Swet Shop Boys
November 8th, 2016
The Bootleg Theater
Los Angeles, CA
Music at its best is a safe space; it is a refuge from personal and global turmoil, an outlet for joy and rage that cannot be fenced in by the disapproval of others, a community that helps us find like-minded individuals across spectrums we wouldn’t normally traverse otherwise. It’s not always so pure and good with its intentions, but it’s a necessary coping tool to have, especially in 2016.
Tuesday night, as we watched in equal parts awe and horror as Donald Trump was elected to the highest office in the land, music proved itself to be the safe space many Americans needed, and Angelenos in particular were lucky to find solace with Swet Shop Boys at the Bootleg Theater.
Comprised of British actor Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), rapper Himanshu Suri (a.k.a. Heems, formerly of Das Racist), and DJ Redinho, Swet Shop Boys are an amalgam of all the characteristics Trump supporters fear—Muslim, Hindu, foreign, and not afraid to tear down Western idols. Islamophobia, racism, police violence, and cultural appropriation are all easy targets for Heems and Riz, rappers who are used to handling heady issues with wry swagger and a hint of comedy.
With the collective attention divided between the jumbo screens in the lobby airing CNN’s live election results and DJ Nina Las Vegas warming up the crowd in the next room over, the schism between reality and escape was as literal as the hallway connecting the two spaces. Walk one way and stare into the apocalyptic future to come, walk another and dance to sped-up remixes of Beyoncé’s “Sorry”; the choice is yours but the outcome stays the same. Faces lit up by iPhone screens compulsively refreshing the New York Times results tracker revealed grim masks of dissociated shock in most and visible disgust in others. Comforted only by the warm embrace of a cold beer and nearby friends, we tried to find a cause for celebration. “Oh look, they legalized weed in California!” some said, barely mustering up enough enthusiasm for a smile.
The outcome of the election was no cause for celebration for at least half of our country, but once Ahmed, Suri, and Redinho took the stage that dim flame of hope was rekindled, even if it was only for a brief moment. Decked in a shirt emblazoned with the word “IMMIGRANT,” Ahmed was a beacon of white-hot anger, delivering rhymes with precision and force. His counterpart Heems is known for taking a more lackadaisical approach, and his at times lolling delivery made for a perfect foil to Ahmed’s unforgiving lyrical attacks. Everything from the current refugee crisis (“Stopping refugees is just silly, blud / Well you know about Aeneas in the Iliad / Fled Turkey and he just founded Rome / What if he had drowned in a boat?”) to President-Elect Trump himself (“Trump want my exit, but if he press a red button / To watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on”) was fair game for verbal evisceration.
Seeing two angry young men use rap as their medium for a message of tolerance on a night when half the country had chosen a xenophobic troll as their leader was profoundly empowering in a way that many of the fellow POC in the audience needed. Just as the multitude of cowardly racists in this country have found Trump to be their messenger, that night a handful of men and women found their voices through the unforgiving anger of Ahmed and Suri. “Don’t get sad, don’t get angry, get active,” Ahmed reminded us, knowing full well that the battle to fight against the American “whitelash” of 2016 is only just beginning.
It’s easy to forget that almost exactly a year ago the world was still reeling from the terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris—an assault on a music venue that made people, especially music lovers, around the globe feel more vulnerable than ever. For a moment last November it was hard to feel safe gathering in public to enjoy music, but Tuesday night brought us back to the bright side of the rainbow: music can be a weapon of mass destruction but it can be just as easily be a cathartic tool to heal wounds.
If this is the America that Trump thinks needs redeeming, then Swet Shop Boys reminded us why we frankly don’t want (or need) to be saved by someone like him. FL