The Swet Shop Boys, an unholy union of postmodern American rapper Heems and actor and grime artist Riz MC, tackle police militarisation, racial discrimination, and partying on their recent album, Cashmere. Simultaneously a bold repudiation of Western bigotry and a reclamation of a colonised South Asian identity, the sprawling tape is brilliant and exuberant.
From the beginning of their debut album, Cashmere, Heems and Riz MC propel their South Asian heritage to the forefront of their music as they pepper their raps with Arabic and Urdu over the sound of a shehnai flute interpolated into an up-tempo electronic beat. The two rappers collaborate as the Swet Shop Boys, a collective formed on the heels of Riz’s rise to stardom as a British-raised actor featured in prominent productions like HBO’s The Night Of and Star Wars: Rogue One and Heems’s stuttering, up-and-down American rap career. Though occasionally the songs fail to fully materialise because Heems ends up dragging Riz down with a lazy delivery and half-cooked lyrics, for most of the album the two successfully merge their vastly different styles to create songs like “Shottin” and “Shoes Off.” By the end of its 34-minute runtime, Cashmere coalesces into an eclectic, provocative, and humorous reflection on the existence of South Asian identity under the purview of a racialised security state.
The entirety of Cashmere’s sonic palette relies on characteristics taken from South Asian music. The sole producer on the album, a London-based DJ named Redinho, uses sped-up samples of Indian instruments and Pakistani singers to create propulsive, knocking beats far outside of the mainstream American hip-hop or British grime music, but Cashmere remains oddly accessible. The album’s unabashed celebration of South Asian culture manifests in the rappers’ lyrics as well. On “Phone Tap,” Heems refers to attending gurudwara (Sikh temple) and eating saag (a spinach-based dish), and Riz describes two girls he has met as “parallel jelebis” (gooey sweets popular around the subcontinent) on “No Fly List.” Many songs close with clips from conversations that hint at South Asian traditionalism, like the endearing Urdu voicemail from Riz’s Pakistani parents rebuking him for swearing on “Phone Tap,” or the haunting outro of “Aaja,” taken from an interview about romance with model Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered in her sleep by her brother for “bringing disrepute to the family.”
The album couples cultural pride and critique with the artists’ negative experiences in the West, particularly with law enforcement. Album standout “Shottin” sees Heems assume a character who is shot by the police while selling drugs, then, after he finds religion in jail, goes to mosque, only to find that practicing Islam is as probable a cause as dealing drugs for police surveillance. On the tape’s opener, “T5,” Riz uses the story of Aeneas founding Rome to critique the West’s anti-refugee rhetoric, namedropping Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and closing with the rhythmically and thematically thrilling refrain, “Terminal Five, Terminal One/Think we’re termites, wanna terminate us.” The two intersperse more subtle digs in all their lyrics, from Heems’s references to the trope of Indian men becoming doctors to Riz’s insinuations that “even hipsters ain’t safe” from prejudicial TSA officers who will forcibly search anyone with a beard. Cashmere is Heems and Riz MC at their most brashly political. Though Riz is usually the more explicit of the two rappers, describing himself as the “brown Eddie Snowden” who “speaks like Wikileaks investigations,” Heems too claims “cop-killer Queens” and comments on poppy farmers in his family’s town in India selling opium for distribution in the US.
Unfortunately, Cashmere sometimes loses focus, often as a function of lackluster contributions from Heems. The rapper has exhibited a tendency in the past for letting his relaxed style slip into laziness, and here, that vice robs “Tiger Hologram” of any biting commentary it had about exoticising Eastern culture as the track devolves into silliness during Heems’s verse. He is at his most compelling on more classically hip-hop tracks, as evidenced by his brilliant, backhanded braggadocio on “No Fly List” (“I’m so fly, bitch/But I’m on a no-fly list”) and “Swish Swish.” Here, the emcees find common ground; on the spacious, more experimental track “Half Moghul, Half Mowgli,” Riz testifies to how hip-hop inspired and shaped his South Asian consciousness as a child growing up under constant racial scrutiny by authorities and his fellow citizens. Calling himself the “brown stepson of Black Panthers/Not Bagheera [“black panther” in Urdu], I’m Mowgli,” Riz venerates socially conscious black rappers who spoke about oppression in their lyrics: “My only heroes are black rappers/So to me Tupac was a true Paki.”
The unspoken subtext at the crux of Cashmere is the geopolitical and stylistic tensions implicit in every track. Riz, who has famously been in controversial films and productions (including the film adaptation of the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist and the award-winning Berlin Film Festival production The Road to Guantanamo), raps densely structured and heavily political lyrics in fast-paced cadences. Heems, a New York-born and Wesleyan University-educated second generation Indian, made his name as a founding member of the rap group Das Racist in the late 2000s and masks his sociopolitical commentary with easygoing, borderline-nonsensical quips. Riz’s family has roots across the Pakistani-India border in Ambala, while Heems’s family originates from the Punjab, including portions which were separated from India by its partition with Pakistan. These contrasts illuminate the album’s title: cashmere, wool famous for its soft and inviting feel among the West, originates from the fraught state of Kashmir, disputed territory which has remained a warzone since the partition. In the context of escalating aggression between India and Pakistan, a tense sociopolitical moment of heightened isolationism and Islamophobia in the West, and the ever-increasing war and death associated with post-9/11 War on Terror policy, the Malala Yousafzai quote about Hindu-Pakistani collaboration at the end of “No Fly List” dovetails with the Swet Shop Boys’ intentions. Cashmere is their thesis, at once a supplication and a declaration that, as propounded by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great’s imperial religion of Din-e-Ilahi (which the Swet Shop Boys borrow as a title for the last track on Cashmere), it is possible to bring the best aspects of many cultures together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.