Heems At Home

by Giri Nathan

Forty-eight hours before jumping on stage at the release party for his new album Eat Pray Thug, swinging his mic at the crowd like a baseball bat, and skip-hopping around the stage with his sweat-soaked hair flopping side to side, Himanshu Suri was coughing up phlegm under a flowery velour blanket at his parents’ house in Long Island. Laid low by the flu, Suri — better known as Heems — still graciously agreed to have me over to show me the new record on vinyl.

Eat Pray Thug is more confessional and direct than Heems’ output in the group Das Racist: There is nothing arch or oblique in the lyrics of tracks like “Flag Shopping”:

We’re going flag shopping for American flags
They’re staring at our turbans
They’re calling them rags
They’re calling them towels
They’re calling them diapers
They’re more like crowns
Let’s strike them like vipers

After offering me a Diet Coke (which I declined) and some homemade biryani (which I devoured), we talked about his frustrations with the Indian-American community, his racial and spiritual identity, and what it’s like for a successful rapper to move back home and work a day job in advertising technology.

Do you think being an Indian-American artist gives you a certain kind of mobility as an artist?

I can chum it up with white dudes and black dudes. Being Indian I think you have to navigate a lot of worlds. As a person of color, you identify with black people here, and that experience. But because of selective immigration — because so many of us arrived here with masters and PhDs in engineering — those things make it easier to navigate the white world, and the academic world. But a lot of the South Asians coming here now are rich people. And what it does is leave the working class Indians in the dark. Basically, we spent a lot of the nineties being like, “Hey, I’m not Apu, I’m not just a character.” Twenty years later, Indians are associated with hedge funds, doctors, and pharmacies. The important thing, I think, is to remember the working class. Nobody’s really out there telling their stories or speaking on their behalf. It’s like Manhattan Indians don’t really care about Queens Indians.

You’re now out here in Long Island. What’s it like being back at home with your parents?

Basically I was chipping in on the mortgage here, and also paying rent in Brooklyn, and that just seemed dumb. I wanted the space. And my sister and her husband and my two nieces were here, and I had the opportunity to spend more time with them in one house.

You’re very close with your family. Indians tend to have conservative social mores, and your music often dives into sensitive subject matters. Has this put any strain on your relationship with your parents?

In large part, the words in rap music are so quick they don’t even really understand what I’m saying. Obviously they speak English, but it’s not their first language. I told them that I was talking about my vices and struggles with dependency on the record. I bet they’d prefer that I not be public about these things, but the way I explained it to them, I have the opportunity to be a voice for the community and to help young people. In the brown community we don’t really talk openly about these things. The general vibe is like, if you do have problems, don’t talk about it, don’t let people know. There’s total shame. But there’s so much of that in our community, and it’s something we need to talk about — because we don’t talk about it, and it gets worse and worse. If me being honest about it might help a young kid who struggles with anxiety or depression or is dependent on substances, I feel better about my work. Ultimately that’s the kind of work I want to make, work that helps people, not just “turn up at the club” type shit.

But I like turning up at the club too.

We’ve talked about how the Indian community tends to suppress conversations on crucial issues like mental health. What’s your other big critique?

Apathy. It’s bad. There’s too much of it in the Asian-American community. And there’s not enough appreciation for our black brothers and sisters, and the civil rights movement that made it possible for us to even be here in this country. There’s just so much apathy when it comes to race or politics. The general thinking is, “How will it affect me and my taxes?” There isn’t enough helping your next man. We’re so eager to show people that we’re doctors, we’re smart and successful and have money, but we act as if the working class doesn’t even exist.

You’ve talked about working on a novel about the Indian working class experience.

Jhumpa Lahiri is half the reason — maybe the whole reason — I want to write a novel. But her concerns were too upper class. Her characters were the children of professors, engineers. I want to tell the stories of the working class.

You seem close with a few novelists, like Salman Rushdie and Teju Cole.

They’ve been totally supportive. I haven’t gotten to a place where I can really tap into him in that sense, because I haven’t written any of it, but when it is written, Teju’s been kind enough to let me know that he’ll look at it. And that’s a good set of eyes, you know?

