When one thinks of Queens rappers, one does not think of political redistricting, but all of that is about to change.
Himanshu “Heems” Suri, a member of the idiosyncratic rap group Das Racist, is releasing his hotly anticipated solo mixtape Nehru Jackets in conjunction with SEVA NY, a community organization that’s currently focused on raising awareness about the consequences the citywide redistricting scheduled for later this year will have in the Queens neighborhoods where he grew up. Mr. Suri’s mixtape will be accompanied on several songs by young SEVA members who rap and sing in Punjabi.
The Observer made our way out to Queens to watch Mr. Suri record at SEVA co-founder and executive director Gurpal Singh’s bedroom studio. Mr. Suri was accompanied by a pair of young SEVA rappers—Lovedeep Singh, 21, and Jaspreet Singh, 17 (none of the Singhs are related, it turns out). Lovedeep’s parents don’t know about his rap hobby—he simply told them he was at a SEVA event without mentioning the recording studio. Mr. Suri and Mr. Singh told him they would break the news to his parents before the mixtape’s release party.
“He’s got strict parents, but we’re going to have to tell them,” Mr. Singh said. “He’s going to be on stage in front of the whole community.”
Lovedeep stepped up to the microphone first as Mr. Suri wrote lyrics to the beat on a nearby couch. He wore his headphones over a Sikh turban. A pair of blue boxing gloves hung from the ceiling over his head as he bobbed from leg to leg like a fighter entering the ring and fired off a stream of rapid-fire lyrics in Punjabi.
“I don’t think he needs to record again,” Mr. Suri said after Lovedeep finished his verse.
“He’s good, I’m done with it,” Mr. Singh agreed.
Lovedeep grinned from ear to ear.
Mr. Suri first encountered SEVA through a childhood friend, Ali Najmi, an attorney and former legislative director to Councilman Mark Weprin, who serves as a community organizer with SEVA. About a month ago, Mr. Suri asked Mr. Najmi about getting involved.
“I kind of got jealous of him in a sense of not being on the ground and doing work that helps people in a real-time sense on the ground,” Mr. Suri said. “In reality, there’s a lot more that can be done outside of art, and I saw that my friends were doing it and I wanted to be involved in any way that I can.”
Mr. Najmi introduced Mr. Suri to Mr. Singh, a political veteran who worked as director of constituent affairs and held a variety of positions with the Senate Democrats. At home, Mr. Singh produces music with many of the SEVA youth under the moniker “Mr. Singhularity.”
Mr. Singh was born into a musical family. His father was a Ragi, one of the musicians who sing the scriptures at Sikh prayer services. He discovered many of the SEVA youths had musical talent during the group’s early meetings, which quickly evolved into what he describes as “organic jam sessions.”
“None of them had seen a recording studio before or heard their voice recorded even,” Mr. Singh said of his young protégés.
According to Mr. Singh, Mr. Najmi “insisted” he play some of his material for Mr. Suri. Once Mr. Suri heard the young SEVA rappers he knew he wanted to make music with them.
“We recorded a song that night,” Mr. Singh said.
Mr. Suri started working on Nehru Jackets before he became involved with SEVA, but he said “it just made sense to put it all together.”
“I think it works because maybe he sees himself in a lot of the youth I’m producing,” Mr. Singh added. “He’s touched by their energy and their pushing themselves and being artists, because it’s not like the coolest thing to be in South Asian communities. It’s normally, go to school, be a doctor, shut up. You’re rapping, you don’t get props.”