Heems Talks ‘Eat Pray Thug,’ Asian-American Identity, and Traveling Abroad
Heems comes to terms with himself on 'Eat Pray Thug.'
Photo by Shivani Gupta
While best known for his work as a member of now-defunct hip hop trio Das Racist, Himanshu Suri has established a strong solo career over the past few years, releasing two mixtapes—Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom—and a collaborative EP with Riz MC as Swet Shop Boys. Heem’s debut and possibly final album, Eat Pray Thug, is a reflection upon self. An album that tackles issues of race, relationships, and what it means to brown in a post-9/11 world. By stripping away the jokes and pop-culture references that dominated his output with Das Racist, he has managed to construct the most honest portrait of himself thus far.
Heems has been living with a foot in many worlds over the past month, between a day job in advertising technology, curating an art show, and promoting Eat Pray Thug. When I hopped on a call with him back in February, he immediately asked about my 516 area code phone number. We chatted a little about Long Island, and he mentioned moving home to live with his family in Hicksville back in May.
Mass Appeal: Hey Heems, congratulations on the album. What’s going on with you right now?
I have an art show at a Aicon Gallery on Saturday, featuring some friends and contemporary art from India, Pakistan, including myself and the design work from my album. I also have my album coming out on March 10. Have you heard the album yet?
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I think it’s some of your most personal works yet…
Yeah, it’s definitely extremely personal, thanks man. That means a lot to me, because it is different from my other stuff.
Where was the majority of the album recorded?
Bombay in December of 2013.
Why did you decide to record the album in Bombay?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that crazy for artists to leave their surroundings to go record an album. You know a lot of rock bands do it, and historically Kanye will go out to Hawaii to record an album, so I always wanted to do that. I decided I wanted to go to Bombay, booked some time in a studio owned and run by a big Bollywood producer, and I kind of holed up there for a week. I wrote and recorded most of it there in three days and then spent about three days mixing it, and that’s what you have. I came back to New York and basically took like a year to clear the album, so in that time I had to tweak a couple things, replace a couple beats, but yeah I’m glad it’s finally coming out
I noticed the album’s coming out on Megaforce, is there any reason behind putting it out on a thrash metal label?
I mean it’s actually put out on Greedhead and Megaforce together. Basically, Megaforce ran the distribution for Greedhead previously, so the last Das Racist album was distributed by Megaforce’s partner company MRI. So for this album, I just didn’t want to be stressing over it…it’s kind of ironic right. Basically, what I did for Das Racist’s album relax, we played over 150 shows that year and recorded the album. I spent a lot of time dealing with lawyers and producer contracts, clearing that album, and also being in a band I kind of took on too much. So for this album, I wanted some support and that’s why Das Racist had signed with Megaforce initially. But on it being a thrash metal label, I mean a lot of the A&R work, it’s basically coming from me because I’m the rap guy there. So it’s definitely Greedhead and Megaforce, which is kind of what the deal’s been previously.
So you went back to India and spent some time there, how do you feel that affected the music and the album you created?
One thing that you’ll notice is that previously a lot of my work had Indian samples, and there aren’t Indian samples on this album. I’ve done, basically, five albums already: three with Das Racist and two mixtapes solo. So it becomes like, “How much can you say? Who do you think you are, why do you want to make this thing that you think someone should sit an hour through?” And I feel like the Das Racist stuff is kind of hidden behind humor. And with the solo stuff I hid behind Indian identity and Indian sounds to a certain extent. I’ve been going to India for this arts and literature festival called the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, and it’s in Goa, which is a super beachy, tourist part of India where you can find a ton of Indian people and a ton of people from around the world. It has its own culture. And so basically, I’ve been there the last three years. This year, I went there and stayed with a friend in Goa for two weeks. And being at that literature festival, I was just thinking about language, thinking about art, hanging out with these poets that I remember from Pakistan, hanging out and staying with a friend of mine who is the artist who works with language and his fiancé Shivani who’s a photographer and an artist. Just being around my friends in India who are all basically artists, writers, and creative people who I also realized recently are all older than me and in their upper 30s. I hung out with them and I was thinking about language a lot, and I think being in India I was able to stop thinking about the fact that I’m Indian.