Despite having visited the country regularly, I have yet to explore India beyond the small towns where my relatives live. What would you recommend?

Goa. Do you like the beach? Do you like parties? Do you want to be somewhere it’s a blend of Indian people and international people? That’s Goa.

When I was younger, I was begrudging in my approach to Indian culture, but at some point I realized its richness and found myself actively wanting to explore it. Did you have a similar turning point?

Even from a super-young age, I was patriotic in a sense. I remember when I was little, I had my mother pick me up an Indian flag. Now I have the Indian flag hanging behind my door. It was even weird, to a certain extent. Because when you’re in the Indian community, there’s no need to be nationalistic, because everyone’s Indian. So I don’t even know why. I think because we had the India Day parade every year so that would always be an exciting time as a child. I would go to that parade every year, and I would go on the floats too — and the afterparties at the club that inevitably end up in a fight.

I wanna hear more about these afterparties at the club.

I was just saying how fortunate I am that I started with an audience that was largely white. Now I have an audience that’s growing, in large part with the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi kids. But it’s better to come in that way and then move in this direction, than to come out the gate as “the Indian rapper,” because it’s like, where does that trajectory go? You play the India Day Parade afterparty once a year and that’s it. That’s the gig. So I’m hella fortunate.

Tell me about your day job.

I work for Moat, they’re the best in ad-tech analytics. Some people call them a disruptor, as far as ad-tech goes. I took that job, but I don’t really need it, you know? I figured it’s an opportunity to learn something I don’t know that much about. It used to provide structure but now I don’t go into the office anymore, I work from home, because I’ve had so many meetings now, with the album coming out. I got the job right when I got the release date, so it’s been kinda chaotic.

Were your parents nervous when you first quit your job as a Wall Street headhunter, way back at the birth of Das Racist?

They’ve been super-supportive. I was hella good at the headhunting job. But at that time it just wasn’t really the best look for me. Because certain doors were opening up in music, I just decided to end it there. But I’ve spoken to the company and the essentially the owner was like, ‘There’s a desk for you whenever you want it.” When I was on the cover of the Village Voice, I got a text from him two days later saying “I don’t think you wanna work here.” But I told him, if you let me run your Bombay office, I’ll do it.

Tell me about your spirituality these days.

There’s a Hindu temple here, about ten minutes away. And I’m spending more time at the gurdwara (a place of Sikh worship) too, and I’ve never done that before. But the temple’s basically a baseline. Every Sunday night, we’d be out there. And we were around for the beginning of it. So it’s a pretty important part of my life. This year my own personal spirituality has been a little more Sikhism than before.

How does your spirituality vary from that of your parents?

One of the things I love about Hinduism is it’s so much, it’s so big. My parents, their Hinduism is far different from mine. I love that about the religion — there are so many different types of it. Theirs is definitely more ritual-based, these are the days you don’t eat meat, and you fast on this day, and these are the holidays you celebrate. But me, I look at the religion both from a ritualistic standpoint and also like a theological, more academic standpoint, having read a lot of the texts. So sometimes I’ll say something, and my parents will be like, “That didn’t happen, that’s not true.” And I’ll be like, “Yo, trust me, I read it.”

What are your favorite Hindu texts?

I’m a big fan of the Hanuman Chalisa, and the Sunderkand. They’re both devotional to Hanuman.

I loved reading about Hanuman. He was one of my favorites in Hindu myth.

You know, that’s one of the funniest things about Hinduism to me — it’s like basketball cards. Like, you have favorites? Is religion supposed to be like that? I guess it’s positive. The fact that there’s so many. And I appreciate that there’s female gods too — because there should be.

When Das Racist played at my college a few years ago, you guys were passing out gourds during the show.

Part of it is I come from a temple background, it’s about giving Prasad (food offered to a deity and then eaten by temple worshippers). When we give the fruit and stuff to the crowd, that comes from Hinduism. [Laughs.] For real though, that’s what it is.

Photo by Heems