I repeated at least ten times when I first heard is, “Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him, but there’s more than one direction to get to paradise.” In the context of the song, in which Riz talks about Muslim youth going missing, the demonizing of Muslims in the media- how brilliant of a line is this. Not only is he able to ridicule the 80 virgins narrative of terrorists, but he oh so delightfully made the whole one direction phenomenon look, to put it bluntly, utterly and abhorrently stupid.
Voices like that of The Swet Shop Boys are crucially important in the modern media landscape. For too long the narrative has been a binary of terrorists and film star has dominated the media setting. For me, when I listen to the Swet Shop Boys, I feel represented in the media. I feel that my voice as a brown man who has lived in both Bangladesh and Canada and has felt the discrimination and the alienation by the media, is finally being heard and represented. It matters not one iota that Riz and Heems are of Pakistani and Indian decent. We, the people of this subcontinent, are the same people. The people who think otherwise are usually people who have bovine waste where their brains should be.