“Hey, has everyone been stress eating the last week?” Basim Usmani asked the crowd as he put on his bass guitar. The audience at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade cheered in response, ready to feel something that might counteract the utter despair of Trump’s presidency even a week after the election, ready to hear The Kominas play.
For the last 10 years, The Kominas have been a pillar of radical brownness in a white landscape, giving voice to the condition of the Muslim and South Asian diaspora in an increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic country—not only as a South Asian band in a white punk scene, but as South Asian Americans (some of whom are Muslim) in a fracturing country. Their subversive songs bounce between satire and more forthright defiance, with lyrics like “Dropping the bomb/So remain calm/Read the Qur’an/Pigs are Haram.”
Their music has always been cathartic, but the election of Donald Trump has forced them to confront even further what it means to be a brown punk band in America. It has also placed them in an uncomfortable position of becoming more visible through tragedy. Since the election, they’ve played a couple of sold-out shows, speaking both to the power they wield to bring people together and the awkwardness of drawing attention during such a terrifying time.
“It crushes me inside my soul that a stale Cheeto is president right now.”- Basim Usmani
“We’re all really scared,” guitarist Shahjehan Khan said backstage before last week’s show. They were opening for Swet Shop Boys, the rap outfit consisting of Heems and Riz Ahmed and producer Redinho. “I know firsthand people who have been fucked with in some way, whether it’s physical violence or harassment. You read [about it] every day.”
“They can change the person at the top but the system remains in place,” Usami said, noting that racism and anti-Muslim sentiments were a problem long before the election. “But it doesn’t change the fact that it crushes me inside my soul that a stale Cheeto is president right now.”
As a band, The Kominas walk a fine line between representing a niche community and being pigeonholed as token punks of color, but it’s clear that their shows are a unique space for both their fans and themselves. At the beginning of their set last week, Khan related a story to the audience about being subjected to a search by Oslo Airport security on the band’s way home from playing a few shows in Europe. The audience of more than 200, full of South Asians, other people of color, and some white allies, was almost completely silent during the story, a rare occurrence at a rock show. Even the usual murmur at the bar seemed subdued.
Their moment in the spotlight has compelled the band to think about fostering solidarity rather than reacting to bigotry.
“Every show is an instantaneous, intimate relationship, and you have to treat it like any other intimate relationship,” drummer Karna Ray told me. “You accommodate, you build, you try to maneuver it.”
“For us, it’s very therapeutic,” guitarist and singer Sunny Ali said. “When it’s a good show and the crowd is really into it, it’s like group therapy. That energy is so satisfying.”
“I feel like we’re doing this to keep ourselves from going insane,” Khan added.
Creating music as a means of emotional reprieve seems exhausting, and has forced the band to reconcile the role foisted on them at times like this. It’s a feeling familiar to artists over the last month. As the Asian American indie musician Mitski told Time last week, there’s pressure both to represent his community and “make everyone feel better in some way.”
But as Pakistani and Indian artists who have directly skewered Islamophobia, The Kominas feel the additional weight of representing a diverse South Asian identity.
“We have the audience, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we share the same political views just cause they’re POC or at our show,” Ali said.
And as much as they believe in the reparative aspect of their music as a reaction to what’s been going on (it’s certainly a compliment to be a band people turn to at a time like this) it is kind of weird to be getting all this attention. It’s compelled them to think about fostering solidarity rather than merely reacting to bigotry.
“Trying to build a community is much more fulfilling adventure than trying to collect a bunch of people that need this out of desperation,” Ray said. “Unfortunately the band finds its success riding on the coattails of tragedy.”
“It’s good for business,” guitarist Sunny Ali quipped sarcastically.
“It’s kind of debilitating in a way,” Ray continued. The band explained that they had a few shows in the days following the election but felt a little uncomfortable about promoting them and even playing them which he admitted wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do. The solution “isn’t to stop entirely, put your instruments down, and consider what the proper response is,” he said. “It’s doing it harder than you’ve ever done it before.”
“We just can’t stop now,” Khan said. “It’s been 10 years, people definitely identify with us, we have a fan base, and now it’s even more relevant.”