Over the years, political issues have slowly started to creep toward the center of Himanshu Suri’s art. In 2012, with the release of his first solo mixtape, Nehru Jackets, Suri advocated for the redistricting of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park, claiming that gerrymandering had led to the “demise” and “decay” of public services near his old neighborhood in Queens. Earlier this year, after dropping the album Eat Pray Thug to much critical acclaim, Suri lobbied to put a taxi stand in front of Punjab Deli, a popular hangout for cab drivers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The deli had seen its business decline sharply after construction work blocked drivers from parking in front of the store.
Even Das Racist — the absurdist, avant-garde hip-hop trio he founded with rapper Kool A.D. and hypeman Dapwell in 2008 — was a political project, according to Suri, at times dealing with issues of race, identity, and the South Asian diaspora before its disbandment three years ago.
Now, as Suri continues his foray into the political sphere, he will attempt to help his childhood friend Ali Najmi obtain a City Council seat in New York’s diverse 23rd district, a section of Eastern Queens encompassing neighborhoods like Floral Park, Glen Oaks, and Bellerose, where the two grew up.
“I love putting out party music or inspiring young South Asians, but since I was able to turn Nehru Jackets into actual redistricting, and we were able to use Eat Pray Thug to actually get a taxi stand on the Lower East Side, I’ve just grown fond of using what I have, and using what Ali has, in an effort to [enact actual change],” says Suri, who continues to perform and release music under the moniker Heems. “Rap music is inherently political. You’re talking about your community, you’re talking about your people, and you’re talking about often what happens in a community where access to resources aren’t granted.”
In recent weeks, Suri has promoted Najmi’s campaign on social media and assisted with fundraising events, but today he’s decided to roll up his sleeves, joining the candidate as he canvasses pockets of Bellerose and Floral Park door to door. Dressed in a well-tailored black button-down, matching jogging pants, and an entanglement of thin, gold chains, he waits politely behind a pair of dark sunglasses for Najmi to ring each bell.
“Hi, Uncle, I’m Ali. This is my friend Himanshu,” Najmi says. “Are you a voter?”
In this section of Queens — heavily populated by South Asian families, many of which have immigrated from India — everyone is either uncle or auntie, regardless of whether Najmi and Suri have met them before. It’s a tight-knit community, an ethnic enclave, and should Najmi win the race this fall, he will become the first elected official of South Asian descent in the history of New York City. The district’s seat became vacant this June after Councilman Mark Weprin resigned to take a position in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
“South Asians are a large group, are often middle-class, and for the amount we pay in taxes, we’re not very active in politics,” Suri admits. “For him to be the first South Asian elected official in New York, and it to be 2015, it’s already long overdue.”
Najmi — a 30-year-old defense attorney who previously served as Weprin’s legislative director and recently nabbed an endorsement from 2014 gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout — is hoping his résumé and strong ties to the community will help him win what is expected to be a crowded Democratic primary in September. And in this community, being a South Asian kid from the neighborhood does indeed go a long way. After knocking on one door, an old man stopped Najmi and Suri halfway through their spiel, explaining that it wasn’t necessary. “Apo tho hamara banda hay,” he said in Hindi, echoing a common sentiment in the community. “You’re one of ours.”
Even though Najmi is a practicing Muslim and many of the area’s residents are Hindu — two cultures that have historically been in bitter conflict with each other — he believes his candidacy transcends racial, ethnic, and religious lines.
“That dude is like an 80-year-old Hindu man, and basically he was like, ‘We’re with you, just stop,’ ” says Najmi, whose campaign headquarters are currently located in the basement of a nearby Korean church. “I’m not running as a South Asian candidate. I’m not running as a Muslim candidate. I’m running as a progressive candidate that’s bringing together and uniting this community.”
Though Najmi and Suri are both invested in national issues (police and criminal justice reform, for one), together they hope to address the hyper-local concerns of Eastern Queens’ immigrant community. The benchmark platform of Najmi’s campaign so far has been senior centers, specifically the lack of services available for elderly citizens who speak languages like Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. He also hopes to make Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, a school holiday in New York, having helped win a similar fight for the Muslim holy days of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha earlier this year. He remains a champion for the city’s taxi drivers, almost half of whom are from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.
“When you talk about what it means to be the first South Asian elected official, it’s not just pure identity politics and pandering,” Najmi says. “There are real issues.”
While the two have been friends for years — playing football and basketball in the parks around this neighborhoods as kids — the issues are ultimately what motivated them to forge an unlikely alliance as adults. After graduating from high school, Suri and Najmi left Queens for Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Oberlin College in Ohio, earning top-tier liberal arts educations and a fresh perspective on the problems facing their community back home.
“After going to schools like Oberlin and Wesleyan, where we were kind of trained and realized what we deserve, what our community deserves, what our people deserve, we would come back with this excitement about applying that knowledge to our community,” explains Suri, who now resides in Hicksville, Long Island, with his parents. “Whether it was politics or art or whatever avenue it was, we knew that we wanted to help out in our community, and we knew that our interests lied in our community, and that we were proud to be from Queens.”
Hometown pride and politically charged lyrics aren’t exactly revolutionary concepts in hip-hop in 2015. But while many rappers talk the talk today — placing a topical reference in a verse here or there, or performing at the occasional rally or benefit — Heems believes he has a proven track record of spreading real political awareness and promoting grassroots organizing in New York City.
“I’ve lectured at Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, so I’m also not the typical rapper,” he says. “Yeah, I’m playing with Snoop Dogg and Wale and Tech N9ne tomorrow, but at the same time, I mean, today I’m knocking on doors handing flyers out. I’m actually more involved in community organizing. I’m involved in local politics, like banging on doors and going to community board meetings.”
The hope is that by getting Najmi elected to City Council, Heems can help turn community organizing and rap songs into actual public policy and progress. After years of small victories, the time to take that next step is now.
“Ali offers something refreshing in that he’s a voice for what actual young South Asian people are thinking,” Suri says. “Having spent the last ten years of our lives educating ourselves on what it takes to enact actual change, I think the time is right.”