Swet Shop Boys Talk New Album, Zayn Malik and 'Random' Airport Searches

Swet Shop Boys Himanshu Suri, left, and Riz Ahmed, right. Swet Shop Boys

Updated | "Different kinds of surreal things" have happened to Riz Ahmed, the star of HBO's The Night Of, who raps under the name Riz MC, at the airport. Every time he's tried to fly to the U.S. for the past 16 years, he's been stopped.

For a while, he was patted down by the same elderly Sikh man, whom he started calling "uncle." The man called Ahmed "beta," or son. In another incident, which went viral on Tumblr, Ahmed was one of three men with that surname called for additional searching at a U.S. airport. They took a selfie together and joked that they should start a boy band, the Ahmeds.

"The first track would be 'Randomly Searching for You,'" he joked. "I find it really ironic that now we have a boy band and our first track is about being randomly searched. I think it's perfect and tragic-comedy."

Ahmed, who is British-Pakistani and based in the U.K., sat in an apartment in New York City's East Village with his bandmates Himanshu Suri and producer Redinho on a humid August morning. Together they form Swet Shop Boys, a combination rap group–boy band tackling trans-Atlantic politics and identity in the age of Donald Trump, Brexit and racial profiling, all while trying to raise the visibility of South Asians in Western popular culture.

"T5," the first single from their new album, Cashmere, refers to Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport and draws on the experience of flying with brown skin and the last name Ahmed. Lyrics include: "Oh no, we're in trouble/TSA always wanna burst my bubble/Always get a random check when I rock the stubble." The song has been listened to more than 31,000 times on SoundCloud since it was released on August 2.

Ahmed and Himanshu—who is Indian-American and, as Heems, was half of rap group Das Racist—previously released an EP as Swet Shop Boys. On Cashmere, true to form, they're "subverting and translating the textures that you'd get on a mixtape, [where] you'd get bomb drops and sirens," says Ahmed. "Instead we've got tigers [and] airport bomb-sniffer dogs snarling."

So why was now the best time to release an album? "I know from the outside the release of this album is coinciding with lots of world events that resonate with the album's themes, or coinciding with this TV show that I did years ago that people are responding well to," says Ahmed. "Really, the reason why we've done it now is the vagaries of getting all our schedules together."

Cashmere was recorded over one week in May, when the idea of the U.K. voting to leave the European Union and Donald Trump becoming the Republican presidential nominee were possible, but still distant, realities. They wanted to release the album on August 14, which marks Pakistan Independence Day and its separation from India, but needed the artwork to be right and missed the deadline.

Ahmed and Himanshu aren't strangers to rapping about social issues and have been including politically charged themes in their music for a long time. In "T5," Ahmed raps, "Stopping refugees is just silly, blood"—the U.S. and U.K. have taken a fraction of the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees currently displaced around the world—while Heems's song "Flag Shopping," from his 2015 album, Eat, Pray, Thug, includes the lyrics "The neighbors threw rocks at the house/They're making it harder to live.

"Rap is inherently protest music, it just doesn't usually come from South Asians or Pakistanis or Indians. The tools are all within the genre. It's a genre that lends itself well to politics, whether it's firsthand accounts of the prison-industrial complex or whether it's observing and being more analytical about the situation," says Suri. "It's all there and it's always been there, it's just voices like ours haven't really been given attention to speak like this before."

Cashmere features a track called "Zayn," referring to Zayn Malik, who rose to fame as a member of the British boy band One Direction. Malik is one of the most-recognized people of South Asian heritage in Western popular culture, and is someone who "seems to be in touch and wanting to be in touch with his background more," says Suri. Malik has a song in Urdu on his solo album.

It's a tongue-in-cheek track and explores the idea that Malik is an aspirational counter-narrative to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

"Where's our visibility? It is [London mayor] Sadiq Khan, it is Zayn Malik, it is Dev Patel," he says. "Visibility is an important part of setting aspirations. Kids out there who see Zayn or hear 'Terminal 5' could go, 'Oh shit, I can do this.'"

Ahmed, for one, is about to become even more visible, with roles in the new Jason Bourne film and the upcoming Star Wars anthology movie Rogue One. Yet despite his rising-star status—airport workers who pat him down to check for explosives are now starting to recognize him, he says—"you still look like how you look." Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan earlier this week tweeted about being detained by U.S. immigration officials "every damn time" he visits the U.S. His experience prompted a reply from Rich Verma, the U.S. ambassador to India, who said, "We are working to ensure it doesn't happen again."

"It's easy to dehumanize a segment if they're not visible. It's a conscious thing to make them invisible and create walls and barriers. With visibility comes understanding and humanization, then change," says Suri. "It's an important part, and for me, it's why I like to make music and why we make projects like this."

Cashmere will be released on October 14 on Customs, the new Swet Shop Boys imprint.