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Swet Shop Boys: Why white skin is no longer a safety net

“We need to include people’s voices, not just their bodies,” says celebrated actor and rapper Riz MC on integration. He and his Swet Shop Boys rap team spoke with DW about music, mixed identities and extremism.Migration complicates identity. Many people of color born in the diaspora are often dogged by the challenge of reconciling their …

“We need to include people’s voices, not just their bodies,” says celebrated actor and rapper Riz MC on integration. He and his Swet Shop Boys rap team spoke with DW about music, mixed identities and extremism.Migration complicates identity. Many people of color born in the diaspora are often dogged by the challenge of reconciling their blurred identities rendering them half this, half that, but always the other.

The Swet Shop Boys are a half-this, half-that transatlantic hip-hop trio, featuring the increasingly eminent British-Pakistani actor and rapper Riz MC (whose meteoric rise has earned him credits in films like “Four Lions,” “Nightcrawler,” “Star Wars: Rogue One” and the HBO miniseries “The Night Of”), American-Indian rapper Heems, and British producer, Redinho, whose ominous and genre-bending music provides the perfect soundscape for the group’s lyrical attacks.

Their debut album, “Cashmere” (2016), offers a humorous and ostentatious celebration of diversity and duality, poking fun at the British Empire, airport security, Hare Krishnas, and Donald Trump.

The Swet Shop Boys’ songs are often situated in in-between places such as airports, where people are often subordinated to dehumanizing and impersonal political protocols. The title itself refers to Kashmir, an intensely contested region squeezed between India and Pakistan, and repeatedly deprived of its right to self-determination. The comprising songs are regularly punctuated with sarcastic and pithy punch lines, like this one from “T5”: “TSA always wanna burst my bubble. I always get a random check when I rock the stubble.”

DW recently sat down with the boys before their first performance in Germany to chat about rap, politics, identity, satire, modern anxieties and the perceived image of “the good migrant.”

DW: Rap music seems to hold a lot of resonance with minorities in Europe and the US. What are the points of contact between the two? What drew you to rap music?

Riz: I guess it is a politicizing and mobilizing art form for working-class people of color around the world. In our song “Half Mogul, Half Mowgli,” I talk about how, growing up, black rappers were my only heroes. For me, Tupac was a true “paki,” in the sense that his music provided a template for the ethnic and socio-economic insider/outsider – someone who has built the country, is central to forming it and making it relevant today, but somehow feels unwanted.

Heems: Rap and basketball were unavoidable in my neighborhood in Queens, New York. There weren’t many other affordable options available – I mean, instruments can cost a lot of money. Rap is an accessible medium. It is about making the most of what you have, and demanding a seat at the table, demanding that your voice be heard. I saw a lot of that in my parents’ immigration stories. It was the closest thing to me that spoke about what I was going through and my experiences.

The kids I grew up with didn’t read books. They liked music, and particularly rap. So, it was about explaining the story from within the community, for the community, and not necessarily as an exploit out of it.

Also, being Punjabi meant that drums, poetry and ostentatiousness were already in my blood. So, rap seemed like an appropriate avenue for my personality.

The British elections are coming up. Do you have any endorsements?

Heems: Yeah, vote [Jeremy] Corbyn.

Riz: Yeah, given the choice, I would go with Corbyn…

Heems: You are given a choice. That is literally what it is. [laughs]

Riz: Well, are we really given a choice? In a first-past-the-post-electoral-system, are we really given a choice?

The issue of migration has been at the center of contemporary political debates. What do you think constitutes the anxiety around migration?

Redinho: If there is a lot of uncertainty about the future, then you look for things that have already been established, conceptually or whatever. I think people sense a shift, like we are going into some unknown chapter of human evolution. In times of uncertainty, people gravitate towards rigid, polarized ideologies. But humans have survived and thrived by collaborating cross culturally.

I think our music reflects the latter. I try to mix as many incongruous elements as possible – the more seemingly disparate the better.

Heems: I think confusion comes from the collapse of things. And what we are seeing is the collapse of white skin as a safety net. And that scares people. White skin used to be all the insurance you needed and now progressivism is becoming more diverse and visible, so we see a backlash. People turn on the TV, and they see more ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and they see the playing field being leveled, and it’s reactionary to go against that.

Your music is a bold and humorous response to the embrace of extremism in mainstream politics. What role does humor play in your music?

Heems: Humor gives us a more light-hearted way to talk about things that are painful. So it is a form of self-care. Rap is part of the African-American tradition of poetry, as simple as Langston Hughes talking about “laughing to keep them from crying.” I guess I’d rather laugh than cry.

Riz: For me, humor is about Trojan-horsing some humanity into polarizing debates, and saying things in accessible ways. You remember things that make you feel good. So, if I can make you feel good while telling you some tragic truths, you are more likely to remember them and care.

And I guess there is something British about mixing cynicism with humor. I am not forcing humor on my songs. I feel like the world is genuinely absurd. When you get some perspective on it, you think, “Look what this species is doing to itself” – it is hilarious! I mean, look who the president [of the US] is! Look at Brexit! There is inherent comedy in our self destruction! [laughs]

Heems: Absurdism is perhaps the most appropriate language for the times we are living in.

Growing up in the post-migrant communities in the UK and US, what did Pakistan and India mean to you?

Riz: The first time I went to Pakistan, I was 15 and I didn’t feel like I fit in. I mean I thought I spoke the language well, but people kept saying I had an accent. I remember as teenagers we would go up and down Southall Broadway in London (a mainly South-Asian district), chanting “Pakistan, Pakistan,” and when I finally went there, I thought, “What? This place? I have nothing in common with these people!” Then you realize you don’t necessarily belong anywhere, but maybe you can make your own space.

People often expect post-migrant minorities to express gratitude over criticism. You guys are not timid about the way you express your opinions. What do you think about the perceived image of the “good migrant”?

Riz: I am born and raised in London, so I don’t have the same attitude about these things compared to someone who might have had to flee a war zone. But I think, yes, there should be gratitude when some of the Western countries take refugees in, while a lot of Muslim countries do not. There is a lot to be proud of in our societies. But being part of a society means having a voice in that society. And when a suffocating gratitude is expected from migrants, it undermines the work needed to bolster inclusion. We need to include people’s voices, not just their bodies.

Topics: Swet Shop Boys

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