Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Rapper Heems on Sticking to His Roots, Eschewing Stylists and His Signature Hermès Scarf

The rapper Himanshu Kumar Suri, who records as Heems, in his parents' home.Credit Jesse Dittmar/Redux
Heems, né Himanshu Kumar Suri, looks equal parts regal and comfortable holding court in the back of Brooklyn’s Cafe El Beit. Dressed in tailored black separates, his shiny hair slicked up into a high bun, he could be dressed for any one of his many roles: art curator, clothing designer, loving uncle, political activist and, of course, rapper. His first solo album, “Eat Pray Thug,” was released last month to critical accolades. (His former project, the hip-hop group Das Racist, was likewise beloved for its incisive and playful lyrics.) But Suri barely allowed himself time to celebrate, instead diving right back into community politics — specifically, the desperate call for a taxi stand near Manhattan’s beloved Punjabi Deli.
Credit Jesse Dittmar/Redux
Suri’s political ideology is the force that drives his music as well as his visual aesthetic. “Eat Pray Thug” is, by his own admission, a rap record about Islamophobia, made by an Indian and Middle Eastern New Yorker who defines his personal style as “Taliban chic.” He’s fully aware that he contains multitudes — so thankfully, his end goal isn’t for people to get him. “I like my fashion to be expressive of who I am, but also to confuse and play with your understanding of the world around you,” he says. “Not necessarily antagonizing, just playing with people’s expectations.”
Honor your background.
“I like to combine street wear and high fashion with Indian clothing. It might be just one article, like a hat or a scarf, but I can include something that looks like my grandfather would have worn it, almost like a uniform. Yesterday I had my Pashtun cap on. And I love my kurtas. They’re super comfortable, super mundane. Indian people wear them every day, whether you’re the common man going to the grocery store or you’re a politician with millions of Euros in a Swiss account, you still wear a kurta — a long white tunic shirt — with pajama pants. I love that it’s a uniform, but it’s extremely chic and elegant.”
Early impressions stick.
“In one of our earlier Das Racist press photos, I was wearing one of Victor’s really colorful sweaters, so I’ve always been associated with this colorful, hipstery, thrift-shop aesthetic, though that was not my aesthetic. I was much more comfortable wearing $500 T-shirts than I was wearing used, smelly ones. I like it in theory — I like the idea of not paying so much for clothes — but I think maybe because of the immigrant thing, the idea of wearing someone’s used clothing is just not okay in my household. Like, ‘Why are you wearing someone else’s used clothing? We didn’t come here and work our asses off so you could wear some white dude’s old Bulls T-shirt from ’92 that he threw away.'”
Look to friends with similar backgrounds for inspiration.
“I was hanging out with Waris Ahluwalia. He’s another South Asian in New York. He’s amazing, and a sweetheart. If you want to talk about who else is stylish, well, Waris is one of the most stylish — not just South Asians, but New Yorkers.”
Respect the means of production.
“My mother came here with a master’s degree in economics, and in the daytime she would bag groceries at the Pathmark for four dollars an hour, and at night she worked in an Indian guy’s sweatshop making elastic belts with my friend Sunil’s mom. Thank God she had that job, which was really helpful to get us through a tough time financially. It’s not the most glamorous career; she did what she had to. Textiles are a huge part of the conversation on women in India and labor.”
Have your clothes custom-made.
“Coming into this album, I wanted to have a defined aesthetic, not just with my videos and album art, but with my clothing and look as well. I’ve been trying to wear as much custom stuff as I can, designing my own stuff or having it made, and wearing more Indian clothes that are harder to find. I’m still expressing myself and having fun and playing with colors and shapes and textures, but I’m not buying $500 Acne Studios shirts anymore. I got a bunch of fabric from India and had it tailored in Thailand; they got it done in three days.”
Listen to your parents.
“The reason I wear a bright orange Hermès scarf often is because it looks like a Hindu priest’s scarf. When I brought that home, my dad was like, ‘That was three dollars, right? You’re wearing a sadhu scarf.’ A sadhu is a wandering ascetic who is a devotee of Shiva. I was like, ‘Yeah … three dollars.’ It’s a little joke with myself that the H for ‘Hermès’ actually stands for ‘Hindu.’ Coming from this immigrant background helps me keep my money and fashion in check.”
Credit Jesse Dittmar/Redux
Don’t let capitalism control your desires, but be gentle with those who do.
“My feelings about materialism are quite complicated. I’m guilty of materialism. I understand the context of materialism, especially in the American working class. I get why, when we don’t have anything, then when we get stuff, we get excited. When other people tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t like most rap, but your rap I love,’ I take offense at that, because I come from that culture. I don’t agree with materialism or misogyny, but I look at context before I point fingers.”
Do things that make you feel beautiful, even when people stare.
“Sometimes when I’m out, if I’m feeling a certain way, I’ll put kajal in my eyes,” Heems says, using the South Asian term for kohl, or eyeliner. “When I was in India I’d see these gorgeous little babies with kajal in their eyes. As you get older it’s mostly the women that wear it — the men are forbidden — but little babies, little kids, boys, can put kajal in their eyes. I didn’t like that distinction. Why can you do it when you’re 5 and not when you’re 15?”
Stay away from stylists.
“I’ve always been averse to working with stylists. A lot of times they’d have preconceived notions of what rappers were supposed to dress like, so they’d bring silver chains with dollar signs on them. Like, are you joking me? First off, this is just racist, and you’re an idiot. Second of all, this doesn’t look good.”

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