In a sense, I’ve known the rapper Nav my entire life. In a stricter, more accurate sense, the two of us have never met. Yet, as someone who grew up just thirty minutes away from NAV’s neighborhood in Toronto, is just one year younger than him, and comes from a similar East-Indian cultural background, I can’t shake the feeling that I know precisely the archetype that he embodies.
Nav is every dude I’ve ever met who has asked a complete stranger for a discount at Best Buy. He is every guy I’ve ever seen get too drunk at a club and then ill-advisedly tried to fight the bouncer. He is every dude I’ve played pickup basketball with who looks far too pleased with himself whenever he hits a wide open jump shot.
Admittedly, none of these roasts are based on anything much more factual than a gut feeling, but after listening to Nav’s music and detecting as much self-awareness as I would expect from a toaster oven, I’m slightly less concerned with the potential inaccuracy of these assessments. Across his two official releases, NAV and Perfect Timing, NAV sketches a picture of himself as an artist who is undergoing an identity crisis, overcompensating wildly in an attempt to misappropriate a culture that he doesn’t belong to. This might be excusable if the music itself was good, but as our managing editor, Brendan Varan, wrote in his review of Perfect Timing, “There is melody, but no charisma whatsoever—every line is delivered in the same emotionless tone and often the same flow. It’s like Siri made a rap album.”
If it sounds like my hate is excessively vitriolic, it’s only because I resent the fact that NAV is now, by default, the world’s most popular (English-speaking) South Asian rapper. Through garnering an online buzz, signing to The Weeknd’s XO record label, and releasing strategic collaborations, Nav has now amassed a casual listenership that has eclipsed that of any other South Asian rapper in the game. Although he doesn’t necessarily make it a point to speak about his South Asian heritage in his music, the platform he’s been awarded unfortunately makes him a de facto ambassador for people of my skin color regardless.
As you can imagine, I’m about as thrilled by this prospect as a resident of Kazakhstan might have been in 2006 if they’d found out that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character would be speaking for them at the United Nations. On some level, I feel towards Nav the way I imagine white hip-hop fans must have felt towards Vanilla Ice in the early 90s. And, just as those fans likely spent all their time jumping up and down, trying to point the attention of the world towards more talented groups, like 3rd Bass, over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to do a similar thing for other South Asian rappers. “SOME OF US HAVE NUANCE,” I’ve continuously yelled at groups of disinterred acquaintances, trying to convince them that there are at least a few South Asian rappers in the zeitgeist who aren’t intent on self-parody.
Luckily, the good people at DJBooth give me a platform to write about such issues, so to save future acquaintances from my righteous ranting, I decided to put together this list of five of the most notable rappers who match this description.
Hometown: Queens, New York
Heems entry into the rap game as a member of the now-defunct rap group Das Racist has been well documented. From 2010 to 2011, the group released three projects, amassing a dedicated following and critical acclaim due to their unique ability to use humor to couch uncomfortable truths about race and identity into the middle of verses that seemed otherwise carefree, and yet intricately crafted. By the time Heems put out his first solo album, Eat Pray Thug, in 2015, he was seemingly much less concerned with couching these sentiments. Drawing from his personal experience as an Indian teenager living in post-9/11 New York, Heems spent a great deal of the album artfully discussing issues of xenophobia and geopolitical affairs from a perspective that had been previously unexplored within hip-hop. Over the years, Heems’ has managed to successfully straddle the difference between these two contrasting personas. It’s something he did well on his two solo mixtapes, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom, and it’s something he’s gotten back to doing more recently with his current group, the Swet Shop Boys. It’s an incredibly tough balance to strike—and he’s not always successful—but when he nails it, there are few rappers who are more compelling to listen to.
