Protest Song Of The Week: ‘Shoes Off’ by Swetshop Boys

The Swetshops Boys is a rap duo comprised of Himanshu Suri, who is known for his work with Das Racist, and actor Riz Ahmed, who goes by the moniker, Riz MC.

Ahmed is a British Pakistani. Suri is of Punjabi-Indian descent. Their ethnicities and brown skin inevitably mean they face Islamophobia on a daily basis. This inspires a number of songs on their first and recently released album, “Cashmere.”

“Phone Tap” offers a perspective on what it is like to live under constant surveillance in your every day life. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies seek to entrap younger American Muslims. Anyone an American Muslim meets could be an informant working for the United States government.

The inverse of this nightmarish depiction of daily life is an anthem on the album called “Shoes Off.” Ahmed takes the common demand of, “Shoes off!” at the airport and the effect of racial profiling and explores his personal struggle to live a free life as an actor without interference from British security forces.

Ahmed raps, “2005, my first movie went to Berlin Film Fest/But the spies, when they stopped me back at Luton/And they ask me if jihad is the reason/That I do the movie thing (stupid pricks).”

As Ahmed described in a column for The Guardian, he is often typecast as a terrorist at the airport. The first film in which he appeared, “The Road to Guantanamo,” won an award at the Berlin Film Festival. On the way back home, at Luton, British intelligence officers “frogmarched” Ahmed to an “unmarked room, where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked” him.

“What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?” an officer screamed, according to Ahmed. His arm was twisted so much that it nearly snapped.

Ahmed wrote a song inspired by the incident called “Post 9/11 Blues.” It included the line, “We’re all suspects so watch your back/I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.”

There is similar wit in “Shoes Off.” He raps about meeting someone who used to like dance raves but has now is more into hating Muslims after seeing Clint Eastwood’s film, “American Sniper.” There also is a verse, where Rupert Murdoch’s influence over news media is mentioned. “Rupert trying to fuck us/And we all buyin’ lube for him.”

More seriously, the song addresses the people leaving the United Kingdom to go fight in the war in Syria. To Ahmed, many of them are fundamentalists in it for money. They are not any better than capitalists exploiting people through finance. Ahmed differentiates himself from these profit-driven people by noting his pursuit for acting is not about getting “dough.”

An entire verse suggests the path foreign fighters take. Through their harassment, British intelligence play an unmistakable role in speeding radicalization. The fighter in the song reaches Syria and joins the Islamic State because they have nicer cribs than the Syrian opposition. But it all ends when he is asked to commit a suicide bombing.

This story of a fundamentalist fighter is told in a deadpan style. Ahmed is not celebrating this path but instead raises the stark reality that harassment at airports, violations of privacy and dignity against Muslims, have a way of inspiring citizens to radical extremism. He contends they ultimately end up regretting this choice to commit violence and did not prepare for what Islamic State leaders would force them to do.

“T5,” another song on the album, reflects this issue of being typecast in airports. In this more US-focused song, Ahmed and Suri deliver a hook about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents treating them more like termites than human beings.

As Ahmed recalled, going through the airports were like auditions. While security never prevented him from traveling to destinations, including the United States, each security encounter “involved the experience of being typecast, and when that happens enough, you internalize the role written for you by others.” It becomes difficult for a person to break character.

Listen to “Shoes Off”:

Deia Schlosberg
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."