Das Racist’s appearance at the May Day rally in Union Square earlier this year poses an interesting question regarding protest music. The hip hop triad is admired more for its “multicultural cool” than for any particular, discernible philosophy. They are not Rage Against the Machine. Yet the outfit has formed a resonant (if unfocused) voice, which the Occupy appearance compels us to investigate.
On the surface Das Racist embodies a fatalistic disposition unconcerned with any vision or direction. That is not to say that they are without substance. At the top of their track “Rooftop”, MC Himanshu “Heems” Suri spits, “Das Racist as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics, bogus philosophies.” Their über-referential rhymes reflect the subversiveness that is natural to hip hop, and their “deconstitutionalist” approach has a vague semblance of cosmopolitanism, wrapped within completely matter-of-fact lyrics. Their political vein is of a different persuasion than, say, the overt anti-capitalism of Bruce Springsteen or Jefferson Airplane. Instead Das Racist represents an answer to today’s twenty-something existential crisis.
To the youthful audiences Das Racist provide, in an otherwise bleak and staid rap scene, some respite of humor. They clown around. They poke fun at this and that. They are incessantly and trenchantly satirical; nothing is beyond egging. They act the part of the Shakespearean fool. Today’s economic reality is so maddening that all one can do is laugh, and Das Racist just tells the joke. Like the archetypal character, they hint that they know more than they let on. The chorus on the track “hahahaha jk?“ off Sit Down, Man perhaps expresses this paradox best, “We’re not joking / Just joking / We are joking / Just joking / We’re not joking…”
The group’s aforementioned “multicultural cool” allows them to, as one reviewer put it, ”weave between worlds and genres.“ Heems and Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabolu are from Queens and share a common Indian heritage; Viktor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) is from San Francisco and is of Afro-Cuban and Italian descent (in an interview with the New York Times, he once said “I don’t know if I’m neither or both.”). Das Racist embodies the complexity of today’s America, a country whose problems are too nuanced to encapsulate in a single, sustained philosophy.
They also belong to the Millennials generation, which has been variously characterized as wayward and coined “The Go-Nowhere generation” or “Generation Y Bother.” Today twenty-somethings, who have been told their entire lives that they can dream and aim for the stars, suddenly find that reality has turned less auspicious.
Das Racist is a uniquely appropriate voice of the Occupy mentality because, like the fool, their ridicule is their protest. Vasquez admits in “You Oughta Know” that “you can call me Malcolm-esque.” You could also call them Dada-esque. Das Racist’s irreverence is unapologetic and relentless, but it is also self-aware and self-reflective. If our current economic reality were not the absurdist theater that is it today, Das Racist may not be so compelling. They embody a “joke rap” that simultaneously challenges the genre’s traditional boundaries while accepting complicity. They may not incorporate a focused, comprehensive protest of anything in particular, but Das Racist’s satire enlightens the maddening reality that Occupy seeks to confront.