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.”
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.”