Heems Loses the “Brown Man’s Burden” in New Album Eat Pray Thug

March 9, 2015 | Prachi Gupta

On Tuesday, ex-Das Racist member Himanshu Suri will release his debut solo album, Eat Pray Thug. Forging his own path, Heems departs from his former hip-hop group’s serious-not-serious style, digging into darker social and political commentary in raps titled “Patriot Act” and “Suicide by Cop”. But devout fans will recognize, all jokes aside, that Heems stays focused on the dualities and contradictions in American identity.

While Das Racist talked about South Asian identity head-on, however, Eat Pray Thug explores identity through the lens of someone who isn’t so hung up on identity — a contradiction that begins to make sense when you hear about it from Suri’s perspective. Suri, a New Yorker of Indian origin, created the album while on a self-imposed exile in India. The title is both an appreciation and a send-up of the so-called spiritual journey that Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

Last year, Suri was busy hustling creative acts to feature on his Greedhead record label. The artist’s main collaborator now, however, is Chiraag Bhakta, aka *Pardon My Hindi, a visual artist who explores similar themes of South Asian-American identity in his work. Suri recently talked to ANIMAL about the journey that led to Eat Pray Thug, what he refers to as the Brown Man’s Burden and whether Indian rappers can be guilty of appropriation.

[PG]: Why did you go to India to make this album?

[HS]: I feel like a lot of musicians leave their surroundings to go get away and record — sit in the woods, in a different city like LA, or like Kanye does with Hawaii — I just decided I wanted to go to India to write and record the album. In a lot of ways I’m not leaning on Indian samples on this album, but being there definitely impacted the way the album was made.

I basically go every year for the Goa Arts and Literature festival, so I was in Goa for two weeks, hanging out with writers, poets, and staying with friends In India who are all writers, poets and artists, so I kind of went into it after this period of thinking about language and thinking about art.

It’s not weird for people to travel to record music and I think a lot of my favorite art or music about New York has been made by New Yorkers in exile, whether it’s Beastie Boys in Ill Communication or the book Here In New York by E.B. White, where he left New York for a while — was in almost like an exile — and then wrote about New York, came back and stayed in a hotel. In a lot of ways, the album is about New York even though I was in India.

Another funny thing that happened: Staying in India allowed me to not be so hung up on my Indian identity, which was a topic on a lot of the solo mix-tapes. So being there, I was free of thinking myself in those terms, and I was able to just think of myself and thus the work is much more personal. It’s not about my Indian identity, explicitly; it’s not about Indian samples; it’s not about humor the way Das Racist work was. That came out of being in India, and in a lot of ways, the title even is about that. I mean, Eat Pray Thug is a play on Eat, Pray, Love, which is a book about spiritual tourism; a white lady who has a cliché spiritual journey through India. But Eat Pray Thug is kind of a play on that in terms of a diasporic identity, being an Indian-American. You know, we’re also sometimes guilty of self-exotification, so in a lot of ways I was going to India to have the same kind of spiritual journey as that book. But at the same time, as an Indian-American, I’m kind of poking fun at this lady doing it. Also, the word “thug,” being Indian, is known in our language and etymology, and the origin and culture, which I guess a lot of my work is about.

What kind of conclusions were you able to come to in an environment where you were free of thoughts of identity?

In a lot of ways, you know, there’s this cliché of the American-born confused Desi, so I guess in a lot of ways I’m kind of guilty of that. But the simplest way to explain it just is kind of being like an elephant in the room whenever I was anywhere where I was one of two South Asians in the room, or in my daily life, just confronting the fact that I live in this home, I’m from this family that’s very Indian and then I go out to the world into New York and — when I travel and perform — my experiences aren’t, you know, that Indian. Being out [in India] took that elephant in the room out of the situation; everyone was Indian, so it wasn’t even worth talking about. So then you get to really explore who you are as a person, outside of thinking of yourself in this context — you know, either you do it yourself or people do it to you; they put you in the spotlight so you just think of yourself in those terms.

So yeah, being out there kind of freed me of I guess the…almost like — you know the White Man’s Burden? Like the Brown Man’s Burden; I joke about educating the white man. I didn’t feel the Brown Man’s Burden in India. I didn’t feel like I had to educate anybody, so I could just fuckin’ be me. And that’s what inspired a lot of the writing, and why it’s so personal.

