Heems Highlights India's Skin Lightening Obsession

Himanshu Suri, better known as Heems, has come a long way from the days of rapping about the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell on Jamaica Avenue with Das Racist. After releasing two mixtapes on his own label Greedhead Music, Suri released his first full solo album Eat, Pray, Thug last month to generally positive reviews. The album spans from a heartsick love songs ("Home" with Dev Hynes) to what can only be described as protest songs ("Flag Shopping" and "Patriot Act," most notably).

Suri isn't afraid to address uncomfortable political issues head-on, often with the same tongue-in-cheek humor and oddball attitude for which he became known, but Eat, Pray, Thug is distinctly heavier-hitting than his previous work. In an interview with the New York Times , Heems admitted this album features "the most personal work I’ve ever done," and it shows. The songs reveal as much about Heems's personal life as they do his political preferences. The reality of life as a minority in post-9/11 New York City is one of the album's most pervasive themes, but Heems is just as likely to comment on Indian political and social trends as he is on American ones. (Most of the EP was recorded in Mumbai, India, after all.)

"Sometimes," the first single of Eat, Pray, Thug, is a perfect example of Heems's ability to make a statement about the culture in which we live without sacrificing a sick beat. The video for "Sometimes," which premiered on Tuesday, finds humor while making a point, in this case, about race, skin color, and beauty standards.

The clip opens with Eric Andre, sitting on a couch with his white girlfriend. He's clearly striking out with her, so she leaves him alone to watch TV. On the screen is an infomercial starring Heems, in the role of a guru shilling the benefits of a "Sometimes" skin whitening lotion as the answer to all dark-skinned men's woes, especially when it comes to wooing women. Andre is convinced, bleaches his skin, and returns home only to find Hannibal Buress chilling on the couch. You can guess the rest of the story from there (or, you know, watch the video).

This clip, which Heems described in a Tweet as "my fair and lovely ad/music video," highlights the very real controversy over skin whitening in India in maybe the weirdest way possible. (Fair and Lovely is one of the leading brands of skin whitening cream in India.) I spent a semester abroad in India in college, and honestly I saw firsthand the country's general obsession with skin lightening, especially in Indian media.

I remember sitting on the couch with my Indian homestay sister and my American roommate, with her red hair and pale skin and freckles, watching TV. No guru came on screen to discuss the benefits of skin whitening, but there were plenty of commercials with Bollywood celebrities hawking lotions and creams and even deodorants that would make skin's pigment lighter. (Did you know a woman's armpits need to be lightened, too?) I've never been more self-aware of my own skin color than while watching those commercials because they are unapologetically blunt about valuing lighter skin color over darker tones. Although not as absurd as the fake commercial in Heems's video, the real things are not that far off in terms of their blatant promises that having lighter skin will make one's life easier.

The actual products used to lighten skin are often physically dangerous, with long-term negative results like hyper-pigmentation and skin sensitivity, but that doesn't deter women, and men, from buying them. The market is already huge and only growing: ACNielsen found in a survey that, "India's whitening-cream market was worth $432 million" in 2010, and "was growing at 18 percent per year." The marketing is intensely focused on "improving" individuals, and many of India's skin-lightening advertisements blatantly promise that they'll help attract the guy. There are also products for men — Fair and Handsome, rather than Fair and Lovely — but the bulk of the marketing focus, at least in my experience, is on women. Even the word used to describe them — “fairness" — connotes something delicate and feminine and non-threatening. To be fair and pale is to be beautiful in Indian culture, and the pressure of achieving this unattainable standard of beauty has reportedly driven some women to the brink of suicide.

As Suri's video implies, there is a pervasive belief in Indian culture that lighter-colored skin is directly correlated with more success, be it in business or school or love. The lion's share of the bias against dark skin stems from India's long-standing caste system, which assigns each individual a ranking in a clearly defined hierarchy at birth. (It's based on your family's caste, not just randomly handed out.) Lower-ranking castes historically tended to have darker skin, so skin color has become a signifier of social status. Those on the bottom rungs are systematically discriminated against, so those with darker skin are, in turn, considered to be lesser citizens.

Skin whitening creams and lotions, and the marketing used to sell them, reinforce this damaging stereotype of light skin as most beautiful. It's an issue for which Heems has been critical before, and it has become a recurring image in his work, both musical and visual. At a show on the day Eat, Pray, Thug was released, held at Manhattan's Santos Party House, Heems projected a video of a chopped and screwed and glitched advertisement for Fair and Lovely. That video was also shown at the show he curated at Aicon Gallery in March, and Heems showed similar images while DJ'ing at the New Museum in June 2013.

Heems's interest in skin whitening makes total sense, even if it's not the most intuitive. This beauty practice is inherently political, an attempt to erase the damage of centuries of caste discrimination and colonization, and the only way to fight against it is to change the grassroots perception. It's therefore refreshing to have an artist, especially a male artist, bring attention to and speak out against this practice, especially on an issue that disproportionally affects the self-esteem and self-worth of women. The fight against caste discrimination is an ongoing struggle, and encouraging acceptance of darker skin tones is just one part of that. Through his art, Heems is highlighting the absurdity of this practice, and although an unlikely advocate against skin whitening in India, his work should be recognized and shared and celebrated for this politically-motivated message about beauty (and also for creating good music, which is always important).

Images: YouTube; nehrujackets/Instagram