Interview: The Kominas on being a Muslim punk band, Taqwacore, and bridging the gap of consciousness between cultures

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Silvers: How you want to be received?

Khan: Well it’s a twofold. It was the needing to define the Muslim part and like Basim said, he moved to Pakistan, I followed him because I wasn’t doing anything else at the time, and that was to explore that part. Originally the band started as like a Bollywood punk band or Muslim punk band, and there were all these other parts. So we wanted to explore our identity as Muslim Americans: like looking at or into old Bollywood films, and Middle Eastern, classical music. So, that’s just another part of who we are. You know? I guess you can see that even in the second and the third albums.

Usmani: People don’t necessarily understand that we’re a patchwork of all these different things. It’s weird, we became like a paragraph in someone else’s thesis. We weren’t even aloud to proofread what they were writing.

Khan: For example, the members in our band that weren’t Muslim, like Karna and when his brother Argen was in the band, they just happened to be from a rich, diverse Bengali background.

Usmani: People don’t realize that all of these things intersect. For them it’s like “why all of these things?” and for us it’s like that’s life.

Khan: And I think that’s the opposite of the good part of the America, that is everyone is here, from all over and stuff. The difficult part is that sometimes for some reason we still have to draw lines and to try and figure out like wait, what are you? You know, like where are you from type thing.

Usmani: And I guess I pity white people not because they are ignorant, but because they are underexposed, and I feel that that is sad. I mean that they’re underexposed. Boston is such a diverse, multi-cultural city, but the kids that were at the Black Lips and King Khan show, have they ever been to East Boston? You know what I mean? Have they been around? Have they been to these neighborhoods? Have they really seen all that this city has had to offer? Or can they understand? Even the popular rap songs of our day growing up, again all of these references to all of these different cultures because if you’re from a city on the East Coast there is going to be some references to the Caribbean. There are going to be some references to Islam. There are all these things intersecting in America and I guess the reason why I pity some of these kids is that they can engage, but they can’t understand. Because they haven’t been exposed to it.

Whereas with us it wasn’t really a choice. We were always outside. We were always like the other in that great company with the million people that were also classified as others, as well, in all sorts of other places. We got to be exposed to a lot of things, that you know, a lot of kids aren’t. It’s embedded in the pop culture. it’s in our American music, like you know it’s in American Top 40, it’s everywhere, but a lot of people, you know, they don’t even understand what they are listening to. They know the lyrics, but they don’t know what’s being eluded to, and it’s sad. It is what it is. We might be the generation that’s sort of the fore bearers for demographic change, you know? America is going to be America, the beautiful people from all over.

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Silvers: So you’re optimistic then?

Usmani: Oh yeah, definitely. We’re doing this band, and even when we started out, the idea was that we would be that band that we didn’t have as kids. That there is this new group of people that they aren’t seen as minorities. There is this new generation that doesn’t have a chip on their shoulder or insecurities. Like hopefully everyone becomes exposed, or everyone is being exposed to everything. That wasn’t what we grew up with. I guess it’s like Wu-Tang was for the children, like if they could push things forward a little bit. We understand that we’ll make more sense 10 years from now, and that’s why we’re plugging along.

Silvers: Isn’t the “pity the white kids” mindset a bit strong?

Usmani: I guess so, a lot of the dialogue is people pitying us. Even from liberals like “Oh we feel so bad, you guys must deal with all of this crap.” And at the same time, I’m like, there isn’t an albatross around my neck, and it’s because, in some sense, I feel like because I’m Muslim, because I’m Pakistani I feel I understand American pop culture much better. Like when people make illusions to either Islam or South East Asia, or the Caribbean, or Latin American culture, like I’m better equipped to understand it. Because, we have the cultural background. NPR did a story which is like neither here nor there, but like the average white kid grows up in a high school with WAY WAY WAY less diversity than the average Latino kid, than the average Asian kid, the average black kid, and I feel that, that’s a sad handicap.

Looking into the future, that’s just a sad handicap, all those years will have to be compensated for. I feel like in some senses, when they are pitying us, I’m pitying them kind of. Because they don’t understand this give and take that’s happening among all of these different backgrounds. It’s not necessarily that people who are non-white are excluding them, it’s because of self-exclusion. I’ve always wondered why that happens. It might be the bad part of the heritage, like “white flight.”

I had to do this report on demographics and something like Boston’s Latino population in between 2000 and 2010, I’ll give you the exact stat, went up 34,000, and then the white population went down 34,000. It seems to be this weird thing where more colored people move in, and more white people move out. There seems to be this interesting, direct correlation, and it’s not the kids’ fault. It’s because of weird, scared parents. Parents don’t understand. The kids that are growing up today that are white or non-white are starting to understand this stuff. that’s our generation’s counterparts, you know? Like it’s just his birthday, today —

Khan: I’m 31.

