It was the biggest music story of 2014: White rappers, with Iggy Azalea as their poster child, were appropriating hip-hop with wild mainstream success. Ever since Forbes drew heavy criticism for publishing an article titled "Hip-Hop Is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman," Azalea has come under fire repeatedly for her insensitivity to the racial politics of the music — from Azealia Banks' Twitter reaming of the rapper to Q-Tip's efforts to educate her on hip-hop's roots. The dominant story was clear: Hip-hop is a black musical form that white artists are appropriating rather than appreciating.
It's an important issue, but there's just one problem with that: It completely erases non-white and non-black voices from the mix. Because hip-hop is more than just black and white — if it's to stay a vital art form, it needs to represent all oppressed voices in America.
Azalea's critics aren't wrong. Lamentably, white privilege goes hand-in-hand with the music industry, as it continues to reward musicians like Azalea and Macklemore in favor of black artists who originated the music. Although Macklemore has acknowledged the privilege that lead to his meteoric success, Azalea’s refusal to do so is deeply troubling.
Hip-hop is a black art form, but it is also an art form that can be practiced respectfully by white artists and non-black people of color, the latter of which are largely ignored by the mainstream. And no one better exemplifies the need to acknowledge the diversity of rappers better than Heems.
You probably haven't heard of Heems, but you've heard his music. A South Asian rapper from Queens, he was originally part of hip-hop collective Das Racist. The group no longer makes music together, but they still collaborate on each other’s projects. They were made up of MCs Heems (Himanshu Suri) and Kool A.D. (Victor Vasquez), plus their hype man Dapwell, or Ashok Kondabolu. Their wacky allusions lead Das Racist to be relegated to the genre joke rap, but this classification is unfairly myopic. Heems and his band members are whip-smart and conscientious, and they have been taking well-aimed shots at consumerism and white supremacy since 2008.
Although many Americans seem to have just realized that there's still racism in this country, and are finally speaking up against police brutality and the nonstop killing of black and brown bodies, Das Racist has always been on the ball. They wrote “NYC Cops” in 2012, a tribute to the Strokes anthem, where they eulogize those that were killed by the NYPD. It's unsurprising, as Suri and Vasquez met in a Wesleyan dormitory for students of color interested in social justice.
That's what makes their music, and Heems especially, unique: If Iggy Azalea refuses to believe that hip-hop is always racial, Heems always has that in mind.
But Heems is the sort of voice the hip-hop debate ignores. Like the founders of rap, he uses his platform to advocate for overlooked voices. He wrote a popular op-ed in 2010 on NBC’s Outsourced, a show that used South Asians as the “punchline of racially insensitive humor.” He’s worked for years with SEVA, a Queens-based nonprofit catering to West Indian and South Asian communities, and consistently uses his Twitter account as a tool to call out xenophobia and Islamophobia. When asked by the Village Voice about the intentions behind their rhymes, Heems answered bluntly, “Everything we do has a sociopolitical context. This is the burden of the minority man.”
Now, Heems is getting ready for his first official studio album, Eat, Pray, Thug, set to drop on March 10. His first single, “Sometimes,” was released recently, and it’s a weighty reflection on identity politics. In his own words, it’s “about dualities, identity and the space between spaces. Like so many other people, as a first-generation South Asian in the U.S. I often felt like I lived two lives, an Indian one and an American one. … On another level, I also often felt like in America I lived in the space between black and white.”
Heems' voice, and voices like his, can't be cut out of hip-hop's narrative. Rap isn't black or white, but it is always political, and the politics of oppression apply to a lot of different groups in this country. Heems shows that on his debut album: He breaks the black/white binary mold in an authentic way, always staying true to his identity, by collaborating with artists like Rafiq Bhatia (an Indian jazz musician) and featuring cover art by Chiraag Bhakta (an artist most known for “Pardon My Hindi”). He never forgets, however, to keep the anti-oppressive spirit of hip-hop alive, while paying his respects to those who paved the way.
In 2015, that's the best example of what we should ask of hip-hop artists. Heems, and voices like him, cannot be forgotten.
Correction: Jan. 28, 15
An earlier version of this article referred to Heems' "NYC Cops" as a cover of a song with the same title by the Strokes. The Heems song is a tribute to the Strokes track.