Swet Shop Boys Of raps and representations

Artwork by Priyanka Selvar

One time I had to do an assignment on cultural authenticity. I thought about it for weeks, made numerous mind-maps, looked up definitions, talked about it with my friends, but it all led to more confusion. So I wrote to my professor and ended up doing the assignment on something I can’t even remember now. What I do remember, though, is the struggle that went into an abandoned assignment. Those numerous discussions about what makes culture ‘authentic’ to people made me realize that ‘culture’ will never exist as a solid, unchanging entity – yet we all talk about it as though it does!

This is why when I see ‘people of colour’ – or people of my colour – grace my TV screen, I’m always a little skeptical of ‘feeling represented’. Take Kevin Gnapoor from Mean Girls, or Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation – both of these characters fit in their worlds because they imitate a more comfortably recognisable ‘minority’ identity, the black American. There’s close to nothing about these characters’ South Asian heritage that shapes every South Asian individual’s life, regardless of their citizenship and where they live.

Just as I began to wonder if there could ever be a brown person on screen or in music that doesn’t reduce my identity down to a ‘black’ wannabe or a ‘white’ wannabe, I came across Riz MC, Heems, and producer Redinho – otherwise known as Swet Shop Boys. Their latest album Cashmere is packed with references and samples of sounds that remind me of home. Why? Because these linguistic and musical nuances are ones I’ve heard my whole life on an unconscious level, just by growing up in an Indian household. Even if that household was never in India.

It’s the way the album is peppered with lines like, “Momma on the phone and she yelling it’s Vaisakhi/ Hit the gurdwara where the saag is sloppy” that instantly made me feel a connection to music in a way I’ve never felt before. Swet Shop Boys aren’t trying to delineate a separate South Asian identity in a non-South Asian world, but instead they’re addressing an entirely new generation of Indians and Pakistanis who simultaneously find themselves immersed in a completely different set of cultural practices.

It’s not a matter of choosing between co-opting a new identity you migrated to, or going the other way and aggressively preserving the identity you migrated away from. Just like how the track Aaja can transition between Urdu qawwali verses and English rap ones so seamlessly, so too can our identities lay claim to all the cultures that give us a sense of belonging. It’s this recognition of what can happen when the cultural heritage we are born into encounters the cultural heritage we adopt, that I find absolutely incredible about this album. It goes to show that every single person has their own definition of their culture and wholeheartedly believes in its authenticity. But person to person, there’s a world of difference. I suppose that’s my cultural authenticity.

Riz MC is perhaps better known as Riz Ahmed, the actor from The Night Of, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Four Lions. Just off the top of my head, all three titles I’ve listed here challenge conventional ways of understanding a migrant Muslim identity, especially in a post-9/11 society. Even in his lyrics, it’s clear politics has got him pretty bovvered. Take for example, “Rizzy speak like Wikileaks investigations/ spit Paan like it’s Panama Papers” from Phone Tap.

But it’s one of his lyrics from T5 I found most representative of what his presence means for pop culture; “Trump want my exit, but if he press a red button/ To watch Netflix, bruv I’m on”. You won’t just see Riz Ahmed as a Muslim minority character on screen; you’ll see him as a surfer bro in HBO’s Girls. You’ll even see him as a Jedi warrior in Rogue One. And that’s the point – this identity cannot and should not be reduced down to a ‘migrant minority’. But more importantly, this identity isn’t going anywhere – it’s only going to continue to evolve and grow.

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