Q&A: Heems on His Quest for Racial Identity and How Hip-Hop Gets Lost in Translation in Asia
"A lot of Indian men are infantilized little babies, who feel entitled to everything. Including me."
When you walk into the Long Island house that Himanshu Suri shares with his parents, it’s easy to forget that he’s also Heems, the artist whose outsized personality used to make up one-third of the former SPIN cover-adorning rap group Das Racist. This Heems, who left the states after the group split up in 2012 on a self-imposed exile to tour Asia and India, is more soft-spoken, almost monk-like in his calm — a marked difference from the more frenetic rapper of days past.
The old Heems pops up when he asks if the cabbie knew his house from a block away, the only remodeled mini-mansion on a gray suburban street filled with identical vinyl siding. It comes out again when he gives me a tour of the massive home he helped design from the ground up, grinning ear to ear as he gestures to the impressive foyer and proclaims, “The style is Punjabi baroque!”
But Eat Pray Thug, his first official solo album since the group disbanded after two well-received mixtapes, is much more introspective, much like Heems himself, probing the conflicted feelings he has around his own identity. The album’s first single, “Sometimes,” explores exactly that, with Heems rapping, “This is how I live it man, this is my reality / Always confused, I could use more clarity.” But where Das Racist was commenting on race on a broader scale and taking the piss out of institutions, Heems is examining a new subject: himself.
“When I came out of Wesleyan, I was in this mode where I was constantly thinking about post-colonial theory and race. I thought about it on a larger scale,” Heems told SPIN. “Now I think of how it affects my community. I think of Indians, Arabs, Latinos — the space between black and white. The discourse about race was always black and white, but now I think of it in terms of how it affects my community and those around me.”
Ahead of Eat Pray Thug’s release (it’s out today via Megaforce Records), SPIN sat down over cups of chai that he brewed himself to talk about the journey through the making of the record, his racial identity, and the new Heems that’s really been there all along.
What’s the story you wanted to tell with Eat Pray Thug? You’ve talked about how the album explores post-9/11, “dystopian” America.
It embodies a lot of what’s good about New York. A lot of times when you’re writing and you’re away from home, you end up writing about home. A lot of my favorite pieces of art and literature are about a place that’s also been written away from that place. The album is about an artist in exile, coming home, and what that really means.
What were the reasons for the self-imposed exile?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to explore anything. I went in there and ended up making songs about love, breaking up with my ex, mental health, and self-medicating. A year-and-a-half ago, that’s where I was. That’s not where I am now.
How has it been working on the album with Megaforce, instead of your own label, like your last two mixtapes?
It’s been a learning experience working with a label instead of being a label. I’m just not used to being told what to do. I feel like I do have a track record of putting music out that’s not really easy to market, and navigating the music industry for artists that might be left of center, or out of the box. I’m just used to mixtape culture; I run a mixtape label, so I’m all about that freedom and putting out free music. But this is an exercise in scale. I suppose putting out an album is more about a larger scale than a mixtape. It’s been frustrating at times but a learning experience. When Das Racist broke up, we had a deal with Megaforce, so it was just about finishing what was right with them.
You recorded the album in three days in Bombay. How did tracking in India make the album different from your mixtapes?
Being away from New York meant that in a lot of ways, whether I was thinking about it or not, I was writing about New York. But by being in India, I was able to stop thinking of myself in the context of American race. I stopped being the Indian guy in the room. Everyone was Indian, so it became about who you are and what you’re into.
I gained a lot of knowledge about self, and I was able to look beyond some of those hang ups I have about race and America — to cut through it and write about who I am and what I go through. I still talk about race all through this record, but it’s in a personal way.
It’s trendy right now to talk about diversity — race, feminism, you name it. Do you ever feel artists are commodifying their culture because they can?
I was just thinking about that yesterday. I was doing a shoot for a magazine and a photographer said, “I love this temple area,” [about a small family temple in his parent’s home]. I said, “Cool, we can’t shoot here.” I’m not performing my religion for people. This is where I sit and meditate, and that’s for me. We create things so that we don’t have to talk about them.
You once said the burden of the minority man is that everything you do is in a sociopolitical context. On the other hand, you have artists like Mindy Kaling who made it clear they do not want to actively talk about race. Does it ever feel like a heavier burden?
