Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

The Kominas’ Continuing Stand Against Islamophobia and Racism

Now's a key time to return to the band's 2015 album 'Stereotype'

/ November 30, 2016

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It’s late 2016 and we’re living amidst Trump’s election, hysteria over refugees, a call for a ban on Muslims entering the country, and serious discussions of a registry of Muslims. Explaining the severity of the moment, The Kominas’ guitarist Shahjehan Khan said in our interview that, “I feel that now more than ever, people need to understand that I don’t get to ‘turn off the news,’ I don’t get to ‘not be political.’ I am scared that someone is going to throw a fucking molotov cocktail into my dad’s mosque, or beat up my sisters on the train, or say or do something that upsets my mother.”

The Kominas have been fighting such bigotry for years, coming to be known as the foremost bearers of Taqwacore, a punk subgenre centered on Islam and its culture. They are indeed a punk rock band that started up of majority Brown Muslim kids from the USA, though they’ve since moved away from the Taqwacore label, feeling it often too narrow. In an MTV interview, Khan said, “We have been a band for 10 years. Our first album was a Muslim Punk album, but that is certainly not all we are.” Bassist Basim Usmani agrees, saying in our interview that, “In terms of our genre I’d say we play a variety of punked out musical styles. But yeah want to step away from Taqwacore.”

Besides feeling the label is limiting, the band also notes that guitarist Karna Ray is not Muslim. While not Muslim, Ray is a Brown man living in the United States, and it is well documented that Brown folks, whether Muslim or not, are affected by Islamophobia. Ray explains in his own words via the same MTV interview: “Even as a non-Muslim I shared some of the most overt characteristics of suspicion, like being dark and wearing a beard. It made me realize how contingent Islam as a religion or a culture was to the gloom of suspicion and distrust that became the pervasive attitude of most of the 2000s. As an American citizen with two academic Indian parents, raised Hindu but with no particular religious affiliations, I am still systematically double-checked at airports.”

However you specifically classify them, The Kominas have came together under a collective understanding of each other as Brown punks in America. The band has proven to be a shining example of representation for all punk kids of color who felt there was no one out there they could identify with in their often heavily white local punk scenes.

With such intensifying Islamophobia, it’s an important time to revisit the band’s 2015 release Stereotype. The record covers themes of Islamophobia, as well as broader American racism and what it’s like being a person of color in the United States. “Pigs Are Haram,” for instance, tackles the crisis of police brutality against the African American community. The first and only verse in the 52 second track is, “I’ll show you where to plant the drugs at, I’ll show you all my badge and ass crack. I’ll book him in the front and shoot him in the back, You’ll tell me that he’s wanted, when he’s just black.” At the end of the song, the band repeats the lines, “Read the Qu’ran, PIGS ARE HARAM,” which will make sense to those who know that in Islam pigs are indeed haram (to eat).

On “Banana,” the band attacks those who try to pigeonhole their identity. Guitarist Sunny Ali sings, “I’m a believer, in my own way. Rip my t-shirt, give my heart away.” With that line, Ali claims the freedom to express himself however he wants while still claiming the religion and culture he was raised in. Growing up Muslim and having immigrant parents myself, I considered myself Muslim and of Somali background, but I was still into punk and hip hop, which are seen as “Western” interests by my family. As with many Kominas tracks, “Banana” tells us that it’s not about choosing one or the other. You can be a punk kid and still value culture and religion in your own way.

Growing up Muslim and having immigrant parents myself, I considered myself Muslim and of Somali background, but I was still into punk and hip hop, which are seen as “Western” interest by my family. As with many Kominas tracks, “Banana” tells us that it’s not about choosing one or the other. You can be a punk kid and still value culture and religion in your own way.

