If you were any sort of desi with cognisance in the early 00s, you couldn’t help but applaud a European group called Outlandish. They channelled hip-hop with a distinctly sub-continental and political flavour, giving us a little thrill when they turned a schoolgirl’s Hindi playground refrain into a chorus on Peelo or chilled us out with a lovelorn Aicha. They appealed to a post-Goodness Gracious Me and post-9/11 bunch of second-generationers whose identification with the arts world and pop culture was swallowed by a wave of fear none of us wanted or expected.
And of course, if you were any sort of desi with cognisance in the early 90s, you probably felt the same as a post-Network East kid listening to Apache Indian (for whom the jury’s still out regarding appropriation versus beacon of multiculturalism) and 20 years later being rather embarrassed by that fact. The point is, it could easily go either way for us but it’s hard to find two people more qualified to front a new version of that movement than Swet Shop Boys: Riz Ahmed (Riz MC here) and Himanshu Suri aka Heems, with a bit of help from producer Redinho.
You only need to turn to Genius to work out how much of a success they are. For their track Zayn Malik – a masterstroke title in itself, perfect for what’s within – the lyrics are listed as “You got your mom in tears in sajda, Quran kissing/ The politicians and the Michael Bay aren’t giving” when to the Urdu-speaking ear the latter is enunciated unmistakably as ‘bayaan (sermon) giving’. Or the fact that it closes with an intense qawwali on ecstacy next to a track called Aaja (“Come”), which itself is prefaced by a Pakistani radio interlude about a mushairah (poetry slam) and led by a Bollywood-driven couplet.
The point is, there’s absolutely no concession for a world that never really acknowledged intersectionality in the first place, unless it was a Truth Hurts lift or a stereotypical trope. The influences are clear (“To me growing up, Tupac was a true Paki,” a line a lot of hip-hop loving desi millennials can easily relate to), and if Solange politely fought for her seat at the table, these Boys flip it over as a subsection of the ‘for us, by us’ vibe while wearing jackets embroidered with the bust of Abida Parveen.
As for the rhymes themselves, they largely hit the mark. It does often feel like two artists running parallel rather than on the same lane, but what both Heems and Riz bring to the table feels equally important, their transatlantic experiences shaded quite differently but rooted in the same, achem, fundamentals. The former does edge out the latter most times, his Das Racist flow comfortable and infallible where Riz ever so occasionally cracks with over-the-top emotion and overly-affected accent (particularly on Shottin).
But these are minor quibbles for a record that feels just as important as any political statement this year. We could write a thesis on the brilliant moments of code-switching and endless references that need reams of whitesplaining (highlights: Madhuri Dixit, goris, tawaaf, Gujjis, jalebi, sloppy saag at the Gurdwara, missing namaaz… the list feels endless). It’s a record that not only works as an insight from the outside for those of us caught between two disparate macrocosms, but one that also addresses the original intersection of being two ‘different’ types of Punjabi. The truth is they’re both essentially the same, united once more to break down a new sort of Partition, and unrelentingly determined to make you realise we’re just as much a fabric of the same society.