Cashmere Hip Hop Straight from the Swet Shop

by Lamisse Hamouda 

An American Hindu-Punjabi rapper from Queens drawls, “Insha’allah / masha’allah / No martial law / hai allah / yo yallah”.

Never had I experienced such visceral sense of familiarity in listening to music until I was blasted with these lines from “T5”, the opening track off Swet Shop Boys’ debut album Cashmere. I was hooked; who were they to be able to rap in their own words?

Swet Shop Boys consists of Heems, former member of Das Racist and American solo artist, Riz MC, UK rapper and actor, and Redhino, UK music producer. The group captures a complex reality of being both privileged and disadvantaged, of living across multiple intersections of identity. In interviews Riz MC speaks about the challenge of “being educated out of your class” and Cashmere being “the album I wish I had as a kid”, while Heems touches on his mother making a living by bagging groceries despite holding a Masters in Economics.

Although clearly inspired by personal experiences, Cashmere illuminates the universal through the specific and reflects back to us the familiarity of the diaspora life; our own realities are mirrored back to us in Swet Shop Boys’ narratives of their South Asian diasporic experience in America and the UK. The wordplay of the title – a reference to both the luxurious wool and the disputed territory – is illustrative of an album dripping in satire, stories, gritty realities, political musings, pop-culture references and advice. This is the cashmere of men who’ve “made it” and enjoy their comfortable, relatively Western lives, yet are still trapped like Kashmir, inhabiting disputed bodies accused of unclear allegiances and subject to suspicion and state brutality. As wars are waged, they demand only to be heard and recognised as independent.

swet-shop-boysCashmere is an album infused with code-switching: adjusting accents, words and entire vocabularies depending on which groups you’re involved with. It’s all too jarringly familiar, and comforting when you realise you are far from the only one. “Shoes Off” stands out as a track that captures this, riffing on the cultural practice of taking shoes off at holy places and the airport. In the track, Riz MC challenges concepts of injustice comparing boys he knew who ended up in Syria to others who took up careers in baking, because “they both in it for the profit”, a sonic pun bringing together these two seemingly disparate life choices. Heems raps about his anxiety about impressing women in “Tiger Hologram”. Riz MC tells an anecdote about the time a woman tweeted his dick pics in “No Fly List”. Sex in the back seats of cars sits beside mithai and jelebis; a dad tells his son to remember to make namaz while his son raps crudely described criticisms of Rupert Murdoch media; tales of an existential crisis are described in Urdu with political puns on paan.

These worlds come together in “Shottin”, which seamlessly moves through the frustration of young men growing up after 9/11 while navigating the struggles of drugs and poverty in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. Challenging anti-terror laws, Islamophobia and entrapment, and brutally highlighting the double standards of racial profiling and the police’s heavy-handed tactics, Heems raps, “Still dealing with these goofy-ass cops/ ‘cuz I like Islam they think I build bombs”, while Riz MC follows up with his own criticism in the next verse: “Feds told him they preferred it when he was just juggling/ Now he’s turned into a servant of God it’s so troubling”.

In the sphere of media and pop culture, representation enables us to explore our experience and ideas around race and ethnicity, particularly the ways in which it is marked by the white supremacy carried on the back of colonialism. The undermining of the unbearable whiteness of the arts is also an act in decolonisation, particularly when artists of colour choose to make themselves and their realities visible. In “Half Moghul Half Mowgli”, Riz MC raps about the desire for representation: “My only heroes were black rappers/So to me 2Pac was a true Paki”. In wanting to identify with someone, it’s a common story that non-black people of colour growing up in diaspora communities turned to black rappers – their specific experience spoke to something universal; the sense of displacement, injustice, poverty and belonging.

The intricate interweaving of words, themes and stories in Cashmere paints a vivid picture of the diaspora experience, a peek into multiple worlds across religious, cultural and geographical boundaries. Despite the exhausting effort of constant resistance to losing yourself in the challenges of a politicised and disembodied diaspora existence, this album is fundamentally unapologetic about their presence. Swet Shop Boys are fierce with critiques of political hypocrisies, and confident in claiming their cultures – every one of them.

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Lamisse Hamouda is a youth worker and graduate of the University of Sydney. She currently resides in Brisbane, Australia and is a Global Voices Scholar. As part of her scholarship, Lamisse produced a research paper on intersectionality as a pedagogical tool in sexuality education and attended the 60th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN Headquarters.

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