Edited by Karli Wessale
Art by Raj Dhunna http://rajdhunna.co.uk/
Cashmere is a rap album by the ‘Swet Shop Boys’: a duo comprised of Riz Ahmed, a British actor, known for his work in ‘Four Lions’ and Heems, an American rapper, known for being a member of ‘Das Racist’, both are of South Asian descent. The Swet Shop Boys rap about contemporary social and political issues which face the South Asian diaspora, sound tracked by traditional music from the Indian Subcontinent.
As an Indian person who has grown up in the West, Cashmere is one of the first times I have seen people of my background in popular culture speaking about issues personal to me. The Swet Shop Boys seamlessly reference diverse aspects of my multifaceted and often-confused cultural identity. East is juxtaposed with West as verses jump from Jay-Z to Jalebi (Swet Shop Boys, track 6), feature shout outs to ‘Ambala’, a chain of desi sweet shops and reference Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya!’ next to the classic nineties Bollywood track ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ (Swet Shop Boys, track 4) – a song I associate with my childhood.
Cashmere also explores more serious themes such as stereotyping, familial expectations: “Yeah, you rap but you should have been a surgeon” (Swet Shop Boys, track 6), and identity crises “my DNA wonder where my home should be” (Swet Shop Boys, track 8) which likely resonate on a deeper level with a younger generation of the diaspora. In a world which often stereotypes South Asians either as know-it-all, socially-incapable ‘nerds’ or threatening ‘extremists’, Cashmere is a breath of fresh air. The album is witty and politically aware when discussing the pride, confusion and contradiction of coming of age as an immigrant in the West.
From the refugee crisis, power, colonialism and ancient Moghul kings to issues of surveillance and national security, Cashmere insightfully comments on a plethora of academic issues. I will focus on three major themes of the album: airports, cultural appropriation and Indo-Pakistani relations and explain their political and historic academic significance, before outlining why it is important that we study works like Cashmere as part of our curriculum.
Firstly, airports are a major theme of the album. ‘T5’ laments racial profiling at airport security: “TSA always wanna burst my bubble / always get a random check when I rock the stubble” (Swet Shop Boys, track 1), ‘Shoes Off’ draws parallels between taking your “shoes off at the temple, shoes off at the airport” and recounts when Riz Ahmed was interrogated at Luton Airport, on the way back from the 2005 Berlin Film Festival (Swet Shop Boys, track 10). The Swet Shop Boys protest the suspicion they are immediately cast under when they try to cross borders, calling into question the effectiveness and fairness of racial profiling policies – a controversial feature of our post-9/11 world. The lyrics also highlight that even the world’s most prominent South Asians are subject to disrespect at airports due to their race. The fact that Shahrukh Khan, arguably the biggest star in Bollywood, and recent recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh, has been detained thrice in US airports (Agence France-Presse) tells us that success does not exempt people of colour, especially those who are Muslim, from the suspicious eye of airport security.
Secondly, Cashmere critiques cultural appropriation by drawing attention to the orientalist, exploitative ways in which the West often engages with South Asian culture. Heems raps about being “out of place like a brown Hare Krishna” (Swet Shop Boys, track 4) in ‘Zayn Malik’. In ‘Din-e-ilahi’, Heems expands on this observation, linking it to the wider capitalist commodification of Hinduism: “Hinduism in a bottle / marketed and sold like fairness cream” and exposes the racist double standard that is central to so many critiques of cultural appropriation: “used to call me curry, now they cook it in the kitchen.” (Swet Shop Boys, track 11). These sharp observations draw on a host of nuanced issues – from the colonial, Eurocentric beauty standards which lead millions of South Asians to bleach their skin, to the capitalist system which commodifies Asian religion and culture into marketable food and lifestyle trends in the West.
Finally, at the heart of Cashmere lies an extraordinary friendship between people of two warring neighbours: India and Pakistan. The current state of Indo-Pakistani relations is dire. Recent months have seen Pakistani actors and Indian TV Channels being banned on each side of the border as historic tensions over Kashmir heighten (Safi, Michael). Considering this, the artistic coalition between Riz MC, a Pakistani-Muslim and Heems, an Indian-Hindu is a special public friendship across a bloody border. The duo erase divisions in their lyrics: “We’re the same cuz, Jedi, Jew or Hindu, Sikh” (Swet Shop Boys, track 7) and the outro of ‘No Fly List’ is a clip of Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Lecture, where when referring to her Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, Kailash Satyarthi, she talks about being “proud” that “an Indian and a Pakistani, they can work together and achieve their goals.” (Yousafzai, Malala, 482) Here, the Swet Shop Boys illustrate that they have more similarities through their common diasporic, immigrant identity than differences through their respective national and religious identities. Cashmere highlights that South Asian immigrants face similar struggles of racial profiling, stereotyping and conflicted identity in Western society: “I feel we’re all connected, I feel we should never be unkind to each other” (Swet Shop Boys, track 11). The overwhelming message of the album is one of solidarity and friendship within the diaspora.
Politics is manifested in art and human expression. In turn, our beliefs and the ways in which we interact with and perceive the world are shaped by political contexts, events and discourse. Considering this, it seems peculiar that I have not yet had the opportunity to examine the political dimensions of a piece of art, music or literature as part of my Politics and Philosophy degree. In my university experience, the study of politics has thus far focused on examining institutions, events and systems using textbook political theory, which often fails to be grounded in human experience – a primary unit of political analysis. Feelings and identity are political, and yet, they are rarely alluded to in academia. Hence, works such as ‘Cashmere’ and the rich academic potential they hold are left unexplored by students, who instead learn an outdated, one-dimensional version of their discipline. I came across ‘Cashmere’ on Spotify – I wait for the day when such works of genius are also found on course resource lists, in the process enriching and diversifying our curriculum.
Agence France-Presse,. “Bollywood Star Shah Rukh Khan Detained At US Airport Again”. The Guardian, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/12/bollywood-star-shah-rukh-khan-detained-at-us-airport-again.
Safi, Michael. “Indian Films Banned, Pakistani Actors Ejected – How The Kashmir Crisis Is Hitting Bollywood”. The Guardian, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/09/indian-films-banned-pakistani-actors-ejected-how-the-kashmir-crisis-is-hitting-bollywood.
Swet Shop Boys,. “Cashmere”. Customs, 2016, https://play.spotify.com/album/0wL2jTDIlsPrvwEm7Le0ML.
Yousafzai, Malala. “Nobel Lecture”. Www.Nobelprize.Org, 2014, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2014/yousafzai-lecture_en.pdf.
About the author:
Ketaki Zodgekar is a Philosophy and Politics student at the University of Edinburgh. She is particularly interested in moral and political philosophy and thinking about how to diversify the curriculum. Ketaki is also involved in feminist causes around campus, writes for The Student Newspaper and is a singer-songwriter and pianist.