Synthesizing cultures with a new brand of punk music
By Jagravi Dave
Punk music has always been about rebellion. It is a vehicle for artists to engage with issues that are emotional and difficult to talk about—issues that are often ignored, or affect people who have historically been silenced. One of the most iconic punk bands, The Clash, used their music to raise awareness of the problems faced by the working class and black people in the UK The feminist movement took to punk music in the form of Riot grrrl, a style in defiance of patriarchal norms that addresses issues of domestic abuse, rape, and sexuality. Punk music is fiercely independent, epitomizing a do-it-yourself attitude that allows artists to remain free from the confines of what is appropriate or inoffensive. This independence creates within punk a space for pure self-expression and self-definition.
However, punk music has also historically been white, a fact for which it has more recently come under much criticism. Punk has been used as an instrument of movements for racial equality as well as white supremacy, but in both cases it has been used exclusively by white people. There have not been, nor do there exist today, many prominent punk musicians of color. From Sarah Sahim’s article in Pitchfork, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” to the personal experience Tasha Fierce details in “Black Invisibility and Racism in Punk Rock” for HipMama, there is much evidence that the independent music scene is largely homogenously white, to the point of an almost overt exclusion of other races. The whiteness of popular, punk, rock, and indie music artists in the U.S. is a gross misrepresentation of the racial makeup of the country and the listeners of this music.
The last few years have seen a small rise in racially diverse punk bands. In defiance of labeling, Just About Music (JAM) Program House on Cornell’s North Campus decided to put on a show with music “from people who don’t subscribe to boxes.” The headliner was a punk band from Massachusetts called The Kominas. The Kominas, along with other minority artists such as Mitski and Awkwafina, are slowly filling this gap in the racial makeup of independent music.
With an Urdu name that roughly translates to “scumbags” (punks?), The Kominas have received media attention for their open discussion of Islam and audacious song names such as “Suicide Bomb The GAP” and “No One’s Gonna Honor Kill My Baby.” They are simultaneously provocative, hilarious, ironic, and completely serious. “I am an Islamist/I am the Antichrist” sings Basim Usmani (also the bassist) in their most popular song, “Sharia Law in the USA,” which mirrors both in lyrics and title “I am an Antichrist/I am an anarchist” from “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols. They are paying homage to the band to whom they owe the roots of their particular brand of in-your-face political raucousness. The Kominas stay true to the loud uncomplicated drumming and straightforward catchy riffs of punk music. In the DIY spirit of punk, their sound is raw, unpolished, un-infiltrated; Usmani’s voice and words are the focus.
The Kominas are using the ethos of punk to do in present day America what punk was always meant to: subvert the mainstream and vocalize problems facing a cultural subsection that has been neglected. In their loudness and rebellion, they are giving a voice to issues of Islamophobia and religious conservatism that are not addressed in mainstream culture. In their music, all the anger, frustration, confusion, rebellion is allowed to explode. Yet what they do is not as simple as just making music. “What we do is sociopolitical first,” said Usmani in an interview with Colorlines. In some ways, The Kominas are making a sociopolitical statement simply by existing. They are not entirely Muslim or Islamic: one member identifies as atheist. They are not entirely Pakistani: all of them were born in the U.S., and one of them has Indian parents. “We have a lot of intersectional elements going on and identify in a lot of ways,” said Usmani to Paper. Most journalists are so confused by them that they have to rely on their simplistic labeling systems to understand them. They have been called “Islamic punk,” “Muslim punk,” and “Pakistani-Americans,” but none of these can really encompass the breadth of experience that The Kominas represent. “We’ve been describing ourselves as a ‘Post-Colonial punk band’ lately,” said the drummer Karna Ray in the same interview, highlighting the importance of self-identification in the rejection of expected categorization. The term “Post-Colonial” is especially important here in that it refers to the racially-charged history of the cultures The Kominas come from, while also acknowledging the racism resulting from this colonial history that persists today.
“In their loudness and rebellion, they are giving a voice to issues of Islamophobia and religious conservatism that are not addressed in mainstream culture.”
Another aspect of their contradictory and complex existence is their rejection of the idea that punk and religion, perhaps particularly Islam, are incompatible. “The main problem we have is with anti-religious punks who cannot see any value in a religious heritage,” said Usmani in an interview with The Guardian. Religion is an important aspect of self-identity and the music of The Kominas is another vehicle through which they explore what religion means to them, and how to reconcile this meaning with the society in which they grew up. “I don’t think Islam is ever going to go away, I’m just trying to see how it best fits in my life,” said Usmani in an interview with CNN. Some experts, including Mark LeVine, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Irvine, who is also a musician and the author of Heavy Metal Islam, have suggested that it “makes sense why punk has been the music of choice for young, politically active Muslims… The straight edge movement in punk, which was about no drugs, no alcohol, was clean yet very intense and political. It’s a way for them to rebel against their families in some extreme ways, yet still be ritualistically, ‘good Muslims.’” The Kominas’s brand of punk music allows for this reconciliation.
The need for this reconciliation is strongly felt in the subculture of Asian-Americans that The Kominas themselves are a part of. The increased immigration of families from South Asian countries to the United States in recent decades has created this subculture that faces a crisis of self-identification. This new generation of young Asian-Americans deals with the double pressure of retaining the cultural roots it has been distanced from while attempting to belong to the American society in which it has grown up. The Kominas are speaking for and to this generation. An important part of what they do is break down the stereotypes about Asian-Americans that are so prevalent, due in large part to the very limited representation of Asian-Americans in media and popular culture. Children of immigrants feel a great societal pressure to conform to the “model minority” status and become an academic, or a doctor, or an engineer. The Kominas defy this stereotype. For someone like me—a young adult of Indian heritage who spent her formative years in the U.S., who doesn’t fit the model minority myth, who has perhaps always been more comfortable in alternative culture—they represent the possibility of existing beyond this label. The Clash were to England’s white working class what The Kominas are to us: by showing that Asian-Americans can and do form punk bands, they are giving voice to our often-neglected experiences and frustrations.
“The Kominas are an American band… We could not have happened anywhere else,” said Usmani to The Guardian, raising an important point that all members of the band are Americans, born in the United States. They have various cultural heritages, but so do all other Americans. By using punk music, something they and others have called “white man’s music,” they are laying claim to their American heritage. By singing in Punjabi and Urdu, by addressing issues such as Islamophobia, they are declaring their South Asian heritage. The result is a culturally synthesized music that South Asian-Americans can relate to. This cultural mixing combined with the subversive defiance of punk is raucous and inflammatory. As the guitarist Shahjehan Khan said to Colorlines, “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.”