It’s kind of ironic, but being in India freed me of the things, the identity issues I have in America. Once I was out in Goa I was just me, so I finally got to figure out who I am outside of, yeah, I’m an Indian guy from Queens. With that out of the way, I can talk about personal stuff, but in talking about personal stuff, I was actually able to talk about the community and talk about more than just myself. The album is in a lot of ways about New York and about sociopolitical heartbreak, not just heartbreak in the traditional sense. But the album is about 9/11, about working class Queens, about working class Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants.
A lot of the best art made about New York is made by New Yorkers who are outside of New York, like the Beastie Boys, or Here is New York by E.B. White, about him leaving New York for a couple years and coming back and writing about New York. Being outside of New York left me free to write about New York in a certain way, and being outside of America to write about who I am as a person outside of who I am in America. And so I think that’s what you’re kind of getting on the album.
I noticed there are a couple songs about breakups, were you going through something personal when you were recording the tracks?
You know I think I’ve always been going through personal things, but because I was free from joking around, I kind of wanted to be honest and stuff. I was going through personal stuff, but people are always going through personal stuff. I’m just more open about it in my artwork at this point in time.
You recently started a 9-5 job, how has it been commuting to Long Island and back, and how has living at home impacted your art?
Yeah, I have a lot going on right now. I think for me the last year I’ve been getting things off my chest, and it freed me up in a lot of ways. Over the past year, now that I’ve got things off my chest, I’ve been on a continuous kind of journey, right? Knowledge of self. The day job for me was about putting structure back in my life, making me interact, and working with people I don’t choose. Just kind of trying to understand more about myself outside of the context of being an artist, you know? So I moved home, I got a job, and I’m not traveling around the world, I’m not doing a lot of these interviews. I kind of pulled back and moved to India.
What happens a lot as an artist is your identity becomes highjacked. People form opinions of you, people write things about you, it’s easy to forget what you are. I think this happens in an artist’s life where they want to pull back and kind of step away. So for me I went to India, I came back to New York, and decided not to live in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Moving out to the suburbs and then exploring who I am as a person before being an artist. Just hanging out with my family, and I’ve been traveling so much that I wasn’t really home at all. My sister just had kids, and I want to spend time with them. So it’s been really awesome, you know? Just kicking it with family, and exploring who I am before all this artist stuff.
How are you as an artist supposed to tell people to listen to you when you can’t relate to them? Because you’re running around the fucking world all the time or your life becomes so strange and as an artist or someone who is successful, you start losing track of who you are. So it seemed like a natural thing for me to just stop andw be like, “Hey alright, I’m an artist.” But that’s not only who I am. Then I get off and go to work everyday like everyone else, and at the same time I’ve been curating an art show, and at the same time I shot a music video last weekend with Hannibal Buress and Eric André for “Sometimes.” I wrote the treatment, I wrote the video, and I co-directed it, so I kind of felt like having a day job would make me value my time more, and I would be able to focus more on my art and my other things as well. And additionally, when you start making mad money and stuff, you start losing the value of money. Remembering that as a person, you know I’m blessed to be an artist. I’m blessed to have fans. I’m blessed to make money this way. And so for me to go to a job and make…it’s not about the money for me. I appreciate that I can play a show, and I kind of lost track of that. It was just about pulling back and exploring self, and then exploring self in art.
Where do you work, if you don’t mind me asking?
I’d rather not say, but I work in advertising. Technology and analytics. I like the idea of getting up in the morning, going to the city, sitting at a desk, doing work. Sometimes you develop an ego as an artist, so I just wanted to check myself.
Are people at work aware that you’re a pretty well-known artist?
I’ve slowly been letting it slip. Some people will be like, “Oh shit! I knew you looked familiar!” But actually I lost a lot of weight, so I look different also and I haven’t been in the public eye for like two years. When it will slip, people will be like, “I have all your stuff in my iPod!” Stuff like that has been happening, but I just felt like I always had this idea of normalization. Even when I was living in Brooklyn, I would come back to Queens and Long Island with my family every week or two to just eat Indian food, watch Indian TV, be with my family and remember who I am. On this album—I was just talking to Despot about this—and in a certain way, I’ve made five albums, and people might think I’m this funny guy or this Wesleyan rich kid, a hipster New York transplant, but at some point I had to let people know that isn’t me and just put it out there. And it’s a little scary being so vulnerable, but at the same time I’ve been making music and art for like four or five years, and I figured it’s about time. Like I said, a lot of the album is about stories, how I used to work at bodegas, and how it’s like being an Indian guy after 9/11, and about family friends or people in the neighborhood getting deported after 9/11, being in Manhattan when it happened and having that traumatic event as a teenager.
