By Jeffrey Feldman ’15
Volume XXXVIII, Issue 2, November 21, 2014
“You can go talk to him, but I don’t think you’re gonna get a lot out of it.” Pete’s brother, who was slated to go on after Heems and who had been hanging out with the rapper backstage, was the one who offered this portentous advice. It was 10:45, and Heems was fifteen minutes shy of an hour late when he stumbled onto a raised platform at the front of the Powerhouse, outfitted with some speakers and a laptop. He positively commanded the room’s 30 or so students, those excited enough to stick around but whose excitement was noticeably attenuated by the wait. “Everybody step like…one foot back,” was his first among many exhortations to let him do his fucking thing. “I have anxiety.”
Earlier in the day, Heems had given a talk to students on racism and academia in post-9/11 America. By now, though, he was very drunk, and when he got onstage, he made a joke about Williams. He’d made a similar joke at his lecture—“What? I do my topical research!”—saying that it was at Williams and not at Amherst where the “All Lives Matter” incident took place. But “All Lives Matter” was at Amherst, and so was he, the guy who once rapped, “Black and blue at school where white kids call me dune coon.” Heems, a Wesleyan alumnus, is well aware that, far from being a site of cultural understanding, the liberal-arts college is the kind of place that would compel you to cheer for a genocidal colonialist in order to show your “spirit.”
He spent a lot of the concert hunched over his laptop in hazy indecision about which song he would play next. Occasionally, his attention would drift to the mesmerizing video montage of found footage that was projected overhead. Heems had spliced together Indian ads for skin-lightening products and videos of white people doing yoga alongside clips from old Bollywood movies. Like much of Heems’s music, the video was captivating and funny—and it, too, was a trenchant, in-your-face critique of neocolonialism. Looking up, his back turned to us, he would say over and over again, with a touch of irony, that he’d made it “for the Whitney Museum.” He was proud.
This kind of irony cropped up again and again: “No dancing at my shows;” “I was screaming into the microphone during that last song because I am afraid of expressing my true emotions and want to distance myself from them.” In the face of blond kids in peacoats demanding that he play “Michael Jackson,” an old Das Racist tune, he joked about being hurt that no one wanted to hear his new music. Irony characterizes both his art and his engagement with his audience, and it’s what allowed Heems to fully express himself while avoiding the risks that come with sincere vulnerability. How else could you deliver the line “White people love me like they love Subarus” to a crowd of people who Heems’s former collaborator Kool AD might describe as “failed Marxists, stale heartless hailed artists, frail, sensitive, pale sales targets”? Heems—like so many students here—experienced real success in making it to Amherst, yet is again and again impelled by the institution and those who dominate it to pursue his success on their terms. But, always one ironic step ahead, he was determined to subvert and overcome such attempts at domination.
He told us to take another step back, and we listened. Some people continued to dance while Heems disinterestedly knocked two microphones together, reveling in the cacophonous reverberation that resulted.
When I ran into him later at the Zü—he had been shepherded there by a group of well-meaning students—he was about to begin an all-night bender, having taken Xanax “this guy on the Megabus” gave him, smoked a couple of joints, and drunk a bottle of wine. He seemed a little more comfortable here, even as he was surrounded by the very fans who, an hour earlier, he demanded get away from him. For some reason, I went in for a hug. He acquiesced. A couple of days later, he would tweet: “Amherst, I loved y’all.”