In a talk titled, “The Policing of Brown Bodies Post 9/11,” Himanshu Suri—aka Heems, South Asian-American rapper and Das Racist co-founder—spoke on solidarity at London’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). The talk, which was hosted by the university’s student organization Decolonizing Our Minds Society, asked: what are the valences between the policing of black bodies and of brown ones?
It’s a question he finds as interesting as it is Janus-faced. There are real differences between the lived experiences of black and brown bodies in both America and the UK, Suri noted, citing numbers, different routes of immigration (slave ships for black bodies, airplanes to well-paid professional jobs for brown bodies like his), exposure to state violence (police brutalize black bodies, while the TSA intimidates brown ones), and rates of incarceration (higher for black than for brown bodies, though both groups are locked up at a rate far higher than white bodies). Those differences, however, are often small in comparison to the differences between majority and minority experiences. “Black Americans killed by police are twice as likely to be unarmed as white people,” he said, and brown Americans find their difference met with violence on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Indians don’t, and never will, have it as hard as African-Americans, and even Latinos in America;” but, Suri thinks, our contemporary moment demands solidarity between oppressed peoples. Solidarity opens difficult questions. To stand in solidarity with another is to take the problems of another seriously even when they are not your own. Doing so requires paying close attention to the minutiae of someone else’s life; for that reason, solidarity does not come naturally. Suri closed his talk with an anecdote taken from A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, a book by his friend Amitava Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He began by noting that “This is about a man that was prosecuted for terrorism”:
But he was working towards his GED, the test that would certify that he had high school-level academic skills. He had added, ‘I just reading books many kind. I am learning science of insects and biology book basic of becoming doctor these kind of books have a lot of knowledge. I am trying my best to stay strong against stress. Mom, I miss you a lot. I miss your food a lot.’ This letter, touching on dreams and ambition, had cheered Parveen, the mother, especially because just a couple of months earlier, her son had complained that he had not been given the medication that a visiting psychologist had said he needed for anxiety and depression. (“And this is when I started crying, when it was spelled “anzaity” and “depration.”) And then, in another letter written to his lawyer, just one day later, a copy of which had been mailed to his mother, he spoke happily of how he had celebrated his sister’s birthday in prison.
The “conversation,” as Suri’s talk was billed, immediately grappled with the issues he had raised as his audience questioned his use of a racial slur for black bodies in his songs. “Your whole talk was about solidarity,” noted one woman. “It was about you being there for me, me being there for you, recognizing the differences and how we’re played off against each other. And at the drop of a hat, with that word, what you do is you show me the difference. You show me how the cards are stacked, when you can choose to be down, and when you can choose to be not… If it’s about us constantly having to remind ourselves that we need to be together to fight this, that word needs to come out of your lexicon.” For his part, showing the power of solidarity, Suri agreed with his critics. He apologized for “appropriating an artform,” but added, jokingly: “but I don’t know what to do, because I’m good at rapping.”
Black and brown bodies are policed differently. They are both over-policed. Listening to the numbers cited on June 5 and the stories that they tell, as we listen to Heems’ “post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap” (as he called Eat Pray Thug, his most recent album, in an interview with Grantland) and to each other, illustrates the many conversations opened and interventions made possible by taking someone else’s problems seriously.
You can stream Heem’s video for “Damn Girl,” filmed in his art exhibition hosted by the Aicorn Gallery in February, below. The full text of his interview can be found here.