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Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri: Rapper, Jokester, Community Organizer?

The Queens native seeks to serve the borough's working-class immigrant community.

Nehru Jackets by Himanshu Suri of Das Racist
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 Queens native Himanshu Suri is getting reacquainted with his borough. Suri, better known as Heems of the globetrotting race-politics-and-silliness rap outfit  Das Racist, has joined the board of  SEVA NY, a community organization serving the Richmond Hill area’s working-class immigrant community. And while Suri is no stranger to confrontation, having served the last few years as indie music’s smirking racial conscience, the new job title means a new kind of work.

“If you’re on SEVA’s board, that means you’re a community organizer now, and you do the work,” says Gurpal Singh, SEVA’s cofounder and a former ACORN organizer, speaking by phone on Thursday. And right now, that work is a years-long redistricting battle, an uphill fight against a legacy of backroom deals that have cut Richmond Hill into powerless pieces.

“Forty seven perfect of Queens is immigrants, but almost no elected official is an immigrant, and that’s because of the gerrymandering,” says Singh. “Immigrants are the most disenfranchised group in the state, and Richmond Hill is the most gerrymandered neighborhood in the state — we belong to seven different assembly districts, two state senate districts, and three city council districts. And when a constituency is gerrymandered, nobody’s advocating for them.” The results are plain; as an example, Singh says Richmond Hill’s high school’s graduation rate hovers at 50 percent, with 600 percent overcrowding. SEVA’s solution to the root problem is to present an unignorable united front, so that elected officials see that supporting gerrymandering will be bad for their careers.

What does this mean for new recruit Suri? For starters, he’s releasing his first solo mixtape,  Nehru Jackets,through SEVA’s website (click through to download). The mixtape, which features verses in Punjabi from some of SEVA’s young members, launched with  Heems’ first-ever solo performance, at SEVA’s Art For Justice Community Mehfil last night.

The event also served as a coming-out party. While Heems is famous in the (predominantly white) indie music scene for being a politically astute Indian dude from Queens — and rightly so, as seen in his Alternet op-ed on the ten-year anniversary of  Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder — he’s all but unknown to this political organization for Indian people in Queens. That disconnect, perhaps, is part of what’s drawn him here. “This event is reversed from the usual. It’s more about us introducing Himanshu as a new board member,” says Singh, speaking before the show. “He doesn’t know this yet, but we’ll be playing a video we made about him and his life — oh, he heard me and he’s giving me the worst ‘shut-up-man’ look right now. I’m going to delete it right afterwards.”

And while Singh doesn’t sound too concerned about getting his community organization on the hip music blogs — “talk to us in 2014 and we’ll see how it helps,” he says — Suri is preparing  a new mixtape with an all-SEVA lineup through his own trendsetting record label, Greedhead, dovetailing with SEVA’s programs providing creative outlets for their youth. If the contributions of members Pawan and Lovedeep to  Nehru Jackets are any indication, the Richmond Hill gang will be taking over the music blogs and the town hall meetings in a year’s time.

Colorlines interviewed Suri by email on Wednesday about his new role, and his thoughts on the South Asian identity in politics and in pop culture.

Most rappers don’t get involved in redistricting battles, but you’re not most rappers. What brought you to SEVA and this fight? And do you see this board membership as a natural progression of your career so far, or are you a little surprised to see yourself here?

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