50 SHADES OF BROWN
Rap music’s racial makeup isn’t as simple as black and white. Heems of Das Racist details his complicated hip-hop experience as an Indian MC
As it goes, I, Heems, am the most successful American rapper of Indian or South Asian descent. Not sure how that happened but I think it has something to do with my on-and-off rap group Das Racist, with Kool A.D. and Dapwell. We recorded a song in 2008 that went viral called “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell” (all good if you’ve never heard it). Critics have referred to us as a novelty or “hipster” act, whatever that means. Some have suggested that we were making fun of rap. Which, admittedly, has a little to do with the surface impression of our music—a debut single about fast food joints isn’t exactly Biggie’s “Party & Bullshit”—but I believe it also has to do with my race.
Among other things, I rap about racism and cultural appropriation, so I realize that a) I make black music, b) I’m not black and c) the experience of my people in this country hasn’t been as tough as that of black people. Folks seem to get caught up on the first two. Fans have told me they hate rap but love us and I don’t know how to feel about that, especially as a participant in someone else’s art form (although to be fair, hip-hop has some parallels to Bhangra, which developed in the fields of Punjab back in the ‘70s). I make fun of white people on records, and they’re listened to by a whole lot of white people. I’ve been able to profit from white guilt, while potentially being capable of it.
I don’t talk about my race explicitly, but there are loads of YouTube comments calling Das Racist “Arab” rappers. I rap about being brown as does Kool A.D., whose mother is white and father is Afro-Cuban. But still, the most frustrating aspect of my career is being referred to as white, which has happened more times than I care to remember. I never wanted being Indian to be my thing as an MC, but I’d gladly take that over someone trying to take my race from me.
At times I’ve felt protective of an art form that I’m basically guilty of appropriating. In Rome, a white man showed up to a Das Racist show in blackface and left with some injuries he sustained at the hands of Das Racist. In Birmingham, Alabama, a white man showed up to a Das Racist show in an afro wig and was forcefully removed during the performance by Das Racist. I guess because I’m not black some people feel comfortable doing things they probably wouldn’t do around black people.
I recently heard a rapper—maybe Riff Raff—complain that being white has made listeners think he’s a joke; I don’t feel for him. It’s a great time to be a white rapper. Mac Miller and Macklemore are recognizable to soccer moms while the likes of Yelawolf, Action Bronson, Machine Gun Kelly and Chris Webby have cultivated sizable fan bases. White rappers had the footsteps of Eminem and the Beastie Boys before them. My predecessor: Kevin G from Mean Girls. It’s hard out here for an Indian rapper, yo. —Himanshu Suri
This story appears in VIBE’s Winter 2014 Race Issue, featuring Drake and Kevin Hart.