A Conversation with Swet Shop Boys, the Heroes 2016 So Desperately Needs
Nikesh Shukla, the author of 'The Good Immigrant', sat down with Swet Shop Boys to dissect the toxic narrative surrounding immigration, the inspiration behind their new album, and where we all go from here.
The dualities on the debut album from Swet Shop Boys are best expressed in the song "Half Moghul Half Mowgli" where Riz MC raps about being, "Raised like a concrete jungli / And a junglist and a Londonist / But my DNA wonder where my home should be…" Therein lies the anxiety for so many people of colour born in the diaspora, reconciling where they're from with where they're at. But what if, in the place where they're at, hate crimes are on the rise and the narrative around immigration is increasingly toxic?
2016 really needed some heroes. Prince died, we Brexited, Trump rose. I mean, you know these things, we all know these things. With an alt-right on the rise, heading further right towards white supremacy, and the left in disarray, the UK is a shambles. The US isn't doing much better. But in Swet Shop Boys it feels like we finally have a small glimmer of hope, hope streaming from the bars of Riz Ahmed and Himanshu Suri (better known as Heems and Riz MC), and the sounds of their producer Redinho.
Heems is the laconic, laidback, sad and hilarious rapper who gave us Eat Pray Thug last year, as well as the fizzy ridiculousness of hip-hop trio, Das Racist. Riz MC is a British actor as well a rapper. You've absolutely seen him, because he is everywhere - in the film Four Lions or HBO Miniseries The Night Of, and in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One. He also wrote an essay for my book, The Good Immigrant, about his trials and tribulations as an actor and as a person travelling to and from America, disturbed by his changing social capital as a Muslim actor and a Muslim traveller.
Their album Cashmere was made in just five days, and it celebrates the unity between India and Pakistan by riffing (in the title) on its most contested of regions (Kashmir). It drips with humour and politics, railing against the British Empire, airport security, Hare Krishnas, and Donald Trump. It is an incredibly complex, challenging and hilarious record. One that requires repeated listening to tease out every joke, every nuance, and every injustice it challenges. It also feels like a soothing balm for a testing year. Like I said – we needed some heroes.
I rang up Swet Shop Boys to chat about identity, history, how they brought this record together, and where the world is going next.
Two themes that run through the album are duality and representation. There are lyrics that undercut expectations of stereotypes with either nuance, punchlines or just horror. Is this a fair assumption? Why are these dualities important?
Heems: I'm used to thinking in dualities, especially when it comes to the Indian part of my identity and my American one. The work is about building up these dualities to then break them down and find a better identity that's less compartmentalised.
It often feels, if you're a person of colour in the media or the arts, like you end up being treated like the spokesperson for your race, or for all people of colour. When I brought together my book, The Good Immigrant, I wanted to subvert those expectations by trying to inject some nuance into it. I feel like this is also what you guys are trying to do on Cashmere.
Heems: When you take on these types of issues and you become a voice in your community, you don't want to be the sole voice. You wish there were other people speaking up about these things as well, because you don't want that type of pressure on you. But at the same time you have to use your platform and be conscious of it and use it for good. The reason I rap and am writing a novel about these types of things is because I don't want to just perform race. So it's not just about using your voice for the community, it's about using a language and a medium that's appropriate for that community as well.
Riz, in the last twelve months there's been this body of work from you – "Englistan", Cashmere, your essay in The Good Immigrant – where is England at for you at the moment? Where is Britain? The work seems to indicate a sense of displacement or discomfort…
Riz: I'm feeling now more than ever that I want to take ownership of what being British means. Like I say in "Englistan", I want to stretch the flag till it's big enough for all of us. And also expand our concept of what Britain means to people; make it more inclusive. Also, an idea of Britain that faces its own history.
I went to Holland over the weekend, and I met this old dude who's got all these tiny little model toy soldiers, and some of them are regiments from the 1800s/1900s. This one regiment spun me out because it was all Sikh dudes carrying union jacks and playing bagpipes, as part of the British army. When I say I'm British and I'm trying to take ownership of that, I'm not erasing my South Asian heritage. I'm trying to expand people's ideas of what Britishness is. To paraphrase David Oywelo, when we talk about British history, we don't talk about it in an honest way. The blood of our ancestors is in those bricks.
Yeah, the British Empire isn't taught properly in schools...
