Queens native Himanshu Suri is getting reacquainted with his borough. Suri, better known as Heems of the globetrotting race-politics-and-silliness rap outfit Das Racist, has joined the board of SEVA NY, a community organization serving the Richmond Hill area's working-class immigrant community. And while Suri is no stranger to confrontation, having served the last few years as indie music's smirking racial conscience, the new job title means a new kind of work.
"If you're on SEVA's board, that means you're a community organizer now, and you do the work," says Gurpal Singh, SEVA's cofounder and a former ACORN organizer, speaking by phone on Thursday. And right now, that work is a years-long redistricting battle, an uphill fight against a legacy of backroom deals that have cut Richmond Hill into powerless pieces.
"Forty seven perfect of Queens is immigrants, but almost no elected official is an immigrant, and that's because of the gerrymandering," says Singh. "Immigrants are the most disenfranchised group in the state, and Richmond Hill is the most gerrymandered neighborhood in the state -- we belong to seven different assembly districts, two state senate districts, and three city council districts. And when a constituency is gerrymandered, nobody's advocating for them." The results are plain; as an example, Singh says Richmond Hill's high school's graduation rate hovers at 50 percent, with 600 percent overcrowding. SEVA's solution to the root problem is to present an unignorable united front, so that elected officials see that supporting gerrymandering will be bad for their careers.
What does this mean for new recruit Suri? For starters, he's releasing his first solo mixtape, Nehru Jackets, through SEVA's website (click through to download). The mixtape, which features verses in Punjabi from some of SEVA's young members, launched with Heems' first-ever solo performance, at SEVA's Art For Justice Community Mehfil last night.
The event also served as a coming-out party. While Heems is famous in the (predominantly white) indie music scene for being a politically astute Indian dude from Queens -- and rightly so, as seen in his Alternet op-ed on the ten-year anniversary of Balbir Singh Sodhi's murder -- he's all but unknown to this political organization for Indian people in Queens. That disconnect, perhaps, is part of what's drawn him here. "This event is reversed from the usual. It's more about us introducing Himanshu as a new board member," says Singh, speaking before the show. "He doesn't know this yet, but we'll be playing a video we made about him and his life -- oh, he heard me and he's giving me the worst 'shut-up-man' look right now. I'm going to delete it right afterwards."
And while Singh doesn't sound too concerned about getting his community organization on the hip music blogs -- "talk to us in 2014 and we'll see how it helps," he says -- Suri is preparing a new mixtape with an all-SEVA lineup through his own trendsetting record label, Greedhead, dovetailing with SEVA's programs providing creative outlets for their youth. If the contributions of members Pawan and Lovedeep to Nehru Jackets are any indication, the Richmond Hill gang will be taking over the music blogs and the town hall meetings in a year's time.
Colorlines interviewed Suri by email on Wednesday about his new role, and his thoughts on the South Asian identity in politics and in pop culture.
Most rappers don't get involved in redistricting battles, but you're not most rappers. What brought you to SEVA and this fight? And do you see this board membership as a natural progression of your career so far, or are you a little surprised to see yourself here?
Suri: Most rappers may not get involved with redistricting battles, but they certainly talk about their neighborhoods and voice the concerns of their communities. Most rappers paint a vivid picture of what happens when certain communities aren't offered the same protections of law as others.
Ali Najmi of SEVA and myself grew up together in a community like this: a heavily South Asian neighborhood in Queens. He told me about the community organizing work he was doing, and I immediately offered the time I have outside of Das Racist to help in any way I can. I wouldn't know what a natural progression of my career would look like. I'm 26, and I've both worked on Wall Street and toured the world in an art-rap group.
"Nehru Jackets" is your first proper solo outing, and you've talked about how you're digging into some more life-story-specific subject matter on it. What are you rapping about here that you've left off of Das Racist tracks? Was it a struggle to find a rhyme for 'gerrymandering'?
Suri: I didn't rhyme anything with 'gerrymandering.' Although if I had to, I would rhyme it with 'petty pandering.' I began rapping about my experiences as a South Asian American more directly on our last album, Relax, and these new songs are an extension of that. I don't think people enjoyed it on our last record, and I'm not sure people will on this record, but I'm writing about what I know.
One of the fruits of your involvement with SEVA is that some SEVA members are guesting on Nehru Jackets, rapping and singing in Punjabi, and there's talk of Greedhead releasing a mixtape of SEVA members. You've worked with plenty of bands before through the label, but what's it like working with these kids? What are they listening to that we should be jumping on?
Suri: I'm not sure what they're listening to, although I can tell you on my mixtape I did two songs with them and both are about girls. They're extremely hardworking Punjabi kids from Queens. I'd like to think I fall in that category, although I can't sing or rap in Punjabi nearly as good as any of them.
For a lot of activists, Queens' defining political moment of the last ten years came in the wake of 9/11 -- mass deportations of fathers through the Special Registration program and the economic collapse in their absence, ICE-deputized police in schools, racial profiling, some really scary shit. But Queens contains multitudes. Was this part of your political awakening? What does Queens' political legacy look like from where you're at?
Suri: Having gone to school blocks away from ground zero, 9/11 was definitely part of my political awakening. 9/11 reacquainted me with a certain type of racism. Meeting with the guys at SEVA was also a huge part of my political awakening. I had always been concerned with politics and how they affect myself and my family, but not at the local level. Working with SEVA, I saw how racism is institutionally affecting my community, with Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, and Woodhaven split into 7 assembly districts.
Pop-culturally speaking, it seems like South Asians are doing pretty well in the U.S. in 2012, showing up in all sorts of high-profile, historically white-dominated positions in society: in boardrooms, on TV, on Pitchfork, in the GOP. Identity politics and Outsourced aside, that increasing positive presence is probably a good thing.
But politically and economically, it's very different. As an Indian rapper from Queens who's gotten quizzed a lot about his white fanbase and his time at Wesleyan and on Wall Street, and who's now in an explicitly political battle for the power of South Asians over their own communities -- what do you see? Are Nikki Haley and Tom Haverford both just grist in the model minority myth, or can cultural presence make a real difference for community empowerment? In your opinion, what does the path to justice, not whiteness, look like?
Suri: That dissonance has been here since 1965, when they changed immigration laws to allow Indians to enter the US. They almost entirely chose Indian people with graduate degrees in the sciences and refused to let their family members join them until ten years later, with the passing of a law in 1975. The message now is the same as it was then: we want your labor, not your lives.
I think visibility is extremely important. It becomes difficult to dehumanize a group of people when you see them on TV acting 'just like us.' At the same time, I think community organizing is the way to make a real difference for community empowerment, and until district lines are redrawn so as not to split South Asian communities into multiple districts under the representation of politicians who serve only constituents that look like them, community organizing is extremely difficult. Nonetheless, that's what SEVA aims to do, and I hope to help in any way I can.