Usmani: I’m 31.

Khan: Correct me if I’m wrong, we’re not making a blanket statement for every white person in the world, but speaking from our experience, and I don’t think we’re saying this to you, but it’s more if you think of our experience. I was literally the only brown kid in my entire high school. Well maybe there was one other one. I didn’t necessarily understand what that meant until later. If you had maybe talked to me at that time I wouldn’t have told you that there was anything wrong. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong, but it’s more of a feeling and a consciousness that has come later from living in Pakistan for a year, or now living in Lowell. Just a kind of understanding. I think if you’re lucky enough to do some traveling, hopefully what happens is just that you develop a consciousness of your place in everything, and you are at least aware of what kind of privileges you have. Like being middle class South Asian kids versus being working class South Asian Kids. There is a big difference, and so I just think that the way I would refer to that is the awareness of privilege at all times.

Usmani: With privilege, we’re privileged to have all of these intersections and to have all of these experiences. You know, someone who is white might not be able to feel at home in some other places that we go to, and in some sense our brownness is this passport. I can be in Dorchester or I can be in Roxbury, I can be in Lowell, I can be in Mattapan, I can be in Lexington, I can be in Waltham, I can be in Newton, I can be all over and I’ll be fine everywhere, because I have this passport. Brownness is this awesome passport.

Khan: Also, I think as this band we have the privilege to sort of express things maybe for other people. Like Asian Dub Foundation did for kids like us. You know regardless, we just played in Philly, and Boston and in Providence and now because it’s been like 10 years, wherever we go there are brown kids. So we ended up, and it was kind of an exercise in community building and for a while like through music blogs, MySpace from the start, and you know the online kind of fringe communities of whether it’s Muslim, South Asians, curious white kids; and we got to meet the other kids like us from around the country, and around the world. So for us we don’t feel as alone as we once did.

The band has now become probably what we always wanted. Just as far as, if you look at our Facebook page people debate stuff all of the time, and become friends through that. They build their own little social circles and groups independent of us, and are starting bands and things. We just met a band from Pakistan last week, who are working class guys. They were like “Hey man you guys; song “Tunnnnnn,” we jam out to that shit in the shower in Pakistan” — and I’m like “Really? It’s amazing, and it means something totally different to them because they are working class Pakistani kids living in Pakistan. But, it does appeal to them too. So it’s not so much that we have to try so hard to achieve this legitimacy, when it’s been 10 years. I feel that if you’re still existing then you’re still relevant. Legitimacy is probably going to be there. Personally, I see it now, after a four-year hiatus just that, not that the controversy didn’t help, because it definitely help get us to where we are now, but I think we’re cool with the thing as a whole now. I think five or six years ago, we were really like trying to win in the struggle, not that we’re not still struggling, but not in that same way, because we get to play for the Black Lips now, instead of like, you know, fucking not. Basically.

Silvers: Why do I get the sense that you’re about to throw someone under the bus right now?

Khan: We’re not, we’re probably about to throw ourselves under the bus right now. We were playing a show which was fun, but maybe we wish that we were playing more for people like you. Not just our friends. Not that we don’t like our friends. It’s just when you sit down there in a basement, like we did. We started down there in that basement.

Usmani: That’s what it’s going back to. It’s how we’re granted this nice fluidity, and that’s the other thing. It’s also kind of a privilege. Let’s just say if we were born Unitarian Universalist, like cool, and we had white, Lexingtonian parents, like a lot of my neighbors, and we started a political punk band. Would we be really informing anyone of anything new, that hasn’t been said before? We have this awesome responsibility, and a privilege. We get to be pilgrims. We get to be the first people out. In our minds we get to do this thing, and that’s something I don’t take for granted. So any sort of BS or bigotry that I encounter, I take in stride. We take it in stride, because we also understand that, that’s also what makes us special.

Silvers: So, just to clarify, you guys are trying to bridge a gap of consciousness in between every culture?

Usmani: Absolutely.

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Silvers: Let’s talk a bit about Taqwacore — what is it?

Usmani: Well, a white kid started it. The best way to describe it is, there is an author that wrote a book and there is a scene with all of these kids in bands, and we all got connected through the book, as like the big catalyst. It was the catalyst that connects all of these different people. The book itself, people have scrutinized it. People think it might be good, it might be bad. There are different layers to it. It’s about a fictitious punk house filled with Muslim punks. At the time it was unbeknownst to us, and unbeknownst to the author, in 2003…

Khan: That’s kind of when Basim gave me the book, and then I read it. We were like this is really sweet. Somebody is saying the stuff that we have been thinking

Usmani: We didn’t know and the author didn’t know that stuff like this has actually existed in the past as well, but not the fictional book, but bands like Asian Dub Foundation. There are dozens of others from all over, from places like Europe, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Like these kind of punk bands, they are around there, and we didn’t know it.

