As the session wore on, Mr. Suri continued to write his lines on a loose-leaf pad in his tall, tight handwriting, Mr. Singh standing in front of his computer making minor adjustments to the track. Once Mr. Suri finished writing, he got behind the microphone. As he prepared to record his verse, the Wesleyan-educated Mr. Suri asked Lovedeep and Jaspreet how they were doing in school. One of the young rappers confessed to sometimes skipping school.
“You’ve got to stop cutting class. Rap shouldn’t be everything you do. I go all over the world, but I don’t make money. My cousin’s a pharmacist, they make money. If it gets popular, then you should give it more thought, but that shouldn’t be all you do, because once it gets big, that’s work.”
After the career advice, Mr. Suri got down to business. He had to leave immediately after recording to get to another studio in Dumbo, where he’s working on more solo material. Mr. Suri’s lines were inflected with Punjabi and Caribbean patois, but somehow still evoked old-school, East Coast hip-hop. He said the mix of global influences and classic rap is a sound reminiscent of his youth in Queens.
“This is a record where, doing it myself and not in Das Racist, I talk more about myself and my experiences being an Indian kid from Queens, and even before I met SEVA that’s in large part what the record was about,” Mr. Suri said. “I also had the record incorporate—in large part the sound is ’90s rap and Indian samples, so even before I met SEVA, you know, it was an album that was in large part about being brown and from Queens.”
The collaboration makes sense musically, but it also makes sense for SEVA’s political goals.
“Redistricting in New York is such an uphill battle for communities that are basically on the outside of the political establishment, so we needed something to raise awareness about the issue and that something is his celebrity status,” Mr. Najmi said of Mr. Suri. “The idea that we could release a mixtape that was attached to a redistricting campaign was just perfect to me.”
Currently, the neighborhoods of Richmond Hill, Bellerose and Floral Park are all subdivided into multiple legislative districts. SEVA wants to see each neighborhood get its own unified district when the new lines are drawn.
“Growing up I didn’t know much about local politics,” Mr. Suri said. “I understood about gerrymandering, but I always understood it in the national context. I always thought about it as related to the Electoral College, in terms of larger elections. But I didn’t fully understand how it worked in my community, and that it affected my people to such an extent.”
Though SEVA is heavily invested in the battle over redistricting in Queens, the group also has plans to develop a community center in the area that will have a recording studio for local youth. That cause is also close to Mr. Suri’s heart.
“There wasn’t something like that in my neighborhood growing up and if there was what SEVA plans to do—a community center that has a recording studio in it—I wouldn’t be the only Indian kid rapping from Queens. There would be many more,” Mr. Suri said.
To that end, Mr. Suri, who recently became a SEVA board member, will debut his mixtape and give his first solo concert at an event hosted by SEVA on Jan. 16 at Villa Russo on 101st Avenue in Richmond Hill. He’s also working with the young SEVA artists to release a mixtape of their own later this year.
In Das Racist, Mr. Suri and his bandmates earned a reputation for peppering their lyrics with cultural references and wry political commentary. While Mr. Suri said Nehru Jackets won’t feature lyrics that directly address the redistricting issue, the subsequent SEVA mixtape will be more overtly political.
“One of the things I think that will be different in the SEVA mixtape than in my mixtape is how straightforward the commentary is,” Mr. Suri said. “So, like, obviously in the music I’ve put out in Das Racist, it won’t be something as direct as me talking about redistricting in a straightforward fashion. I am talking about race, I’m talking in a large part about growing up in Queens and, more than in other Das Racist stuff, I’m talking about being an Indian kid in Queens,” said Mr. Suri.
Mr. Singh, hewing more closely to the issue at hand, turned around and pointed out his window. “You see that house across the street? That’s a different state senate district, the line goes right across the street,” Mr. Singh said. “I’m in the fucking street that’s gerrymandered, I’m on it. This is Richmond Hill and it’s gerrymandered.”