The trend of agencies and brands tapping musicians for nebulous creative roles has been going on for long enough now that the simple announcement that, say, Rihanna is now creative director at Puma or Pharrell wears that title at American Express can be greeted with a fair amount of cynicism. What exactly does a celebrity creative director do, anyway?
In the case of Himanshu Kumar Suri–better known as Heems of Swet Shop Boys, Das Racist, and his own solo career–the answer is so conventional as to be unconventional: He shows up at the office of Brooklyn-based culture marketing agency AGW Group around 9 a.m., works on accounts with his coworkers, and goes home at the end of the day before doing the same thing tomorrow. Unlike, say, A$AP Rocky’s gig at MTV, Suri’s work as a creative strategist with AGW, which he started at the end of January, is a full-time office job.
“I genuinely want to be in an office five days a week, learning from people around me who have skills that I don’t,” Suri says. “I know a lot of musicians and artists end up working with agencies in [a part-time] capacity, but for me, it’s really about being there every day. I didn’t take the decision to join a 9-to-5 lightly.”
If you’re familiar with Heems’ oeuvre as a rapper, the idea that he takes his decision-making seriously is to be expected. While his initial releases with Das Racist could fairly be characterized as comedy rap–they broke through around 2008 with the track “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”–but by the release of their 2011 debut, Suri’s deeper side became clear. That was evident in his solo work as well, and in his collaboration with rapper/actor Riz Ahmed in Swet Shop Boys, whose “Terminal 5” became an unofficial anthem of sorts for protesters at airports around the country in response to Trump’s immigration executive order. And while he recognizes that fans might see the jump to advertising as a surprise, he says that it makes perfect sense, given the nature of the music business.
“At some point last year, I had decided that, alongside working on my music, I wanted to transition into the world of advertising and marketing, and how brands engage with artists,” Suri says. “I’d been thinking a lot about the way that culture and brands interact, and had a growing curiosity about that space. I realized that if you’re an artist, a lot of the way you’re making money is already by advertising–it’s just that you don’t really have a seat at the table in the conversation. You’re more of an afterthought. But if you’re playing a show, you’re selling alcohol. If you’re putting a song on a blog, you’re selling clicks. You’re engaging with brands as an influencer, even if it’s just free sneakers or something. I don’t feel like I’m becoming a middleman–I feel like I’m cutting the middleman out by directly partnering with brands and creators.”
Suri met AGW co-founder Adam Gorode through friends back in October, and the two scheduled a meeting for December. “We met for lunch around the corner from the office, and that conversation turned into a three and a half hour sit-down,” Gorode recalls. “Hima was on the exact same page as us in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish with facilitating these rich exchanges between brands and artists. We find it difficult finding people for our company because it takes a certain mind frame. But right after that lunch, I gave my co-founder Katie Witkin a ring and was like, ‘Oh, man, I found the guy for us.'”
Suri hasn’t encountered much resistance to the idea that he’s working in advertising now from his friends in the music industry–“people who know me know I’ve always thought about and looked at this kind of thing,” he says, noting that he took on more of a managerial role with Swet Shop Boys–but he also hasn’t tried to ask people in that world for favors.
“I have a similar perspective to the people I’m reaching out to. There’s a different way that brands talk about art, compared to how artists talk about art, so when I’m approaching a fellow creator, I speak that language,” he says. “As an Indian-American, code-switching is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life, and that I’m familiar with. So it’s more like code-switching between ‘brand’ and ‘artist’ at this point.”