Riz: If at all. I didn't learn anything about the Empire. I'm still trying to piece the shit together. Apparently it was kinda dark.
Heems: They did give us some railroads.
Riz: Apparently we got some good trains. This is before privatisation though.
They weren't run by Southern Rail, certainly.
Heems: The British taught us how to use our thumbs and use trains.
It feels like, post-referendum, there's been this colonial nostalgia happening. People are harking back to some good ol' days that no one actually remembers.
Riz: Again, it's the idea of the erasure of the true nature of our history. I think if we were more aware of who we are as a nation, where we come from, and how multicultural the idea of Britain is, maybe there wouldn't be such a reaction against it. What we're doing isn't something brand new. We're trying to forge our way into the future using toolkits from the past. Britain was always multicultural, but we're never told that. That's why we have all this false nostalgia kicking around.
Having both been solo artists, how did you re-shape what you want to do musically into a project where you need to compromise and deal with each other's personalities?
Heems: It has to grow organically out of a friendship.
Riz: It's good to not just be in your own head. Being a solo artist can be lonely. Being around people who can tell you to stop, leave it alone, it's fine, is good. I'm a perfectionist. I'll obsess over shit, with the irony being that it doesn't perfect it, it makes it worse usually. Me and Redinho have a tendency to overanalyse, tweak and re-tweak, whereas Heems' approach is much more 'get in there and do it', improvisational shit, off the top of the head. Because we only had five days to do the album, we had to adopt his approach. Which was liberating.
Was there a mission statement for the album, per se, in terms of themes, or did it emerge as you recorded?
Heems: A lot of people think the airport thing was a theme but it wasn't really planned out. It grew out of Redinho playing us beats, us listening, asking what he heard on it and then conceptualising around that. Those themes emerged from those conversations, from our friendship and from things we saw around us. Overall, the mission statement is about visibility and humanisation.
Riz: It feels like quite a personal record. I didn't have much time to think or discuss themes. The name of the band already sets up a template, talking about appropriating and re-appropriating western pop culture, touching on exploitation and the ethics of how we qualify race. The political themes came from a very personal place, things we'd seen.
We're having these big conversations at the moment – about representation, inclusion, diversity in the arts. Where do you think Swet Shop Boys sits in the conversation, if anywhere?
Heems: We're trying to be a part of that conversation. We've been excluded from the larger conversation for so long. Solange's album title, A Seat At The Table, says it all.
Given how busy you've both been and how dark 2016 has been, what does downtime look like for you guys? What are your self-care routines?
Heems: Downtime and coping are two different things. Downtime for me is hanging out with my nieces. Coping is hoping for a better future than what's been set up for them with the current election.
Riz: I've got to be honest, I should probably be taking better care of myself than I am. I'm just working all the time. That's all I do right now. That's everything I'm doing. So if you could advise me…
Heems: We should have a spa day.
Riz: Why aren't we doing this from a jacuzzi? Everyone's fired…
I have a kid. Maybe you should have a kid. That'll force you to have some downtime.
Heems: Yeah man. That's me, getting back to the crib and hanging out with my nieces. But the downtime just makes me want to work more and make more art, make it a better world for them. So even though it's technically downtime, I'm still processing all these issues. How do I contribute and make the world better for these young brown kids?
Riz: Things are at a crunch point. There's no time to chill.
There's a lot of information on the album about India and Pakistan and bringing them together. What are you hoping this album does for South Asian identity and representation?
Riz: This is an album I wish existed when I was a kid.
With the US election coming up, the conversation about immigration where it's at, and what we've seen with Brexit, I kind of feel like no matter who wins, we've all lost. What do you think happens after the election? Is Pandora's box open?
Heems: I think for the people who are leaning in the correct direction, which is the left direction as far as I'm concerned, I don't think much will change. It's about the right trying to figure out where they are and process what has happened with them. Because they're much more of a shambles. I hope the left goes more left and realises that Bernie Sanders' successes were important. And I think America has to question its two party system.
Riz: I think we are in scary times, man. When you open up that box, I don't know if it all goes away again. You have to burn everything to the ground before you can start again. I've said it before, but there's definitely parallels with what went on in the 1930s in terms of political polarisation and rising inequality and systematically scapegoating minorities. So what happens after the election, I can't help but feel like we're headed for really dark times. We're already living in a world war. It's just an asymmetrical world war.
You can follow Nikesh on Twitter.
(All Photography by Chris Bethell)