by Iman Sultan 

I don’t normally get moved by music videos, but Swet Shop Boys’ internet-released video, “Aaja”, a track off their Cashmere album, released late last year, felt like salvation

A tribute to Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered last summer, and whose very death made her an icon, the video made waves on the internet. It was followed by Riz Ahmed’s timely speech to UK Parliament on why representation of minorities in media is important, and how seeing oneself in the looking glass can prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims. It echoes what Junot Diaz said eight years ago: “[I]f you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” 

Growing up as a second-generation Pakistani in America, I was ridden with doubts, questions, and fears throughout the roughest of my adolescent years. There were no cultural mirrors for me to see myself, and the endless trajectories my life could take. I’d grown up during the heydey of Pakistani pop rock but in the 2000s the music I’d chosen to identify with during my childhood suffered a strange stagnating decline, alive only in the manually-downloaded mp3 files on my iPod. Artists like Vital Signs, the Sufi rock group Junoon, and Hadiqa Kiani—all fell to the wayside.

The brown cultural behemoth of Bollywood, too, became increasingly commercialised and sexualised in a way that retained the trademark corniness but renounced the starry-eyed sentiment which made flicks like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Na Ho, and Dil Chahta Hai so great.

Then a few weeks ago, now long resigned to this state of affairs, I watched Swet Shop Boys’ “Aaja” and it felt like salvation. It wasn’t just the relief of looking through the mirror and finding my own reflection staring back at me, confirming my existence, it was the re-opening of all the possibilities of what desis can be and could be. The video’s depiction of regular life in diaspora is not a loaded political statement, and it’s not an aesthetic polemic of representation either. Its power comes from showing a mundane reality in full technicolour. I might have seen and lived the scenes since I was born but I’ve never seen our lives refracted through this medium before.

The video invokes nostalgia with nods to traditional South Asian cultural tropes but brings them into the current day with a thoroughly modern diasporic setting. The story depicts a boy from Coney Island riding his bike and handing out flyers for Riz and Heems’ Sufi concert. Sipping mango juice, he sees his crush pass by, a girl with big eyes and high cheekbones, wearing jeans and hijab. The video is interspersed with B-roll of street scenes in Queens and Coney Island, storefronts with Urdu writing and the telltale halal BBQ, the inside of corner shops. It’s a normalisation of Muslim and South Asian life in New York City, painting a story of the girl working at the store and hopping on her bus back home, and the boy riding his bike through the city, handing out flyers, wondering if he’ll see her again.

In the midst of this remarkable normalcy, the duo performs onstage at what is set up as a traditional qawwali performance, minus the music. British-born Riz MC performs in full qawwal gear, wearing a topi and making the exacting hand motions only South Asians thoroughly drugged on the vicissitudes of their own music can understand. Heems sits at his side, more boyish, more playful, and more self-deprecating, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief – harking back to long, traditional qawwali performances – with American-style cool.

The fact it’s set up as a conventional Bollywood romance is the video’s strength, rather than its weak point. While we’ve always had Bollywood, we’ve rarely had traditional boy-meets-girl romances depicted in the neighbourhoods and hubs of diaspora, which have always remained tertiary spaces. If they’ve been depicted in Bollywood, it hasn’t been through the reality of diaspora. And if they’ve been in Western media, it’s only as a curiosity, a problem, or a site of political contestation.

And yet, while the video is a powerful expression of diaspora, the homeland is never far away. Pakistani singer Ali Sethi brings the Hindi/Urdu refrain: 

Aaja/oh mere jaan-e-jaan aaja/oh mere mehboob aaja/mera dil hai pyaasa 

Come/oh my life of life, come/oh my love, come/my heart is thirsty

Singer, intellectual, and son of liberal newspaper editor Najam Sethi, Ali Sethi is an intuitive choice for the Swet Shop Boys, not too far off from their own “politically woke” aspirations and progressive flirtations. Sethi does not perform at the concert in Queens with Riz and Heems, instead appearing on the TV screen of a corner shop, calling to mind desis who have satellite subscriptions to channels in the subcontinent. The fact Sethi sings in Hindustani only enhances the feeling that we’re watching an artist from “back home” perform.