Khan: It did end up becoming a sort of uniquely American thing.

Usmani: Yeah and it’s cool. A lot of people misunderstand it. One of the funny things that i didn’t realize happened is that the punks have a really strong anti-religious bend, and the both of us are pretty sympathetic to it, or relatively sympathetic to an anti-religious bend. We both kind of agree that, or I guess everyone in the band kind of agrees that religion can be the opium of the masses, or the lowest common denominator. But as politicized as we were, because we were always tagged as Muslim punk, there would be tons of kids in Pakistan that were like “Oh you guys are Muslim? Fuck you” They would be punk and anti-religion, or there would be white kids that were like you’re trying to sell religion.

Khan: Or there are ultra-orthodox Muslim punk kids in Malaysia, we just found.

Silvers: So how do you deal with that?

Khan: It’s great. No, no, no — it’s really awesome. Literally, like there’s this zine in Indonesia that just gives us shit, like “You guys aren’t real Muslim punk”. So it’s great.

Usmani: It’s cool. The more people talk shit about you, I think the better you are as an artist. Because, you’re supposed to get them to do that.

Silvers: What is Desi punk?

Khan: Oh okay, so Desi, like D-E-S-I? Desi is just a form of endearment. It mean’s “of the homeland.”

Usmani: So someone who’s Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, they’re all Desi: it’s like Latino. It’s like a collection of countries and they have a shared thing. There is a Facebook group called Desi Punks and its got not a ton of people, it has maybe 500, 600 members, but everyone is very active on it.

Khan: Yeah it’s just another one of those communities that have happened.

Usmani: That stuff happens independently of us, but I’m kind of amazed, because it’s been a cool barometer of who are the younger kids that actually know of us, that we don’t know because we haven’t been on tour for a while. So it’s just cool to see on there, and to wonder, oh what are the other Desi Punk bands, besides Kominas etc. I remember I was really moved a year ago because some 15-year-old girl posted a screen shot of her background on her parent’s laptop and it was our band logo, and she was like “oh, I hope my parents don’t get mad,” because our name basically means scumbag, in it’s translation.

Silvers: In Pakistani?

Khan: Mhm, “scoundrel.”

Usmani: Yeah scoundrel, scum bag, there are mad languages out there. It’s kind of uniform. There are a lot of people out there that are not from Pakistan, but can understand it. But yeah, it’s been cool to see that happen. Uhm, where like finally there are bands that we never knew about, and it took maybe four or five years to get to.

Silvers: What was living in Pakistan like, what did you guys do there?

Usmani: Smoked a lot of hash. Smoked to much hash, like the prices for hash just keep on plummeting, as wars keep on happening.

Khan: You know, they’re like “cool kids from America”, and so you just have plenty of friends that keep bringing you shit. But, yeah Basim was working as a journalist, I kind of did a little, and then I worked for a radio station. I had a radio show once a week. It was raw, I wanted to know, for me at least, if I could live there, without family.

Silvers: Could you?

Khan: Maybe, I don’t know.

Usmani: It’s hard to say.

Khan: We had an apartment.

Usmani: We had an apartment, it was cool. We had this drummer who was also a construction worker. I had this cheap bed frame and sawed it up and made like the room into a studio in this apartment.

Khan: Because it’s sort of more of a collectivist culture, not that it doesn’t happen more in the cities, but people tend to live with their families. So it’s actually abnormal to be a bachelor, alone. So me and Basim are chilling alone in this apartment, where everyone was welcome to come, play, jam out at all hours of the night. It was the one spot where a lot of people could do that. So we decided to build a little studio. We tried to start some kind of organic kind of punk movement, which was cool.

Silvers: Wow, so was it successful?

Usmani: I think after we left.

Khan: There has actually been a pretty big underground rock scene in Pakistan since the mid-’80s. But, it’s kind of like Pakistan has lagged maybe technologically and socially I’d say 10 years.

Usmani: That gap finally closed with the internet.

Khan: Yeah and since we’ve left there have been a bunch of music schools that have opened up, recording studios, and underground musicians, like this guy Thuron recorded an album.

Usmani: Some of the punk bands are pro-Kominas and some of them are anti-Kominas.

Khan: There are like psychedelic rock bands, and all sorts of crazy shit.

Usmani: Electronic dance music is also huge.

Khan: I mean yeah, I don’t know if you would define it as successful or unsuccessful, but I think we made a lot of good friends and we both sessioned for different Pakistani artists, and I didn’t plan on playing with classical musicians. It just increased my own musical abilities. I think it was more, probably, successful for us.

Usmani: Yeah, definitely, because we came out of that being able to write songs in different languages, which we were kind of hinting at before, but we came out of it and our Punjabi had gotten much better.

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