By Aatish Nath
Music resonates, that’s not in dispute. Listening to rap music though, it’s often hard to tease out from the lyrics, something that resonates with young, middle class Indians living halfway across the world. After all, rap most often deals with the struggles of growing up with nothing, in a world where you’re discriminated against, with the threats of gun violence looming large.
It’s a surprise then, to listen to Heem’s Eat Pray Thug, an album that came out over a year ago, that features Himanshu Suri rapping about being Indian in New York during 9/11 and watching the towers fall from high school. There’s more to it than that, but on "Flag Shopping", Heems is able to capture the xenophobia that swept through the US following the terror attacks. The centrepiece of the album, the song takes a twinkling beat and turns it into something sinister, over which Heems raps lyrics like, “We sad like they sad/But now we buy their flag”.
He does the same on "Suicide by Cop", and bridges the geographic divide between “The drones are looking at our homes, Holmes”, and “In the 10th grade sat in class, saw the towers and the planes” within the course of the same 3 minute song.
On Eat Pray Thug, he personalised 9/11, terrorism and the brown experience in New York using his distinctive world-view to probe the second-generation immigrant experience while also paying tribute to the music and culture he grew up around. Listening to the album, its easy to see that Heems has never fully assimilated into American culture, but what he is able to do, is take the dominant medium of rap music and use it to set out in no uncertain terms the anguish of personal slights — on the larger issues of race, or more mundane break ups that are a part of growing up. As an Indian-American who’s taken on an African-American art form, Heems is aware of his appropriating culture, but he uses it to draws attention to how being Indian-American has caused him to be marginalised in the increasingly polarised world we live in. In a sense using a form that was popularized by one marginalised community to reflect on the troubles of another.
Heems got his start rapping as one half of Das Racist, a joke-rap group he formed while in college, at Wesleyan University. With Das Racist, he released two mixtapes and an album, all of which were engaging, topical and looked at life through a witty, unique and often obtuse lens. Both as Das Racist and on his solo album, he uses his beats to further the skittering, hyperactive nature of his best songs.
While the rapping on this album is all Heems, the beats vary from the lush and hypnotic on "Home" (courtesy of New York producer and artist in his own right Devonté Hynes), to the more frentic So NY, which almost mimics the pace of life in the city.
Criminally underrated, Eat Pray Thug is an album that Heems claims is his last. If it is, we’re lucky to have one that manages to illuminate, with wit and pathos the inner life of a singular talent.
The writer tweets at @aatishn