Himanshu Kumar Suri (or Heems) is a busy dude. In the last year he toured the world, released his critically acclaimed album Eat Pray Thug, wrote the score for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, locked down a TV deal with Fox, and took up cooking in his spare time. This year he plans to spearhead an acting career that he hopes will change the perception of South Asian people in U.S. popular culture. The 30-year-old Queens resident broke away from his former comedy group Das Racist, a creative emancipation that gave way to a raw, and much more personal expression of his artistic perspective.
His work grapples with the experience of being a South Asian citizen in America. Identity, belonging, family, and the definition of success and happiness are themes that blend out from his music into other pursuits. His TV show, repping the same name as his album, is a collaborative endeavor with Fresh Off The Boat producer Sanjay Shah that will be loosely based around his upbringing in New York. They just received a script commitment at Fox. Concurrently, Suri also curated an art exhibit at the Aicon Gallery in support of Eat Pray Thug, and starred in his first film Creative Control. We sat down with Heems to talk about the new opportunities that have opened up after Eat Pray Thug, and if we’ll get to see another album from him in the future.
First off, congratulations on the Eat Pray Thug television show getting picked up for a script commitment. How did that deal happen?
Me and my production partner Sanjay Shah shopped the idea around about a story based on my album Eat Pray Thug. I had to choose a production studio, and I decided on 20th Century Fox because they were already working with Sanjay on Fresh Off The Boat. We were a little hesitant because when you work with network you end up giving up a lot of creative freedom, but since they were already working with Sanjay they had enough trust with him and we decided it was a great fit.
Why did you team up with Sanjay?
Sanjay’s been doing this for a while and he’s never been pigeonholed as “the Indian guy.” It was a very conscious effort, [similar to when] I did Das Racist as a very American project. Heems became a “post 9/11” project, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Sanjay was listening to “Sometimes” and he picked up a line in the song where I talked about living with my parents.
Is that where the idea came from?
You want to know what’s funny? The real reason the show came about is because Brooklyn Vegan wrote a super tabloid-ish, cheap, low-blow headline that said, “Heems moved back in with his parents on Long Island.” I have no idea how that’s news. In American culture, to live with your parents is looked down upon, and that’s something that upset Sanjay and I. We believe in being there for our parents, and this blog just ran a TMZ headline on it. So in response, we wanted to make a television show that’s representative on the lives of many ethnic Americans. Not just Chinese or Indian or Pakistani, but even if you’re Jewish you could live with your parents.
Did you get a lot of questions about it after the post went live?
As we were talking to the network, they were like “Why? What happened?” and we were like “Nothing happened, I just wanted to live with my parents, and spend more time with my family.” I feel like there’s this American habit of moving out when you’re 18 and running away. I felt like I did so much of that as a teenager that I grew out of that phase.
Do you feel like the show will open up a thoughtful dialogue on issues that deal with Indian Americans?
Yes, and that’s why I worked with Sanjay on it. It’s not often in the community that we get opportunities like this. The last time we had a show like this [was] with a majority Indian cast called Outsourced (which lasted for one season on NBC in 2010). When I was talking to Sanjay about this, we realized that we only get an opportunity like this every 10 to 15 years.
Do you feel pressure to get the tone and the characterization just right?
It’s an immense amount of pressure. This year I took on the responsibility of talking about 9/11 with my album as a platform that nobody has really done. Especially somebody that isn’t Muslim. I’ve gotten used to talking about these things and taking on this responsibility and it is a burden, but if somebody’s going to do it then I want it to be me. It’s something I’ve lived, it’s something that I’ve studied academically, and it’s something I find inspiration from creatively. It’s not going to be exactly my life, but I understand where my role is as a consultant.
Do you feel like writing and consulting for the television medium, particularly comedy, is something that will come easily to you?
Whether I’m writing, or rapping, or writing a novel, essentially I’m a storyteller and this is just another medium. You have to remember “Pizza Hut Taco Bell” was comedy, and even the video for “Sometimes” with Hannibal Burress and Eric Andre. I wrote that whole narrative, like reverse fetishization of darker skin, and insecurity in interracial relationships. Comedy is something that I’ve always been interested in, but I still realize that it’s something that Sanjay is much more familiar with. You could make a couple of jokes but that doesn’t mean you can run a whole show like he did with Fresh Off The Boat, or Cougar Town, or King Of The Hill.
How does the relationship with you and Sanjay work creatively?
As much as I’m a control freak when it comes to music, I’m really letting him run with it. I don’t feel any worries about that because I have a lot of faith in [Sanjay]. I don’t really have faith in a lot of people in the music or entertainment industry, but he’s done enough.
What’s been the biggest challenge in taking control of your own endeavors such as music or television?
The pressure from the community. I feel more pressure from the community to get it right. I’m like dude I’m not going to set us back 20 years, my main focus is to have a show that represents South Asians and not stoop to Apu jokes.
Do you feel like the possibility of pushback from the community would be significant enough to take the risk?
The funny thing is, if there was going to be a pushback, I’m one of the leading critics of all things South Asian anyway so if there was any criticism it would come from me. If I could think of, coming from Das Racist, what a perfect job would be—it would be identifying things that are offensive and racist. So at least I’d be able to look over my own script every week. I’m a consultant, a producer, and it’s based on my own story. We have a long way to go. We have to get them to approve the script, and then approve to put it on the air.
Do you see yourself doing more on-screen or behind-the-scenes work in the entertainment industry?
Yes. My film Creative Control, which I’m acting in, just got picked up by Amazon Studios, so in 2016 my big acting debut will happen. What we’re doing with the TV show, in addition to it being based on my life, I could also supervise the music in it, which would be a dream come true and something I could see myself having a future in.
What’s the most important part of your South Asian culture that you want to capture in your music and entertainment projects?
The humanization of the so-called “other,” and the de-otherization of South Asians by increased visibility in pop culture. Whether it’s [Aziz Anzari] or [Mindy Kaling], I just want people to see that we’re just like you. We aren’t trying to be better than you or worse, I just want to get us on TV in a way that Black-Ish did. I love that show, it raises issues about parenting children of color. There’s so much that you can explore with shows that deal with family.
Are you done making solo albums?
Hell no, I’m looking for the right deal. As far as music goes, I’m coming out of a pretty bad relationship, whether it’s Das Racist, or Megaforce Records, or the relationship that a lot of Eat Pray Thug was about. Thank God I was able to make this record because it was extremely therapeutic. I can put a lot of these experiences behind me and make a happy record about the great things that are happening to me now.