In between an intricate web of audio cables, held together by tacks, the signage read “Audiomack.” I stared at the fixture closely, wondering how long it took whoever made it to finish. My eyes moved on to the records in the bookshelf below, as Queens rapper Anik Khan and DMV rapper Innanet James sat in front of the studio’s production setup, messing around with a new beat. Khan eventually hopped into the booth to record his verse.
“Baby, what the fuck is in your water?” he sang, later adding more melodies and background vocals to the track.
After they finished the song—and after some back and forth about the best halal in SoHo and a drop-in by Khan’s sister Tazin—Khan played us his new project. I had a fairly visceral reaction to the album, which was a welcomed feeling, because, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been feeling pretty jaded about music these days.
Khan’s story, though, is elemental to my own as a writer, and to the evolution of this whole hip-hop thing.
Khan emigrated with his family from Dhaka, Bangladesh to Queens, New York when he was four years old. In Bangladesh, his father was a well-known freedom fighter, who came to America to seek political asylum. While Khan’s father is something of a big deal in their home country, here, in Queens, his father is a cab driver. Those circumstances, coupled with living in low-income housing in New York’s most diverse borough, presented a duality for Khan, which sits at the crux of his music.
Before anything else, though, he had to prove he could really spit, which is what he did last summer with his debut project, I Don’t Know Yet. Besides establishing that he could rap, the mixtape was a home to his dueling polarities, of a Bengali immigrant living in Queens, who had also appointed himself to be the mouthpiece for the immigrant story.
While hip-hop has been bridging cultural gaps since its inception, traditionally, the genre has largely been pegged by two viewpoints: Black and White. When I first met Khan, I grappled with this constantly, within and outside of rap. In rap, especially, the two perspectives felt acutely magnified, leaving the “other” to flounder; to live on the margins.
But there are people who keep pushing those limits, including Anik Khan. After IDKY, he was able to move forward and do what he really wanted to do, melding rap, Bollywood, and Caribbean melodies together, with a touch of the sounds one would find from indie powerhouse Soulection. It’s something that can be heard post-IDKY, on songs like “Obsession,” “Too Late Now,” “Renegade,” and his latest, “Cleopatra.”
“Cleopatra,” for instance, samples Indian composer A.R. Rahman, along with Craig David, and uses West Indian-influenced drums, while using the Cleopatra as a central theme to cite Africa. Blending those sounds together only further boosts his immigrant motif.
Lest we forget: America was built by immigrants and continues to be an immigrant country. Khan’s narrative is impactful for all Americans, even those whose families have been here for generations. By flipping these sounds, his music makes room for a perspective that hasn’t properly endured in rap. It's a patchwork of cultures and aesthetics that, through sonic and lyrical content and context, has the ability to educate a new audience.
Khan transformed my attitude, and I eventually found my footing as a fellow Desi entrenched in this rap shit. I realized that having the ‘other’ perspective isn’t a handicap nor hindrance, but that it allows me to see things a bit differently.
Different is good.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram