Welcome to Breaking, a new Colorlines series where we highlight under-the-radar artists of color. For our second feature, we’re breaking The Kominas.
Hometown: Various—Boston, New York and Philadelphia
Sound: Vintage-style punk mixed in with surf, psychedelia and classic South-Asian and Middle-Eastern rock.
Why You Should Care: The Kominas exist in part to challenge people’s underlying assumptions about what “punk,” “indie” or any of these descriptors mean. Some consider them leaders of so-called Tacqwacore punk movement, but labels like that don’t get at the variety in their music.These four South Asian-American, mostly Muslim men specialize in punchy, riff-heavy rock and their lyrics address the experiences of people of color and Muslims in America. (They say at least one group member is on a government watch list.) They also grapple with racist rock fans, a tokenizing music press and an underground that seems uninterested in politically aware groups of color.
The quartet’s latest album, “Stereotype,” is a raucous collection of 10 songs about Islamophobia, racism, American paranoia, non-representation, and—like all great rock bands—fun times with friends. It’s a mix of staticky guitars, subtly intricate bass lines and bombastic drums that reinvent garage rock as something ripe for experimentation and reclamation by artists of color.
Ahead of this week’s album release we spoke to bassist/vocalist Basim Usmani, guitarist/vocalist Hassan Malik (a.k.a. “Sunny” in Sunny Ali & the Kid), guitarist Shahjehan Khan, and drummer Karna Ray about working as a band of color in a predominantly white scene, artistic responsibility, and their favorite moments on "Stereotype."
You tackle themes in your music that most artists with your visibility don’t. In your words, how would you describe your creative M.O.?
Usmani: It’s pretty sad when most punk bands are better known for their stance on stage-diving than their stances on anything going on in the world today. What we do is sociopolitical, first. One of our first priorities is what kind of statement we are putting out. It’s never been about being cool or appealing or profiting for us. Most of our music is available for free. The shows that have been the most fulfilling for us, the ones we had the biggest audiences for, were the ones we did free of charge. This has always been about putting a message out into the world.
Khan: We are a product of 2015 America and we express what we express unapologetically. Our identities—both personal and as a group—cannot help but find themselves in the material that we have produced. We are doing our best to be as authentic as we can about how we feel as artists, and that certainly can and should make people uncomfortable.
You’re a group of brown dudes making music in a genre that is largely white and depoliticized but has roots in anti-establishment movements. Do you have a certain obligation to listeners?
Ray: We advocate for the true roots of the genres we play. We know who Sister Rosetta Tharpe is, that banjo music is originally West African, that guitars are Persian instruments, that Elvis didn’t write those songs. We want as many others to know that as possible.
Usmani: Without the obligation to say something, there would have been no reason to form the Kominas. There’s a media feeding frenzy that happens whenever Muslims do anything. Politics are unavoidable. It’s wild, in light of racist massacres and police killings, that white artists are never asked about racism. I am living in [Boston] where Muslim-Americans have been killed, like Usaama Rahim, or jailed, like Tarek Mehenna, for the things they have said or posted on the Internet. A white band could write a song about hating cops, but a Muslim band would be put on a watch list for the same thing.
You’ve had quite a few lineup changes since your last release in 2012, "Kominas."
Usmani: It’s definitely gone through some iterations. Some members who played on “Stereotype,” like Shahjehan and [Sunny Ali & The Kid drummer/marijuana journalist ]Abdullah Saeed, I met in 1998 after being dragged to Sunday school at Wayland Islamic Center. Coincidentally, they’ve never played in the same iteration of The Kominas. Karna Ray returned to the lineup when Abdullah’s weed journalism took off, and Sunny and me have been getting together and jamming a few things all along. The Kominas feels like a clique of friends that has come together in different forms over the years.
Ray: I was too young when I first joined the Kominas and spent a couple years on the DL to grow up. Thankfully, when I was asked to come back, I was ready. The Kominas is a collective spirit greater than whatever specific iteration it takes at any given time, but we’re channeling something deep with this lineup.
Why did it take you guys three years between 2012’s “Kominas” and "Stereotype"?
Malik: Mostly the lineup changes. For a while, it was just me and Basim in the band while we were figuring out what we were gonna do. To be honest, the start of this record was really hard for me. I didn’t have a job, was stealing food from grocery stores, and my partner at the time was diagnosed with a shitty disease. Yeah…had a rough start to this record because of real-life stuff, and at times, didn’t even know if it was gonna happen.
Khan: I personally took about four years off in early 2011 following our first European tour. …I had a few things to sort out in terms of finishing school and getting mentally and physically healthy. Basim, Karna, Sunny and I first played together almost one year ago, and my intention was just to maybe record a few songs. But from the moment we plugged stuff in, it was clear that this was something much different.
Do you feel as if you’re a part of the contemporary underground/indie rock scene?
Khan: I have always felt strange and on the outskirts of any type of scene we ever were associated with, but am totally comfortable in that strangeness now. Whether it was punk scenes in Lowell, [Massachusetts], pop scenes in Lahore, Pakistan, or with some of our electronic music POC friends in the U.K., we have always thrived on the margins.
Malik: I definitely don’t feel part of any scene except the one we’ve built. Though the scene is dominated by white male artists, I don’t think there is a such thing as a white, [truly] punk band in 2015. An easy example of the difference between us and the indie rock scene is a band like Guantanamo Baywatch, fronted by a white dude who writes basic garage rock music and is not political but uses that name, which was originally a "Daily Show" joke. Just look [their] interview [questions]. At most, it’s "Do people ask you about your name?" and then the band whines about how they aren’t political and people shouldn’t think they are. They don’t deal with the same consequences a band like us does if we were to use a name like that–death threats, detainment at borders, show cancellations, real interview questions.
Is there anything you think that journalists or audiences misinterpret about what you do?
Usmani: White journalists always used the Kominas to push their own narrative. There were a number of articles that came out in 2010 that tried to frame us as "surprisingly normal Americans." For the most part, they treated us as a safari, and once we put out albums and had thoughts they stopped listening to us. Some of them chose not to address the fact that we have usually had some non-Muslim kids [in the band] because they don’t understand what Desi is, or why the fact that we’re all Desi is important.
Lastly, what are your favorite lyrics from the album?
Malik: “I’ll book ‘em in the front and shoot ‘em in the back, you’ll tell me that he’s wanted when he’s just black.”
Khan: "…Dropping the bomb, so Remain Calm, read the Qur’an, Pigs are Haram."
Ray: “They’re messin’ with my mojo.”
Usmani: “Turning up is against the law, but we can’t turn down for you anymore.”
You can purchase “Stereotype” via The Kominas’s official Bandcamp page. And check out a new single,"4 White Guys,” where the band tackles sad-sack homogeneity in rock music.
*Post has been updated since publication. Fan-made video of "Sharia Law in the U.S.A." has been replaced with the official video.