A lot of people don’t have the luxury of growing up in a community where you’re surrounded by family and cousins. Not everyone grows up in Queens or Long Island, so I can’t force my relationship with India or how “proud” I am of my heritage on another artist. Everyone will get to it when they need to and they want to get to it. I happen to be super proud of where I come from and I grew up in New York, that’s part of how you’re raised in New York.
In a lot of ways, by not talking about it, those artists are doing more than by talking about it. They don’t always have to say, “I’m different, I’m different, I’m different.” In that way, you make it easier for other people to isolate you. A lot of why I’m in music is to say, “I’m like you,” to the non-South Asian fan community. By taking roles where they’re not always talking about race, those guys are basically doing the same exact thing I am by talking about it all the time. It’s just a matter of visibility.
Did you feel the same way growing up, or was there a desire to assimilate and fit in with American culture?
I hate that expression “Indian Indian.” If a white person said to me, “You’re not Indian Indian,” I’d say, “I’m about to punch you. You’re my boy, but I’m about to punch you because you just said I’m not Indian Indian, what do you know?” I always wanted validation from people, but I was never going to give up my identity. All my friends were my cousins, and then all my friends were Indian kids from the neighborhood. When I was 16, I started hanging out with Korean and white kids, but before then I didn’t need no one’s validation except for my friends, and they were all Indian.
On Twitter once, I asked, “How many of you yelled at your mom because some white kid at school said you smelled like curry, and then you went home and asked why you didn’t use the exhaust fan?” People really resonated with that [tweet]. My next tweet was going to be me saying, “Y’all should be ashamed of yourself, I never did that!” But I didn’t send that second tweet. If a white kid back then said some racist shit to me, which would happen in the neighborhood all the time, I would just get into a fight. How else do you handle that?
How do you think your fans abroad will react to an album all about New York?
A lot of rap goes over the people’s heads in Asia. A lot of time, they appropriate the weirdest elements of rap. There’s a huge cultural divide. When I was in Malaysia, the kids were saying the N-word, and every other word is “swag.” When I got to Malaysia, the kids there were like, “You don’t look or talk like a rapper.” So they have this idea of rap that’s not that different from what Americans think about rap — some scary African-American ideas that are built into American racism. That’s not what I think; otherwise I wouldn’t rap. But a lot of it doesn’t translate overseas, so you kind of wonder, “Why do you like this?”
And sometimes they don’t like it! They think it’s too gritty. Maybe my style too, I might be a little bit of a dick, I might antagonize people. I’m a fan of rap and punk right? So my shows are more on the punk side than the average rap show, and in India that just doesn’t translate. A lot of the kids who are into my music come from the upper class and aren’t willing to drop that lifestyle to be punks the way that movement spread in America. It doesn’t always translate, and I especially don’t translate. But it’s still cool looking out in the crowd and seeing 300 brown faces.
For someone who is representing their roots so regularly, you can also be the strongest critic of Indian culture. You had one tweet recently about how Indian men are the biggest babies. Do you ever feel stuck in the middle?
Of course I’m a critic! When I go to India, I’m interacting mostly with people who are of the upper class and are rich enough to be educated in London and America, whereas my parents weren’t, so I’m always taking a piss out of those guys. I can be a critic, and I can make those jokes because I am that person. A lot of Indian men are infantilized little babies, who feel entitled to everything. Including me.
That line on “Sometimes,” where you rap, “How to live my life / When my life all dualities,” is great. I feel that way all the time, being trapped between being Indian and being American.
It’s a great catch-all! That’s what’s cool about going to India. You’ll have friends who are from all over India, and you began to realize this monolithic Indian identity you came to cherish as an American doesn’t exist. In the next year, I might move to India.
I like it out there. When I was in college, I was thinking about working in India. I always wanted to go there. I have this big feeling that’s what Eat Pray Thug is about. It’s about how complicated identity is. I’m poking fun at this white lady for her spiritual tourism and Orientalism, but I’m kind of guilty of the same thing. I had a mild freakout and ran away to India on a spiritual quest.
Identity is a much more complicated thing than that, and I’m guilty of the same Oriental exotification as an American is. I constantly think of how not to perform race, how not to pander [to] race, how not to sell race, or religion or identity — but at the same time, I am in the business of selling identity. I’m figuring out what that identity is, as I’m doing it.