As society seeks to box in Brown peoples’ identities, it maintains the freedom for whites to be multifaceted. “Four White Guys” takes on that flip side of the issues brought up in “Banana.” The chorus repeats, “We’re just four white guys,” expressing a view I think all non-White people in the West have had of how easy going life must be as a white person. You get to live your life and be a full person instead of only being seen as your race. You never have to endure annoying questions such as “Where are you from?” You never have your name mispronounced, or constantly feel like you represent your entire race. You’re not going to be placed on a registry because of your religion, or experience everyday hate crimes. When you’re white in the West, you get to just represent yourself and be. Don’t we all just wanna be four white guys hanging with our buds drinking cheap beer and enjoying $1 a slice pizza? Or even a crew of white friends like on “Friends,” which the music video for 4 White Guys mocks.

In our interview, Khan expanded on the obliviousness and hate of white America after Trump’s election: “I run in a few circles due to my personal life which puts me in a lot of primarily white spaces – specifically with white men – and while I must acknowledge the immense amount of support I have gotten – in terms of phone calls, check ins, and a real willingness to step up and participate in some sort of direct or indirect action – I am mostly upset by the echo chamber phenomenon that has led people to literally be unaware of just how different my life might be from theirs. One old family friend had the audacity to tell me that he knows these are not the ‘real problems’ minorities are facing; an older gentlemen said that ‘he doesn’t think I’m lying but he just cannot believe’ that I know firsthand of hate crime incidents right here Massachusetts; and I even heard someone say last night that ‘[Trump] is probably gonna murder a lot of foreigners’ but we’ll get through that as long as he doesn’t take her rights away as an LGBTQ person.”

The track “See Something, Say Something” was penned after the “If You See Something, Say Something” ad campaign was launched by Homeland Security in 2010  to encourage U.S. citizens to combat terrorism by reporting to authority figures when they witness “suspicious” folks. It became more popular in early 2016 with an increase of ads in the States and in Canada. The song has limited lyrics, with the lines, “If you see something, You better say something, or nothing at all,” and “So don’t make any accidents, You need more evidence,” repeated over and over again, driving home how easy it is for people to be racially profiled by your average American. The song’s video shows white subway passengers reporting The Kominas for having what they believe to be a bomb, but is in fact a lunch packed for a picnic. It demonstrates how careful you must be as a racialized person who is or “looks”  Muslim when navigating white spaces, lest you be treated like a criminal.

Whether it be identity politics, envying white punk slackers freedom, how policy affects those on the margins, or being vocal about police treatment of Black people, it’s safe to say that The Kominas are using punk to fight and speak on issues most punk bands won’t. In Trump’s America, that’s what punk needs to be.

I spoke with the band about what it was like touring the U.S. during summer sixteen with the elections going on, what it’s like being a DIY band touring, punk band documentaries, and the importance of allowing yourself to give back as well as receive from the community.

HANA JAMA: Who in the group came up with the concept of the “Rock Therapy Tour“?

SHAHJEHAN KHAN: Sunny Ali had first thought up the name after the band had been talking about how our shows were feeling like a kind of group therapy. This isn’t our 9-5 but it is very cathartic. Over the course of the tour we prepared a workshop for artists in Olympia where Karna Ray came up with the title “survival as success,” which aptly sums up what’s rewarding about this band: it’s longevity. People who have been listening to us since we were on My Space finally got to see us, and we finally got to meet them. The reasons for doing this band are largely psychological and emotional. From the very first songs written under the moniker it’s been about our catharsis. We never really had  many “fans” who would come to our shows until very recently.

It is kind of ironic that our summer tour was called “Rock Therapy,” and unfortunately this message is more poignant than ever before for our band. Although I had this sort of sinking feeling that Trump was gonna win after I protested his rally near my hometown almost a year ago, I think that I, along with lots of other POCs in America, got one of those impending doom type feelings in my stomach after it all happened.

Is your music gaining significance with the volatile political situation in the US?

Islamophobia and xenophobia are on a new level in the US and with the way we receive information now there is a steady bombardment of bogus shit being shoved in our faces literally every other minute. Whether it’s politicians saying nasty things or hate/war crimes becoming a regular story, it’s an assault on our mental health while putting us in more physical danger. It’s hard to really process it all immediately and you start to compartmentalize it. We don’t want to grow numb to these things and creating spaces and activities for healing plays an important role in that not happening.

