BY LUIS GRONDA
Himanshu Suri, better known to music fans as Heems, was heavily influenced by his upbringing in Queens. Multiple songs reference the Borough and the cover to his new album “Eat Pray Thug” shows part of the Queens Subway map. Heems used to be a member of the popular rap trio Das Racist, but now has gone solo with the release of his first full-length solo album last month. The Queens Tribune sat down with Heems in his Long Island home to discuss growing up in Queens, the new album and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Queens Tribune: Explain your Queens background; you were born in Flushing, right?
Heems: I was born at LaGuardia hospital, but the rest of my family was almost all born in Booth Memorial [hospital], which is now Flushing. We spent our first couple of years in Flushing and then we moved to Glen Oaks. But we always went back to Flushing, my grandmother lived there until recently. Even when we lived in Glen Oaks/Bellerose, [it] felt like every weekend we went back to Flushing, because our temple was there, my grandmother was there and other relatives were there. Flushing was definitely a big part of my Queens upbringing, but more of my earlier memories were associated with Glen Oaks.
QT: What are some of your memories from Glen Oaks?
Heems: I was raised in Glen Oaks and Bellerose. I went to school in Douglaston though, because my zoned school was [MS] 172 but [MS] 67 in Douglaston was a better school. A lot of my upbringing was in eastern Queens, but I was going to high school in downtown Manhattan. A lot of my New York stories are half suburban and half very urban. Which is what I love about Queens. If it was just one type of place, I think it would get stale. Not only culturally but even geographically it’s a very diverse borough. I’m happy for places like Bellerose and Glen Oaks that are kind of out there in the suburbs but that are still Queens.
QT: What are some places/neighborhoods in Queens that you went to a lot growing up and today?
Heems: There was a pizza party video game place called Our Place II. It was this pizza party/arcade place that when you were a kid, you would go to a lot of birthday parties there. It’s closed now, but I just have very fond memories of it.
QT: How much has Queens influenced your music?
Heems: I always felt like an outsider to the American experience, but because I’m from Queens, I also felt like an outsider to the New York experience. It’s like being in India and looking at America, but also being in Queens and looking at Manhattan. As a writer or an artist, having this perspective as an outsider is important to my work and because I’m from Queens, it’s magnified.
QT: How much do you think Queens has changed compared to when you were growing up?
Heems: I think it’s changed a lot. Parts of me worry sometimes that Queens will be gentrified the same way Brooklyn has been. In a certain way, I feel like the Indian community gentrified Bellerose, Glen Oaks and those areas, but I feel like I’m biased in my gentrification.
QT: You’re still a member of SEVA NY, correct? (SEVA NY is a nonprofit organization focusing on the empowerment of New York City’s immigrant communities)
Heems: A little bit, but not as much as I was in the past. One campaign that I’m working on, it’s not with SEVA, but with my friend Ali [Najmi], who did some work with SEVA, is for the Punjabi Deli in Manhattan. Basically, because of construction, cab drivers can’t park there without getting a ticket. That has driven sales down really low and the deli might have to go out of business. We’re working with them to get a taxi stand placed in front of the Deli. Next week, we’re meeting with the Manhattan Borough President [Gale Brewer].
QT: Are you looking to be more active in the community and politically?
Heems: Yes. I have a platform. If my music gets me in publications like the New York Times and the Village Voice, I feel like it’s a responsibility to be some kind of a voice for my community in a way that can be helpful. Otherwise, I’m just putting my community into the music but the community is not reaping any of the benefits. If I’m going to rap about being from Queens, I should be trying to help Queens in any way that I can.
QT: Let’s move onto your new album, how would you explain what kind of record this is?
Heems: I previously referred to it as “9/11 and heartbreak” like Kanye’s [West] “808 and heartbreak” but instead of the 808 drum machine, it’s 9/11. It’s a record not just on romantic heartbreak, but sociopolitical heartbreak as well. It’s very much a record about New York. It’s also not held down by a genre, though a lot of it is rap.”
QT: You do explore some more serious subjects on this album compared to your past work, particularly in the song “Flag Shopping.” Was that song based on personal experiences you’ve had?
Heems: Yes, of course. After 9/11, we went to the store, bought a flag and put it on our window and car, so that way our neighbors would know that we were in solidarity with them. We shouldn’t have to do that. It should be clear that we’re Americans and we are your neighbors. You’ve known us for years, nothing has changed, yet things did change and people began to look at us different, so that’s what that song is about.”
QT: Were you called names a lot during that time?
Heems: A lot? No. Was I called names here and there? Maybe. Was I around people who were called names? Yes. It’s not just about me personally, it’s about my community. I take the pain of my own community and make it my own. That very day, I tell the story of I was with a young Muslim girl wearing a hijab and some dude in his 30s started yelling at us “go back where you came from.” Her being like 15 and he being around 35, I’ve never seen an adult act like that to a child. It was quite eye opening.
QT: What did you do when that man was yelling at your friend?
Heems: We all basically physically threatened him until he stopped. This is when we were all 15 years old. We were basically about to get into a fight on 9/11 with this construction worker, but we just kept on going on our way.
QT: Any touring plans on the horizon for this year?
Heems: Plans are to tour the U.S., Europe and Asia in the next year. We’re putting together a U.S. tour for the summer, Europe for the Fall and Asia for the Winter.