Heems on 'Being Brown in a Black and White World'
Any fan of the absurdist rap group Das Racist knows the casual, fun flow of Himanshu Suri, better known as Heems. After the group’s break up, both Victor Vazquez, or Kool A. D. and Himanshu began creating their own work. The proud Punjabi rapper has just recently come out with his first solo record after the break up titled Eat Pray Thug and features much of what we missed from he rapper.
Himanshu gets personal on the record for the first time, rapping about his mother working at Pathmark and the racism he faced from being a post-9/11 Indian-American, . A graduate of Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University, the artist spoke eloquently and easily jumping from the nuances of Islamophobia to the comedy world, and settled the age old question: Pizza Hut or Taco Bell?
Are you excited about this tour?
Yeah I’m pretty excited, but it’s a lot of work. I like connecting with different audiences and taking the show on the road. I’ve worked pretty hard on it, so I’m glad to take it out there.
You’re touring with Eat Pray Thug now. What goals did you have making it, and do you feel like you achieved them?
I guess for me it was about being a mouth piece, or a voice for my community. I was trying to shed light on some of the things that don’t get paid attention to in working class of people of color communities. Typically things like mental health, or the fact that the South Asian community has a lot of homophobia, anti-blackness, or Islamophobia. I want to discuss some of the contradictions within the community, but also bring the stories of the community to the forefront. In communities like mine you tend to be afraid of the government and the institutions, so you tend to shy away from them. In the process of doing so, you don’t get the same resources as your neighbors or peers. Whether through my activism or music, I want to give those stories a voice so that those people can get those resources.
I’ve read that you weren’t looking to take as political a stance, but this album gets pretty political at times.
I don’t know if I was making a conscious effort to be ‘not political’ but I think my personal life narrative is inherently political because of 9/11 and having been there when it happened. My life is inextricably linked with this extremely political, large-scale event. Maybe I thought I could escape that, but at some point I made the realization that it’s part of my life. I can’t really detach. There was that quote that I used on Ride the Wave with Danny Brown and Exquire – it’s Arundhati Roy talking to Howard Zinn. She said that growing up, we didn’t have the protections that society chose to offer its people. Whether you want it or not, politics are in your life. Whether I want it to be or not, because of my history, because of 9/11, politics are in my life. I’m just trying to make sense of it and go along.
It’s a pretty interesting choice that you riff on Eat, Pray, Love with the album title. It’s a pretty notorious perpetrator of white people appropriating South Asian culture.
The title is a little tongue-in-cheek and poking at me. When I had a tough time in my life, I tended to think, ‘If I go to India, spend time with family and go to the Haridwar and the Rishikesh, go to the Ganges and wash my sins away, then everything will be okay. In the end, I’m just as guilty of this spiritual tourism as someone like Elizabeth Gilbert. I might consider myself Indian, but at the end of the day, I’m American. I fall guilty to the same contradictions as Americans. It’s poking fun and calling attention to the fact that things aren’t that cut and dry. Even if I might see myself as Indian, my identity is much more complex than that, than just American and Indian. Humans are humans, so whether you’re American, Indian-American, Indian, you might find a way to connect. This is how I connect with Americans, by being guilty of the same contradictions.
You also curated a gallery show in March to kind of go along with the album. What informed that decision?
It’s always been something that I was interested in. I’m still doing music, but I’m trying out other avenues of creativity like writing fiction or curated and creating visual art. With this album, it was an opportunity to approach storytelling from different mediums. The medium in this instance was visual art.
I got to put together a show of artists that I not only have bought pieces from, but also artists that I’m friends with. It was cool to bridge the gap of the older world of art and the younger, more edgy world. Art is something typically held by the wealthier classes, and end up being an ultra Manhattan, Upper East Side controlled thing. To get to curate a Manhattan show, and not a Bushwick show that you might associate me with, was an honor. I hope to do it again next year. We even sold some pieces!
You made a video for the album, ‘Sometimes’, with Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress. How was that?
I’ve known them for some time and I think with Das Racist, when other people said we were ‘joke rap’ we took offense, but we also dabbled in comedy. Our music always had this humor to it. As recently as last year, I put Joe Mande’s, who is a writer on Parks and Rec, mixtape on Greedhead, my label. Comedy has always been around us. For ‘Sometimes’, I thought the song was still playful and had a little Das Racist feel, so I wanted someone playful for it. When I was making the collages for Eat Pray Thug, I was also watching the Eric Andre Show and just thinking, ‘This is genius!’ It was also an interesting project for me because I directed the video. It started from a thought I had on Thursday night in my room, and became the full video in a few days.
I know you mentioned that you’re branching out into different mediums. Do you have any other creative projects in the works?
I don’t know how much I can really talk about it, but I might be working on a sitcom which is really exciting for me. Later this year, I’ll also probably make another record. In a certain way, this album was a reintroduction for me into music. It’s a little sad, but I needed that meditative moment. I’ll get happier, I promise [laughs].
Was it really different working on a solo project, as opposed to a more collaborative effort?
Even with Das Racist, I ended up picking the beats and reaching out to producers. I was still reaching out and doing all the paperwork, but in this situation, I was getting paid less to do it because I was signed to a record label. Really, going from a group to solo felt natural. Victor was already recording solo music. I also felt like I kept Queens and more of the Indian stuff separate from Das Racist. It was until ‘Relax’ that I really talked about my life, or my mom working at Pathmark. Victor has a lot of similar experiences being Latino. That’s what Das Racist was really about. Being brown in a black and white world.
So, which one, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell?
Out of all of the fast food places, I’d probably do Pizza Hut’s salty ass pizza. Taco Bell’s quesadillas are a guilty pleasure of mine though. I went two nights ago after already eating, but it’s one of the few things I don’t tweet about doing because I know some 14 year old kid will see it and be like, ‘Haha, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell! You went!’ Every week someone sends me a picture of one or the other. It’s 2015 and we’re still going over this. But Pizza Hut is good. It’s salty, I’ll say that, but the sauce is good, the bread sticks are hella good.
Get your tickets to see Eat Pray Thug here.
Photography by Olivia Seally
Homeslide by Hannah Ahn