It’s a rare sight to behold—a crowd of mostly brown people dancing and generally rocking out to an all-brown band, yelling out lyrics like, “Eid Mubarak!“
For people of South Asian descent living in America and caught between two cultures, there is an identity crisis. There’s the identity within the status quo white American culture, the one we try so hard to assimilate into as both a natural part of our personal evolution and an act of survival. And then there’s the identity of our ethnic culture, given to us by our parents or grandparents (or perhaps one we grew up in ourselves), the one reserved for Sunday religious classes, dance practices, and on rare occasions, Bollywood matinees at an accommodating local movie theater.
For most of our lives, these spheres have never really crossed. Maybe you ran straight to a white friend’s birthday party right after a dance performance with fingertips still painted red, or one of your classmates kindly informed you that you still had ash on your forehead from your morning prayer. Or maybe your dad went through a Kula Shaker (this white ’90s British psychedelic band that had some Hindu-“inspired” tracks) phase like mine did, but at least in my experience, there haven’t been too many instances where I could celebrate brown culture succeeding in white spaces. Until now.
Over the past weekend—yes, the same weekend when a bunch of Hindu Republicans hosted Donald Trump at an “anti-terrorism” event—I attended the third annual Hindie Rock Fest, a small D.I.Y. event dedicated to South Asian music and arts, and hosted by Saraswati Jones, the lead singer of Bollywood Punk outfit Awaaz Do. The festival showcased more than a dozen acts, from Nepalese guitarist Garv Bomjan to classical dancer Monishita Ray to DJ Ayes Cold to band Trandcention.
While there were fewer than 50 people there for the first few acts, the crowd swelled up to somewhere between 200 and 300 on Saturday, filling up the auditorium at the YMCA in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Few folks understand the struggle of being South Asian within a largely white music scene quite like the Kominas, a band based out of Boston that can be described as Muslim punk (though not all of their members are Muslim anymore), brown punk or post-colonial punk. When Jones introduced the Kominas to the crowd that evening, she referred to them as “punk uncles—punkles,” an endearing term that speaks to how long they’ve been in the game and how much new bands with South Asian folks respect them for it.
The Kominas (which means “scoundrels” in Urdu) consists of bassist and singer Basim Usmani, guitarist Shahjehan Khan, guitarist and singer Sunny Ali, and drummer Karna Ray. Their sound is a rich mix of classic punk, surf rock, some reggae vibes, a lil’ funk and Hindustani music, all rolled into solid garage rock, and their songs are sharp, intersectional, subversive, and political as fuck. Take, for example, “Sharia Law in the USA,” “Pigs Are Haram,” “See Something Say Something,” and “4 White Guys.”
For the last 10 or so years, the Kominas have essentially been poster boys for this very thing, a band carving out their space in the white punk scene. But back when they got started, there was no Hindie Rock Fest and no Function, a similar showcase put on by Indian American rapper and Riz MC collaborator Heems earlier this year.
“We were kind of the Desi kids in our scene,” Khan told me at the festival after their performance, which drew the largest crowd of the night. “Initially when we started, we weren’t super connected to other Desi acts.”
Back then, in the mid-aughts, South Asians like DJ Rekha who was instrumental in popularizing bhangra music in the U.S. and singers Jay Sean in the UK (“Eyes on You”) and Raghav in Canada (“Angel Eyes”) were making higher-profile moves in hip-hop and R&B, but there weren’t a lot of South Asian Americans (or South Asian Britons) coming out of the rock scene. I mean, we did have Dave Baksh, aka Brownsound, the guitarist for Sum 41, so there were some victories.
“The scene is getting more accommodating with us,” singer and bassist Basim Usmani added. “You gotta find your own spot, and that’s been the focus of the band.”
Which is exactly why something like Hindie Rock is the perfect event, allowing bands who are already flourishing in white spaces to connect with each other and their brown fans on another cultural level. It’s frustrating that finding people who share your religion or cultural heritage or skin color or simply another piece to the post-colonial puzzle takes so much effort, but there is certainly something enormously empowering to DIY and “D.I.T., do it together,” as Jones put it, to establish your own space to play and enjoy the music and dance you want to, marrying multiple aspects of your identity. But honestly, to be non-white in America is already a DIY effort.
“This is the thing that I always wanted personally as a kid, a way to integrate music that I wanted to do and stuff that my parents are into,” Khan said. “It’s important to have spaces like this. The identity crisis is being un-crisised with things like this.”