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Nine reasons why Swet Shop Boys are the group the South Asian diaspora needs

31 Mar 2017

The first time I listed to the album Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys, I had to stop part of the way through and breathe for a while. I had been trying to relax after writing an intense midterm, but I wasn’t prepared to hear something so real. Cashmere is essentially Himanshu Suri (Heems) and Riz Ahmed (Riz MC)’s love letter to the South Asian diaspora; it’s simultaneously a celebration, a reflection, a critique, a defence, and more. I remember being unable to think through how much the album meant to me. Now, one month and countless plays later, I finally have the words to explain why Swet Shop Boys are the artists that the South Asian diaspora needs.

1. Swet Shop Boys don’t downplay the effects of Islamophobia

From ‘T5’ to ‘Shoes Off’, the entire album explores the dangers of Islamophobia. Cashmere highlights the effects of racial profiling, surveillance, police entrapment, and the indignity of “random” searches at airports. They also repeatedly address something most media outlets and government officials ignore – the lack of representation that accompanies Islamophobia can often push people towards radicalisation.

2. They openly discuss mental health and substance addiction

As someone who struggles with intense depression, the silence surrounding mental health feels oppressive. So, hearing Heems rap “It wasn’t long ago I thought about killing myself” felt revolutionary. I never thought I’d hear a Desi boy reject toxic masculinity and openly talk about suicide or addiction. Cashmere breaks from convention and creates room for a conversation that’s long overdue.

“I never thought I’d hear a Desi boy reject toxic masculinity and openly talk about suicide or addiction.”

3. Riz and Heems constantly reject the model minority myth

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Asian people are held up as the “model minority”. The idea may be appealing, but its consequences are appalling: anti-Asian racism and Asian poverty is treated as a joke, it’s built on and preserves anti-blackness, and can stop Asian folks from pursuing non-traditional careers. The duo is painfully aware of these facts, consistently resisting the myth, and celebrating the diversity of experiences.

4. Cashmere acknowledges and values the relationship between Black and South Asian communities

Swet Shop Boys push back against deep-seated anti-blackness by highlighting the connection between black and brown communities, the latter who were welcomed and integrated into Africa as immigrants and slaves. They also highlight the benefits people of color (PoC) gained from political organisation in Black communities, and push for South Asians to use their relative privilege to fight anti-blackness.

5. They amplify other voices

One of the best things about the album is that it supports cultural South Asian figures. There’s a shout-out to comedian Hari Kondabolu, recordings of activist Malala Yousafzai, and an old interview from poet Shiv Kumar. The song ‘Aaja’ and its video are dedicated to, and honor the memory of Qandeel Baloch. Swet Shop Boys understand that sharing a platform doesn’t mean dimming your own light; instead, it’s a way to build solidarity with and appreciate others.

6. Swet Shop Boys call out cultural appropriation and commodification

Heems gives us a concise description of why cultural appropriation hurts when he raps “They comin’ for the culture man, like they was on a mission (…) Used to call me curry now they cook it in the kitchen”. Apart from calling out appropriation, the album also takes on how South Asian cultures are watered down, commodified, disrespected, and then sold to the masses.

7. Cashmere both critiques and cultivates support within the South Asian diaspora

Although a critique of Western society, it also analyses the diaspora itself. The album draws attention to the nuances and intersectionality of diasporic identity, and creates space for important conversations on topics that are deemed “taboo”. Heems is an Indian-American man from Queens, and Riz is a British-Pakistani man from London. They’re hyper-aware of how partition and colonial histories pit them against each other, and they resist that. The duo’s project is built on solidarity and shared experiences, and demonstrates how collaborating with and supporting each other can lead to incredible outcomes.

“Heems is an Indian-American man from Queens, and Riz is a British-Pakistani man from London. They’re hyper-aware of how partition and colonial histories pit them against each other, and they resist that.”

8. The album finally captures what it’s like to be caught between two worlds

Although this idea is embedded throughout the album, the place where it’s clearest is the song ‘Half Moghul, Half Mowgli’. Riz perfectly captures the feeling of being too foreign, but not South Asian enough all at once. Western and South Asian societies forcefully set down conflicting standards of behaviour, and expect people to accomplish both at once.

9. Cashmere reminds us that we can and should love our diasporic identity

In most mainstream media depictions, South Asians are shown as rejects. We’re too weird, we try too hard, we’re socially awkward –we’re never “cool” and when that’s all you see, it’s easy to think that you don’t matter. Swet Shop Boys show an alternative identity: they let us be “cool” by validating and finding joy in growing up between two cultures. Their confidence and security in their own identities feels a little like a revelation. It’s only fitting that the album ends with the appeal: “you can’t escape yourself, please love yourself, please love yourself”.