When he was a high-school junior running for class vice president at Bronx Science High School, Zohran Kwame Mamdani rapped his platform, which included a call for fresh juice in the cafeteria. He did not emerge victorious, but a decade later Mamdani was working as a foreclosure-prevention counselor and pursuing a side hustle as a rapper known as Mr. Cardamom when he made his second run for office, seeking the 36th District Assembly seat in Queens, which covers Astoria and Ditmars Steinway. This time he won, and he will take office in the New York State Assembly in January.
“Roti and Roses”
Mamdani, who cut his teeth volunteering for the Democratic Socialists of America’s Queens chapter and was inspired to run after working on Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens district attorney, is one of a wave of progressive challengers in New York politics that promises to help dictate the state’s legislation and post-pandemic recovery for years to come. D.S.A.-endorsed candidates won six New York City races. It’s a stark generational baton handoff, albeit a reluctant one, from a cadre of predominantly older, white, establishment Democratic incumbents to a group of diverse, millennial, and far-left-leaning upstarts. After Mamdani’s primary victory, he took to Twitter and declared, “Socialism won.”
Just two years ago, another D.S.A.-backed 28-year-old beat a multi-term incumbent in western Queens. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 victory, combined with Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, have further emboldened a far-left tranche of the Democratic Party, creating a pressure cooker of progressive energy. “None of these things happen in a vacuum,” says Mamdani, speaking by Google Meet from his white-walled apartment on Broadway in Astoria. “You get what you organize for.”
After Mamdani’s primary victory, he took to Twitter and declared, “Socialism won.”
Mamdani’s agenda is ambitious. He wants to implement a statewide rent-control program, convert ownership of private energy companies to the state, and defund the police to invest in housing and community services. His slogan, “Roti and Roses,” is a play on the labor phrase “Bread and Roses,” an appeal for fair wages as well as a dignified way of life popularized in the 1910s by suffragette Helen Todd. In January, Mamdani and fellow incoming assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar will be the first South Asians elected to any level of office in New York City. Mamdani, who was born in Kampala, Uganda, before moving to New York City at age seven, will be only the third Muslim elected to the New York State Assembly.
“I’ve understood what it means to be carved out from the mainstream, to have your belonging be in constant contention by society, by the state, whether it’s in India, whether it’s Uganda, whether it’s here in America,” he says. His parents have also explored these themes, though through different channels. His mother is the Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!, and the television series A Suitable Boy). His father is Mahmood Mamdani, a star professor at Columbia University, where he specializes in African history and politics. “I would look up to them even if they weren’t my parents,” says Mamdani.
His musical pursuits have been another formative experience. “When you’re a D-list rapper and trying to push your music in public and on the radio, that is very good preparation for being a D-list candidate; you have one minute to break through those barriers, introduce the seat, and talk about why it matters to them.” His rap alter-ego, Mr. Cardamom, is currently on hiatus, but, he says, “maybe there’ll be more sounds in the future.” In the Assembly, there’s currently no ban on earning outside income.
For the moment, though, Mamdani is focused on the task at hand. “You have to go up to Albany and with a willingness to go to the third rail and beyond,” he says. “I often think about the end of Scooby-Doo episodes, where the villain’s like, ‘I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for these meddling kids,’” Mamdani says, laughing. “And that’s how it feels, being in D.S.A.”
Chloe Malle is a New York–based writer