The next time I go to India, I’ll think about that. I can feel very oppressed in different ways in India, because they have expectations of what Americans are, too.

When I’m there, I’m hanging out with a lot of people who studied in London and America or in the arts — people who are professionals, who are wealthy. When I’m there, I speak Hindi better than a lot of the people I’m hanging out with, a lot of times it’s just like because they’re from South India or they’re from somewhere that doesn’t speak Hindi. But the whole ironic thing is you end up being diasporic and participating in Indian culture more than people who are there because they’re more thinking about what’s going on in London and New York. So I’m still thinking about identity, but I just didn’t think about it in terms of, like, creatively.

Pre-order Heems' EAT PRAY THUG over on iTunes.

A photo posted by Chiraag Bhakta (@pardonmyhindi) on

Iggy Azalea has been criticized for re-appropriating hip-hop culture. Where do you think Indian people stand on that spectrum? Can Indians performing rap be seen as re-appropriating?

I think for me, I’m an Indian guy who is middle class who has benefited from the hard work of the Civil Rights movement; the struggles of African-American people before. A lot of Indian people came with PhDs and masters [degrees] to America to compete with Russia, and [to join] our science program, and a lot of times Indian people are upper-class. I try to be conscious of the fact that I’m essentially appropriating a black artform and that I myself have benefited from a lot of the hard work of black people. At the same time, I find that, for me, to tell stories or to talk about the working class experience, I prefer rap as a medium to these projects because, if I were writing books — which I tried to do about the working class Indian immigrant experience — a lot of the audience was not people who grew up like I did; most of my friends in the neighborhood, most of my cousins don’t read books — but they do listen to rap. So it was about how to not be performing race for an audience that sees it as performing race, but how to just be you. And as an artist you’re constantly conscious of this — of how you’re preparing yourself or how much of the inside jokes or the inside aspects of being Indian do you share with the outside world, or how much are you playing into stereotypes that you’re trying to dispel, being Indian. So, you know even when I was touring last year at universities, I was talking about Asian-American apathy and about how it’s important to appreciate the fact that we literally, literally benefit from the Civil Rights movement, came here after that, and a lot of South Asians just don’t even realize that and end up being pawns in the system used against black and Latino and other brown bodies. So I try to be cognizant of how we, at one side, are in a better position — but at the same time but I like the medium of rap as a working class medium within itself and I think it’s more suitable to tell the stories I want to tell.

Last year, you brought Joe Mande to Greedhead Records. Are interested in booking new types of art with the label anytime soon?

This year, I’m mostly going to be focusing on my own album and really just kind of giving it an effort like I hadn’t previously, so right now that’s the only music I have in the pipeline, but at the same time a lot of the work I’m doing with Chiraag [Bhakta] (“Pardon my Hindi”) but it’s for the album, art work, whether it’s for the merchandise, or whether we’re working on Greedhead website where we’ll have everything up, and working on the shop where people can actually buy the records, stuff like that. So there’s kind of a lot going on behind the scenes, but as far as music releases, I’m just focusing on this record.

And as far as comedy, it just seems like a lot of record labels, especially Hindi labels, put out comedians — I mean Hari [Kondabolu] has his album out on Kill Rock Stars, so it seems like an actual thing, especially because we’re friends a lot of comedians. For example, I shot a music video for “Sometimes” with Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress. The video was kind of a funny project; we’ve always mingled with and hung out with — and been interested in — comedy, so it seemed like a natural thing to put out. You know, Mande’s mixtape especially because the whole thing about Joe Mande’s project was that it was a mix-tape, it was a comedy mixtape with drops from athletes and rappers, and with sound effects and it was not your typical comedy album, so I’m pretty happy we got to put that out. We kind of like to do these outsider projects, you know, Greedhead has always been about these kind of outsider projects.

What are your future plans with the album?

I’ll probably be touring around the States, and probably a little bit of Europe and Asia as well. But I’m still figuring that out right now.

Eat Pray Thug drops March 10 via Megaforce.

(Photo: Shivani Gupta)