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Heems’ triumphant return, fresh sounds from Sheherazaad and Naya Beat

Releasing within weeks of each other, these three records hint at a subaltern history of South Asian music outside the subcontinent

Heems

By Bhanuj Kappal

LAST PUBLISHED 10.03.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

I still remember the thrill I felt the first time I heard Heems rap “listening to Cam while I’m reading Arundhati Roy," on the 2010 Das Racist track Ek Shaneesh. Like countless other brown kids in the diaspora and the desh, I felt seen in a way that was exceedingly rare on the global stage back then. The noughties were a bleak time for South Asian representation in global—which, at the time, mostly meant American—pop culture. On television, you could pick between generic “jihadists", or Apu from The Simpsons. Not exactly aspirational role models to emulate.

The pickings were even slimmer when it came to music, where you had your pick of world music and…a different flavour of world music. If a South Asian artist made a track which didn’t have a sitar or a dhol, it might as well not exist for the rest of the world. And then you had Himanshu Suri, a Punjabi boy from Queens in one of the internet’s hottest alt-rap groups, dropping references to Indian post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak and dosa in between jokes about white people needing sunscreen. He was hyper-literate, he was funny, and most importantly, he was one of us.

Alongside a handful of trailblazing South Asians—notably M.I.A.—Heems broke the mould of what “brown artists" should look and sound like, effortlessly laying claim to both the New Delhi gully and the New York street. Das Racist broke up in 2012, but he kept going, releasing wildly eclectic, shape-shifting mixtapes Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom that same year. His 2015 album Eat Pray Thug poignantly documented the tribulations of being brown in post-9/11 America, a theme that he then built on with Riz-Ahmed collab Swet Shop Boys. The latter project put down the definitive blueprint for South Asian rap, blending New York boom-bap with Punjabi folk and 1970s Bollywood samples.

Constantly swimming against the tide takes its toll though. Even in the Das Racist days, you could see Heems struggle with the labels put on to him: outsider, hipster, joke-rapper. In 2015, after a Twitter brouhaha over a SpaceGhostPurrp lyric he tweeted, Heems announced that he was quitting rap. That didn’t stick, with Swet Shop Boys releasing an LP in 2016 and an EP a year later. But then, radio silence. Addiction and mental health certainly played a part, but it seemed like Heems had been beaten down by the industry and the haters, denied his rightful place as a backpack-rap savant.

Then LAFANDAR—Heems’ first solo release in nine years—dropped into my inbox last month. The 12-track album is a triumphant return to form, the Punjabi-American rapper sounding revitalised and ready to take on all comers. Heems has never sounded sharper and more focused than he does on the record, his masterful code-switching and hyper-referential humour interspersed with pugilistic bars critiquing America’s forever wars and anti-immigrant racism.

On Bukayo Saka, he raps “I roll around with 2 glizzys like I’m Slavoj Zizek," a whiplash-inducing rhyme that references a viral photo of the Slovenian philosopher holding two hotdogs in service of classic rap braggadocio (“glizzy" can refer to both hotdogs and Glock handguns). There’s post-colonial schadenfreude (“Fuck the queen, white woman with my nani jewelry") and globe-trotting cultural hat-tips (“I’m blowing Buddha with barracudas in Aruba"). Heems sounds hungrier than ever, feeding off the energy of collaborators such as Kool Keith and Open Mike Eagle.

But what makes the record feel like such a victory lap is the number of South Asian contributors, many directly inspired by Heems. Producer Lapgan cites Nehru Jackets as a key influence, and his continent-spanning, time-travelling compositions incorporate New York boom-bap, South Asian film music and Levantine folk into a thrillingly unpredictable bricolage. There’s a stellar Carnatic vocal line from Sid Sriram on the Ilaiyaraaja and Yesudas-sampling opener Stupid Dumb Illiterate, and fiery bars from Birmingham’s Sonnyjim and Chennai-born, Austin-based rapper Abhi The Nomad. Their presence—and brilliance—on the record is a testament to the power of cultural representation in breaking down doors.

Two other recent records take that thread of cultural representation even further, back in time and forwards to the present. The first is Qasr, the debut EP by Indian-American composer and singer Sheherazaad, whose own press release cites Swet Shop Boys as a key cultural touchpoint. Produced by the incandescently brilliant Arooj Aftab—whose work as a solo artist and a producer has done for ghazal and Hindustani folk what Heems did for South Asian rap—the EP is a masterpiece of experimental folk balladry. Minimalist instrumentation creates a quasi-organic sonic scaffolding for Sheherazaad’s emotive vocals, as she crafts a music that’s true to her disparate Asian-American roots. Featuring musicians from Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, Qasr finds political liberation in its nostalgia for a pre-nationalism past where culture and identity flowed freely over porous borders. It digs into history to imagine a better future.

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The other record is Bhangra House Xtc, a new remix EP by the Los Angeles-based Naya Beat label. Manchester DJ Mr. Scruff and Naya Beat proprietors Turbotito & Ragz take two cuts off Holle Holle, the classic 1986 UK bhangra album by Manjeet Kondal and Deepak Khazanchi, and transform them into scorching, dance-floor-ready acid house and dub. It’s a refreshingly vital bit of musical archaeology and recontextualisation, reminding us that the current wave of South Asian DJs, producers, rappers and experimental artists—from Heems to Arooj Aftab, Slowspin, the late Siddhu Moosewala, and yes, Sheherazaad—stands on the shoulders of forgotten giants.

Releasing within weeks of each other, these three records hint at a subaltern history of South Asian music outside the subcontinent, of artists who refuse to be boxed up in essentialist categories of race, nation or culture. At a time of rising hyper-nationalism, I cherish this serendipitous reminder that music—like everything else that represents the best of humanity—respects no borders, and rejects all gatekeepers. We should all aim for a world in which it’s totally normal to, like Heems, kick back and watch “Pyaasa with a Rasta."

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