Rappers are more often associated with bling and fancy cars than legislative maps and council resolutions, but one Queens hip hopper is melding his music with one of the city’s most hot button political issues–redistricting.
Himanshu “Heems” Suri, one of the members of the 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 potential consequences the remapping of local political districts that will occur citywide later this year will have in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. Mr. Suri’s mixtape will be accompanied on several songs by young SEVA members who rap and sing in Punjabi.
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. Mr. Najmi introduced Mr. Suri to SEVA co-founder and executive director Gurpal 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” in a bedroom studio.
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.”
“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.
The collaboration made sense musically and 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.
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 January 16 at Villa Russo on 101st Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. He’s also working with the young SEVA artists to release a mixtape of their own later this year. Both albums will be presented by SEVA and Mr. Suri’s own label, Greedhead Records. “Nehru Jackets” will be a free digital download, but the website will feature a link where listeners can contribute to SEVA.
“It will be a free mixtape, I just strongly will suggest a donation for SEVA,” Mr. Suri said.
Mr. Suri plans to devote much of his energy to SEVA and the political situation in his neighborhood during the coming year, but his activism won’t mean the end of his highflying, globetrotting Das Racist career. The band will begin an Australian tour on January 20, four days after the SEVA concert.