The only silver lining here in terms of The Kominas is that our last 2 shows were perhaps some of the best in recent memory. Sammus graciously allowed us to join her on her Boston bill along with Lewis M, and they both helped to create a space where it was okay to express ourselves three days after the election. And this past Thursday, Riz MC, Heems, and Redinho’s Swet Shop Boys project invited us to open their already sold-out Brooklyn gig at Rough Trade, where I had the chance to relay a story about getting “the special white glove search and humiliation march out of line” on a flight back from Norway this October as Kominas were on our way back from Bergen International Music Festival. In both cases, we had old fans, and many new fans, either in tears or just super grateful for the solidarity from brown and POC artists. I am still on a high from both shows, and we are getting ready to focus this energy on a new EP or album to be recorded immediately after Thanksgiving here in Boston. 

I feel privileged to be considered part of a movement with other amazing artists that is creating strength and hopefully some comfort for actual disenfranchised and “forgotten” peoples in America 2016, not the ones who looked to a billionaire to “bring back jobs” while looking past the irreparable social damage he has done and is already doing with his appointments.

But who knows, maybe the new Kominas album will be the soundtrack to the end of the world?

Poster for the tour of rock band The Kominas, showing a list of dates throughout the USA
Poster for the The Kominas’ “Rock Therapy Tour,” by Ayqa Khan

You used a crowdfunding campaign for this summer tour. How has crowdfunding made things accessible to you that might otherwise be out of reach?

Crowdfunding has been a huge help for us considering we don’t have a label, manager, PR, or anything like that. Our audience helped us realize this dream and we’re grateful, hoping we can live up to their expectations. The crowdfunding ensured we wouldn’t lose too much money going on tour. It made a twenty-one date US tour feasible. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to hit the road and share our music.

We’re kind of in a strange position where underground scenes maybe think we’re too “big” for them maybe because of some of the attention we’ve received, and the people at the “top” think we’re part of some underground cult scene. Neither of which are really true.

You just did a charity gig in Oakland, CA, can you tell us a bit about the cause?

The Oakland gig was set up by the East Bay Rats, an organization of bike aficionados who also manage a few bars in the Oakland area. They are boxing enthusiasts and have a relationship with the Pak Shaheen gym, where many women go to box in Karachi [Pakistan]. They invited us to play their clubhouse benefit for Pak Shaheen gym and it was def one of our fav shows of the tour! Special shoutout to Kim Vallejo for hooking us up with them! We raised about $1200 which will go towards boxing gloves for the gym. It was really quite a thing to see these big white biker dudes and alternative brown and black kids moshing together.

Back in 2009 there was a documentary about you guys and other Muslim center punk bands called Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. You’re filming another documentary about the current tour. How is this one different from the other one, and what do you hope can be made from the filming of this particular tour?

It’s hard to know what it’ll turn out like! Everything went pretty smooth for the most part, and I think the filmmaker was hoping for more drama. We played with a lot of other rad artists so I am definitely looking forward to highlighting their work and voices. Artists such as Psychaleppo from Syria, riot grrrl reminiscent band Giant Kitty, as well as Lara Americo, Saraswathi Jones, Doctors and Engineers.

How does the official “Rock Therapy Tour” poster relate to themes you’ve used before, for example breaking down masculinity stereotypes by dressing in feminine traditional Pakistani and Indian clothing in photographs?

The poster is by Ayqa Khan, we had been fans of each other work for a while and put it in her hands to come up with whatever she wanted.

It seems as though earlier works of The Kominas for the poster inspired her as I thought of the photographs when I first saw the poster. How important is it for you to collaborate with artists from similar cultural backgrounds?

It’s definitely important for us to try to give paid work and visibility to rad artists of similar background. Our album art for our last release Stereotype was done by Aziza Ahmad out of Karachi, Pakistan, in collaboration with Kylen Ford, and it’s one our favorite band art pieces we’ve ever had done for us.