To see how 9/11 shifted the nation’s perspective of you as a person in America. That kind of double victimization. The album explores a greater heartbreak than just the personal one, which you mentioned. And one other thing to think about is in immigrant communities and all communities there’s secrets and shame. There’s that, “Don’t talk about personal stuff, don’t talk about working class history, talk about the doctors, talk about the engineers.” Even in rap, “Talk about how you’re happy, you’re getting money and women, and how you’re cool.” But if you’re being honest with yourself, you have to explore the other realities of your self. And in that way, I think that’s what the album is.
You also speak on struggle with substances on the album. How has that impacted your music, and your life in general?
Like I said, the album is as much part about stories, but that’s one of the smaller stories on the album. So to talk on that a lot doesn’t make sense. But those are the stories which are swept under the rug in immigrant communities. Substance abuse and mental health are things that in the Asian community we don’t talk about. So for me, it was about exploring those darker sides of the community. Those expectations of the community, about being open, and potentially help other people. Basically, as an artist and a human being, there’s been experimentation and self-medication, and that’s on there as well as everything else.
Do you plan on doing a tour to support the album, both domestically and internationally?
Yes, sometime during May. Last year I went to Nepal, Malaysia, Phillipines, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, India, Japan, Hong Kong. And I think at the end of this year I think I’m going to be back there.
Do you have a favorite place in Asia?
I’m partial to India. I really liked Nepal. I like China. The Philippines is hella interesting. Malaysia is hella interesting in a historical context. Thailand is kinda crazy. But wherever I go, my interest is in the Indian diaspora, and that’s the case even when I’m traveling to Europe and going to an Indian restaurant and finding out the story of the guy who works there. In Thailand, I was kicking it with an Indian dude who came there 30 years ago and opened a restaurant. I love traveling. I love wherever I go. But touring Asia instead of Europe and the U.S. has been amazing, man.
I was just doing an interview where I was talking about race, and I was saying you don’t really hear a lot of Asian-American stories. In our communities we hide things like mental health and substance abuse. We hide the beginning of our stories, the coming here with no money, driving a cab and working at Pathmark. Look at us and where we are now. In that process, we forget about the working class, and we’re like, “Don’t look at them, look at us.” And then we fall prey to the model minority. As a rapper, I’m appropriating black culture and I try to be aware of that. And so as an activist and a human being, I try to work in the community and speak. I’ve lectured about Asian-American apathy, how we as Asian-Americans benefit from the efforts of black people and the Civil Rights Movements, and how we have it pretty easy compared to them because most of us came here at the beginning with PhDs and Masters, so there’s a long history of how the Asian-American community owes a lot to the African-American community. That’s something I think of and mention to you as an Asian-American in New York, and as hip hop fan you might identify with that sentiment a little bit.
Yeah, definitely. While I was growing up, there weren’t that many Asian-American role models to look up towards, but it’s interesting to watch that shift now. Eddie Huang’s show Fresh off the Boat premiered on ABC yesterday, and it’s amazing to watch how Asian’s are becoming more represented in media. On that same tip, I have a lot of South Asian friends who look up to you and what you do.
Yeah man, and that’s why I tell those stories. I get so many letters from young Indian kids who look up to me, not because I’m a rapper, but because I am open about things. So many of us are encouraged to become engineers or doctors. And as South Asian kids, there aren’t that many people to look up to. In a lot of ways, I was thinking, “Why should I rap?” or “Why should people listen?” Ultimately, it comes back to the Asian-American community, and being a voice of the community, and being visible so people can say, “Oh, he’s just like me,” or change the perception of Indian people as being docile or nerdy math kids, or whatever the situation may be. To tell the honest stories of South Asians who aren’t doctors or lawyers, who didn’t come here before ’75. That’s what I try to explore that with my work.
Heems’ album Eat Pray Thug is out now via Megaforce.
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