Anik Khan (@AnikKhan_)
Hometown: Queens, New York
After immigrating to Queens from Bangladesh at the age of four, Anik Khan had the difficult experience, as many immigrants do, of watching his father’s professional qualifications summarily erased. Despite possessing a Masters degree in literature and being an accomplished public speaker/activist in Bangladesh, in New York, Khan’s father was a cab driver. Khan discussed this in a 2015 interview with Noisey, where he explained how his father’s love of public speaking subconsciously led to his personal desire to rap, while his father’s sacrifices as an immigrant simultaneously shaped the perspective in which he raps from. One of his stated goals as a rapper is to “be the kid who represents the immigrant story,” and this is reinforced heavily throughout his lyrics, but also through the eclectic production he chooses to rap over—which draws influence from countries all across the world. Luckily, Khan possesses a penchant for catchy melody and forceful delivery that allows him to oscillate at will between songs that sound like Travis Scott, and songs that casually interpolate Caribbean soca. Earlier this year, Khan released his latest album, Kites. It was an impressive project that managed to reconcile his various musical styles into a cohesive body of work. Coming off the back of this success, it will be exciting to see where Khan goes from here.
Riz MC (@rizmc)
Hometown: Wembley, London
In between crushing every role he’s cast in, Riz Ahmed moonlights as Riz MC, Heems’ collaborator in the aforementioned Swet Shop Boys. As a Muslim with cultural roots in Pakistan, Riz is uniquely positioned within rap to speak on issues like Islamophobia in the Western world, but also to offer nuanced commentary on the fringe extremism in the Eastern world that is both stoked by this Islamophobia and counterproductively perpetuates it further. It’s a topic he explores in the song “Zayn Malik,” rapping: “I pray for my nephew, I pray you're not antagonized / by all the hating and news and the shit they sanitize.” Such heady lyricism is countervailed by crafty wordplay and a clever sense of humor that simultaneously creates replay value and allows listeners to digest some of the more complex themes he discusses. On a somewhat related note, for those of us with a soft spot for early 2000s British rap, Riz MC’s rap style is also a nice throwback to an earlier era.
Hometown: Hounslow, London
If I’m being completely forthright here, I can’t honestly claim that I always understand exactly what statement M.I.A. is trying to make in her music. I can’t even truthfully say that I like every song she releases. But, if we’re grading art on its ambition—which seems to be the accepted scale used by critics—M.I.A. passes with flying colors for constantly pushing her music into experimental sonic territory, and her continuous attempts to embed calls for revolutionary protest into loud, high-pitched dance music. After having grown up in a household where her father worked as an activist for the Tamil independence movement, it’s only natural that her music would eventually embody many of these same sensibilities. Naturally, the parts of her catalogue that I enjoy the most are the songs where I think her sonic experimentation has paid dividends. I’m often struck by M.I.A.’s ability to infuse her lyrics with a subtlety that is not always present across other message-driven rap. Rather than beat listeners over the head with heavy-handed sentiments, there’s an avant-garde quality to M.I.A.’s lyrics that can often have the effect of making her messages hit harder. Putting all of this to the side, there was also the time M.I.A. performed “Paper Planes” and “Swagger Like Us” at the GRAMMYs, while 9 months pregnant, standing alongside JAY-Z, T.I., Kanye West, and Lil’ Wayne. Say whatever you will about NAV, but nothing he ever does will be nearly as hip-hop as that shit.
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Of all the rappers on this list, Lushlife—who was born in New Jersey after his parents emigrated from Bengal—is the closest inclusion to a traditional rapper’s rapper. After gaining minor prominence as a producer after releasing a Kanye West and Beach Boys mashup he made called West Sounds, Lushlife put out his first project as a rapper in 2009, entitled Cassette City. In the years since his debut, Lushlife has continued to hone his craft, and over the years, he’s accumulated an impressive roster of songs featuring other amazing rappers, like Killer Mike, Elzhi, and Styles P. Lushlife’s South Asian identity doesn’t particularly factor heavily into his music, but after listening to his music and realizing that he can spit bars right alongside the best of them, it won’t necessarily matter because you won’t really be thinking about his identity regardless.