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Sound check: Indian-American rapper Heems raps about brownness & 9/11

Shobhna Iyer | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:25 IST

A lot happened in the aftermath of 9/11: covert wars and overt hostilities; legitimate security and illegitimate profiling; public anger and private anguish.

What happened in New York has since reverberated around the world - not just in the homes of Americans but in the experience of Muslim Asians and brown Asians of other faiths who have had to contend with racism, bigotry and Islamophobia as a fallout of the brutal attack.

Is it surprising, then, that the tragic events of that day have inspired art across different domains?

Indian-American rapper Himanshu Suri, who goes by the moniker Heems, has made 9/11 one of the central themes of his first full-length album Eat Pray Thug, which released earlier this year; an album he has called 'post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap'.

Formerly of rap group Das Racist - unfairly written off often in the annals of rap history as 'joke rap' - Heems' solo work has been naturally more self-reflective and surprisingly but satisfyingly more political.

In the span of 11 songs, the rapper delves into topics familiar to fans - his Asian/American identity, New York City and more self-reflection on depression and co-dependency than rap music knows what to do with.

But throughout his career, one event has hung like a dark cloud over his work: 9/11.

There are throwaway references aplenty on the Das Racist mixtapes and album, but it's really in Eat Pray Thug that Suri deep-dives into what that event was to him and his community, and the lasting effect it's had on communities of colour in New York City and beyond.

Though he wrote parts of the album and made most of it during a sabbatical trip in India - during which this writer was lucky enough to see him perform some of the new songs live - the most ferocious parts of the album were written at home in Queens, New York.

Three songs stand out, and today on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, are definitely worth a listen and some contemplation:

'The neighbors threw rocks at the house/They making it harder to live'

On 'Flag Shopping', Heems details the things brown Asian of all faiths had to do in order to convince their neighbours, or absolute strangers, of their allegiance to and patriotism for the country.

'We're going flag shopping for American flags

They're staring at our turbans

They're calling them rags

They're calling them towels

They're calling them diapers'

In interviews, Heems has often talked about the day the towers came down, and how the kids in his school could see people jumping from the twin towers.

He recalls how a group of 30-40 kids immediately found their way to each other - Muslim, Hindu, Christians, Jews - all realising that they were going to have to look out for each other in the city.

That immediate fear of and anger towards people who would map onto brown bodies all the blame for the tragedy is what he remembers most vividly, and what he channels into the song.

'And I was there

I saw the towers and the planes

And I'll never be the same

Never ever be the same

I seen things that I never wanna see again

I heard things that I never wanna hear again

And now we're going flag shopping'

'Hi haters, our guns from Al Qaeda'

The line above from the song 'Al Q8a' has gotten Heems some flack from those those who don't realise that the line is a take on another rap song. As he told NPR,

...that song is me just saying that there are parallels to the way that we treat black people here and the way we treat brown people around the world. And it's not just me but even the rap community has drawn those parallels before I was even rapping. Why did they call Lefrak Iraq? Or why is Chicago Chi-raq now? Because people on the ground even here feel some kind of affinity or some kind of - feel like that they could be compared to the people over there.

The most lasting moment of the song, fittingly, comes towards the end, where he chants in a monotone, over and over: "USA. USA. USA".

At his aforementioned Delhi show, when he performed this then-unreleased song, it was a sign of the times when the crowd chanted along with him, unironically, probably because they missed most of the verses that called bulls*** on the kind of American patriotism that threatens the lives and livelihoods of American immigrant families:

'This for Arabs in bodegas toting steel under the registers

And all illegal aliens, it's them that never registered

I'm back on my old shit, baby I'm still Heems

Still gooning with the Guyanese out in Richmond Hill, Queens

I might move to the mountains out in Pakistan

Until my own government will drop a bomb

But you won't hear about it in no news clip

Mommy they move quick, that's just how they do s***'

'I was Osama, we were Osama; Are you Osama?'

Hands down the most powerful, heartbreaking track on the record, 'Patriot Act' is a tour-de-force in spoken word and rap.

It's named after the anti-terrorism Act put in place by the George Bush government after 9/11, which made it essentially legal for the government to spy on anyone they found to be 'suspicious of terrorist activities'. The focus, invariably, was on brown people of all faiths, especially Muslims.

In this extremely direct song, Heems documents for memory the small and large acts of microaggressions and racism experienced by him, his family, his peers and their families.

The whole song is worth quoting and a listen, but here's a sample:

'And we scrubbed words like bomb from our vocabulary

And airports changed to us forever

Where another blue uniform came to represent oppression or undressing

And another blue uniform came to represent stops and frisks, depressing

And our parents began to fear for our lives whenever we walked out the door

Because they read the news, and another cab driver was beaten to death

And yesterday, more than 10 years later, another man from the neighborhood was deported

I went to expensive white people school with his daughter

For four years we read books and together we yelled "I'm just like you"

But she won't get to correct her father's English at dinner anymore

And the FBI harassed one of my dad's friends so much he packed up his stuff and took his family and they moved back to Pakistan

They would come at night and they would wake them up and make a mess, and the mess upset his wife'

When he played the song to his label execs, they apparently told him that it was 'dated', that the events had happened years ago.

Heems replied: "And I told them, "It's not if you're me. It's not if you're a brown person. It's not if you're a person of color and they're tapping your phone." Like, everyday you live with this. So maybe to you and your office, as like a white man, it's dated. But to me, every day of my life I deal with these things. So it's not now. And, even if more people are paying attention to it now, then that's positive."

First published: 11 September 2015, 3:15 IST
Shobhna Iyer @shoiyer

After studying to be an archaeologist at JNU, Shobhna worked in travel publishing before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not arguing over en and em dashes, you'll find her raving about her new favourite album, drinking copious amounts of coffee or ganna ras and struggling to come up with witty tweets.