Swet Shop Boys – Political hip hop

The Swet Shop Boys are Heems (formerly of Das Racist), Riz MC (aka Riz Ahmed, star of HBO's 'The Night Of') and producer Redhino. Inspired by a lifetime of being typecast based on the colour of their skin, the Swet Shop Boys make music that is naturally political because of their own personal experience. Their debut album, 'Cashmere' deals with social injustice, identity and the unique experience of South Asian people in the U.S. and U.K.

(Left to right) Riz MC, Heems and Redhino. © Vicky Grout

By its very nature rap is protest music, did you always have an idea to make music that was political? What were you hoping to do together?

Riz: It was really just to make a very personal album. I think the day-to-day reality of some people who are born into certain circumstances of marginalisation or into bodies automatically regarded as suspicious are inevitably political. It then takes on that label when it is received or heard by others. Ultimately all art is political and has a point of view on the world, but it is only certain art that is given that label – the art that challenges the status quo.

Heems: I never consciously try to make music that is political but politics is in my life. I often think of Arundhati Roy in conversation with Howard Zinn, she talked about the fact that when you're not granted access to the same resources as those around you, politics is in your life. I sampled this on a previous project.

What are your thoughts on the media, their responsibility and creation of warped narratives?

Redinho: Personally I find the media to be an addictive and hellish kaleidoscope, and I tapped out of it a while ago. I found this gave me more time to focus on creativity, curiosity and connection, which is ultimately how I contribute.

Heems: I think the more storytellers are given the ability to tell their own stories, the better the world we live in. The media has a job and it's often to make money whereas the storyteller has a different job.

© Vicky Grout

The V&A exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? looks at the years 1966 – 1970 when things were very much in flux, they were very volatile but also incredibly creative and forward-thinking times. Do you think the world needs these times of chaos to push things forward?

Riz: We are inspired to some extent by the British Asian cultural explosion of the 1990s. This was the time of innovation and fusion across many odd forms, where a new generation was asserting the hybrid identity with confidence and swagger. Unfortunately this glut of expression came to an end after 9/11, where generally the Asian working class community retreated from visibility under the pressures of physical and economic insecurity.

Is your work inspired by any ideas or actions of past activists or rebels?

Redinho: Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine were groups I loved when growing up. However, as a kid interested in music I barely clocked the lyrics and instead absorbed the vibe. Public Enemy definitely influenced me technically because of Terminator X's cuts and layering. Back then sampling seemed like a radical and rebellious way of making music, especially manipulating wax on a turntable in a way that the technology wasn't designed for.

Heems: Joseph Cornell, Richard Hell, Manto, and Guru Dutt have been artists I'm inspired by. Bhagat Singh and Malcolm X are two activists I've always looked up to.

© Vicky Grout

There is a real movement of younger activists using new innovative methods to spread their message and obviously there are so many online platforms and communities to voice your opinions. Do you think this is a good thing? Or does it detract, as some people argue, from real action and policy change?

Heems: I think it's great that the discourse has widened. I don't think these platforms detract from the conversation at all. While there is a lack of some involved in the conversation activating for their causes and getting involved on the ground level, I firmly believe with increased visibility comes increased change. I wish it occurred quicker but you can't rush people to their beliefs.

Riz: I think it helps to connect conversations and spread ideas, but I agree there can be a deficit between that and taking action.

How do you see things progressing in terms of the issues you deal with and comment on? What would you like to see change?

Heems: Building upon the last question, I'd like to see more visibility.

Riz: I'd like to be on Downton Abbey in white-face.

Find out more about The Swet Shop Boys

The Swet Shop Boys' new album Cashmere is out now.