Riz and Heems’ performance is screened through an old-school TV filter, white noise rattling the screen from time to time, and the love story scenes look as if they were shot on 35mm film, resembling home movies as well as music videos from the 90s. Both screen filters suggest a pre-digital viewing experience, back when everyone congregated in their family living rooms to watch the latest movie on their grandmother’s television set. That communal experience is also present at the concert which sees people of all ages, genders, and lifestyles gathering to dance to Swet Shop Boys’ latest beat.

It’s a congregation and collision of past and future, young and old, juxtaposing nostalgia and tradition with symbols of where we find ourselves today. Riz spits out lyrics and curses in English, anathema to the taste of classical Urdu poetry, which repels the bluntness of rap music, in much the same way South Asian parents are horrified by their children cursing (most memorable is Heems rapping, “I’m a sexy motherfakir.”)

But neither Riz nor Heems are interested in appeasing sensibilities, whether they’re white or rooted in the respectability politics of immigrants sacrificing their culture to assimilate into Western society. In fact, their choice to assert the South Asian experience through a black art form follows in the footsteps of M. I. A., who broke the genre by expressing a way of being South Asian that was street, cool, and most crucially dedicated to all the whims and risks of the youth. It’s exactly why everyone remembers the refrain from “Paper Planes”, and nothing of Jay Sean. Riz and Heems’ lyrics throughout Cashmere are as provocative and hard to forget: “My only heroes are black rappers/so for me Tupac was a true Paki.”

Cashmere and “Aaja” both are transnational by nature – in their own words ‘connecting the diaspora dots’ – but also through their resistance of the nationalisms that have shaped the postcolonial subcontinent. A close-up of the currency that the crowd showers onto stage in the video shows it’s both Indian and Pakistan rupees. It’s also implicit that the boy from Coney Island—known for its large Indian community—is falling in love with a Pakistani girl from Queens.

While flyering, our millennial hero from Coney Island covers a Trump sign with a flyer, showing us we’re still in 2017, where a fascist-friendly media mogul was inaugurated President of the United States. And the video ends with a poignant and bittersweet dedication to Qandeel Baloch, a girl born in 1990 who died in 2016, simply because she chose to freely express herself through that most contemporary of inventions: social media.

In this way, Swet Shop Boys address the needs of this generation while reminiscing and using the past to filter their art. By connecting desis across borders and nationalities, both in explicit collaboration and in the use of musical form and visual media, they reaffirm the ways in which subcontinental art from Bollywood to qawwali transcends borders. And when our Coney Island hero covers the Trump sign with a flyer, it’s empowering, but more than anything else, it’s a relief. There is a way to step up to racists, after all, Swet Shop Boys tell us, and it’s simply celebrating your culture and who you are without shame or apology.

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Iman Sultan is a freelance writer and journalist, dividing her time between Philadelphia and Karachi. She tweets @karachiiite.

2 thoughts on “How to be Desi in 2017: Riz MC and Heems are forging a new cultural reflection of South Asians in diaspora

  1. Great piece! Appreciated the insightful and thoughtful analysis. Only quibble is all the mistakes on New York City neighborhoods. The neighborhood depicted in the video is actually Ditmas Park/Kensington — it takes place on a section of Coney Island Avenue in that nabe sometimes called “Little Pakistan” — for obvious reasons. Lots of familiar spots from Little Pakistan feature in the video. Coney Island the neighborhood is miles away and a completely different scene. And there’s really not a pronounced Indian community there or anywhere else in Brooklyn so I’m not sure about that Indo-Pak interpretation of the romance. Seems obvious to me that they are both Pakistani kids from Little Pakistan since they both are shown to hang out and work there.

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    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting. The author here. I was going off what Riz and Heems said about the video taking place in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens, and how it “bridges the gap between our Indian and Pakistani communities” in their press release (accessed here, https://nationofbillions.com/swet-shop-boys-mix-the-profane-with-the-sacred-in-aaja-video). Maybe they didn’t shoot specifically on location? But I can’t say. Thanks for your comment though, I’ll definitely keep it in mind and maybe look into it myself the next time I’m in NYC!

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