The Kominas Raise Two Middle Fingers To Punk Rock’s Whiteness
By Spencer Shannon
From its hard-edged melodies that slice the air like razors, to its wild-eyed, raw-voiced singers in their leather boots and torn black denim, to its DIY philosophy that rules everything from communal living to music production, punk rock has always been synonymous with freedom — and with deviation from the oppressive standards set by a capitalist society. Yet, paradoxically, this freedom has historically been promised only to a very specific subset of people. The grainy black-and-white photographs depicting bloodied, thrashing white men of decades past don’t look much different from the crowded basements and dive bars of today’s scene. The only diversity you’ll find is in the kaleidoscope of genres within punk rock.
That is, unless you listen to the Kominas.
A quartet of self-proclaimed “weird brown dudes,” three out of four of whom are Muslim, the band is a cacophony of color and sound, a compelling mix of raucous laughter and bitter anger, shy charm and biting wit. The band is based out of Boston, the birthplace of American rebellion and a punk town since the hardcore scene formed in the 1970s — and a city that, from local bands SSD to Dropkick Murphys, has long exemplified the punk world’s stark lack of diversity.
“We’re using punk to reform punk,” says Basim Usmani, the Kominas’ bassist and singer, on the first night of the band’s Rock Therapy tour, its first national excursion in over five years. He explains the complicated relationship many musicians have with the genre. It’s often perceived as toxic, he explains, due to the visceral, sometimes violent nature of its sound. But to Usmani, that couldn’t be farther from his experience. “We’re attacking punk with punk, and we’re trying to make it–”
“We’re trying to punk the punks,” Karna Ray, the band’s drummer, finishes for him. “We’re like the Ashton Kutchers of the punk world.”
The band members are standing outside a venue called Lilypad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a warm, hazy night in July. The venue is tiny; the bar isn’t much more than a podium stocked with plastic cups, and the box office is a paper list with names crossed off in ink. But the walls, adorned in terracotta red and woven tapestries, suggest that a rare warmth blooms here.
In an hour or so, the venue will be packed with revelers, overwhelmingly of color — moshing, fist-pumping, and returning the primal cries of hardcore punk rock with a fervor that lacks the undercurrent of white male aggression that so often casts a shadow on spaces like these.
The Kominas seek, through performances like this in a constellation of cities, to create healing spaces for people of color to dance, scream, sing. They want their audience members to find reprieve, even for just a couple of hours, from the dark tide of Islamophobia that has incited targeted violence, bringing societal tensions in America to a boil. And what could be more cathartic than the raw physicality of punk rock?
“Every day there’s some new shit happening. It’s so hard to keep up, you start kind of getting numb to it, and not really dealing with it,” says Sunny Ali, guitarist. “Playing shows, for us, is very therapeutic. When it’s a good show, and when the crowd is into it, it feels like some kind of group therapy. To be moshing with each other and, I think, even just physically being that close to like-minded people, is therapeutic.”
Formed in 2005, the Kominas (derived from kamina, the Urdu word for “scoundrel”) define themselves as taqwacore — an amalgamation of the Arabic word for Allah-fearing piety with the in-your-face energy of hardcore punk.
The word itself, and the concept it encapsulates, was created by author Michael Muhammad Knight in his breakout novel The Taqwacores — a fictional account that imagines a radical Muslim community full of riot grrls in burqas and anti-fundamentalist punk rockers. Later, the Kominas participated in a documentary of the same name with Knight. They quickly found that the project was far from what they’d discussed, altering their own experiences to serve a Muslim-reformist narrative that Knight was attempting to push throughout the course of the film. (Knight, in somewhat of a twist, is a white American who converted to Islam.) In a move that echoes the experiences that the band has suffered for most of their career, they found their identities once again reframed through the lens of an outsider’s perspective.
“Even with 10 years of work [as a band] and a lot more presence of color in the media, there’s still an editor at the top that . . . will insist upon [the tidying up of] the shaggier ends of our identity . . . Those ends are always snipped off,” Ray says, speaking to the band’s prevalent portrayal in the press as Muslims attempting to “reform their culture.”
The band’s songs, which address racial and social justice issues, are meant to be complex, at times cheeky, takes on the world as they experience it. But as Ray says,“Regardless of how many nuances and intricacies and differences we have, and how often we try to break the stereotypes that are imposed upon us, it will be read by those who choose to read it in a narrower context as just feeding stereotypes.”
In other words, you’re allowed to contain multitudes — but only if you keep them inside. Only if you adhere to the status quo. Only if you’re not brown.
For the Kominas, it’s one thing to (in part) identify as Muslim, and another to be defined by that. If punk is about liberation from the bonds that oppress us, about the hackles-raised, snarling refusal to be caged into any box, then the Kominas fully embody that spirit — with two middle fingers up to both the overwhelming whiteness of the Boston punk scene and the ways in which their Muslim identity comes before all else.
“People call us a Muslim punk band, and not everyone is Muslim,” says Shahjehan Khan, guitarist. “That’s definitely what was super problematic about the first bout of media, too,” adds Ali.
For them, critical acclaim and media attention has been soured by the stereotyping and fetishization that has plagued their entry into the punk scene for years. They just want to make music that provides release for themselves and resonates with their audiences, yet they find themselves perpetually resisting forces that seek to assign them arbitrary definitions.
“It’s difficult because a lot of other bands . . . [are] not saddled with an identity,” says Ray. “No one’s like, ‘a white band’s playing tonight, a white punk band.’ And why can’t we say ‘a white punk band?’”
Despite the efforts of the group, as well as others like them — Ray names West Philadelphia as an example of a city with a vibrant POC music scene, and the other band members recall with some chuckles that they can’t remember the last time they attended a punk show headlined by white bands — the fact remains that the mainstream face of punk is still synonymous with whiteness. Internalized racism runs deep, even amongst some of their fans.
At a point in time when the band was still figuring out how they wanted their identity as a group to take shape, it was exceedingly painful to be othered by members of their own musical community. “Even for [people in the scene], I think we were some kind of fetishistic thing,” says Khan. He mentions the band changing members, and a friend of his being unable to remember who was new to the group. “And he kind of joked about it, but it hurt! We spent years with these people, playing shows with them, and they still couldn’t tell us apart.”
This is a band whose career has been plagued by the exhaustive need to defy definition while struggling, just as all musicians do, to carve a space for themselves among the thousands upon thousands of artists who throw their hearts and souls out into the void. This tour is about something more than the music. It’s defiance. It’s redefinition. It’s reclamation. Not just for them, but for their audiences, too. It’s healing.
The Kominas recall an interaction with a young man named Mohammed, who approached them after a show at Kenyon College in Ohio. “He was like, ‘Yeah, there’s something deep inside of me that, even if I’m being tortured, I know that they can’t fuck with — and this show tonight has added another drop to that strength,’” Khan says. “‘I don’t know how long this feeling will last, maybe just for another week. But I can walk down the street with my head held up high.’ He said that his heart and his brain were swelling.”