by Zab Mustefa
Around the time Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet came out in 1991, I was a young second generation Scottish-Pakistani living in one of Glasgow’s roughest areas. While the police had to be called to our apartment at least twice a week to deal with the racist abuse we faced, music was what had really helped as a coping mechanism from an early age.
While air bombs were pushed through the letterbox or our car windows were constantly smashed, there was always some classic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Noor Jehan playing in the kitchen background, or some hip-hop booming out from the bedrooms.
That was, however, until I discovered punk. Curiously hearing the Sex Pistols and the Clash for the first time aged 13, I found that the music was anti-establishment, anti-fascist, and went against the typical social structure expected of a Muslim teenager growing up in the West.
Scottish South Asians make up 2.1 percent of the country’s population. Mass immigration increased from the Indian subcontinent during the 1950s onwards with many families coming over predominantly from the Punjab region.
Diversity is a big part of Glasgow’s sizable Pakistani community. However, as with most cultures in immigrant societies of Western countries, shit gets mixed. Integrating both Eastern and Western cultures together has been a vital aspect of growing up and this eventually led to the discovery of Pakistani punk.
“Punk is not only a genre of music that shouts out against social and political ills. It’s also a way of life,” says Safyan Kakakhel, lead singer of Pashto punk band Marg.
“A way of life characterised by individualism, defiance of societal norms, self-help, self-awareness and speaking out without fear against fascism, intolerance, conformity, injustice and sociopolitical infractions,” he adds.
Marg, which means “death” in Pashto was formed by 29-year-old Kakakhel in 2010. Born out of the suburbs of Peshawar, the band’s creativity stems from many things; bottled up emotions, the social conditions of the country, and the thrill of using psychoactive substances. But most of all, it is born out of a genuine passion for playing rock n’ roll.
Mainstream Pashto music in Pakistan – what Kakakhel refers to as “some of the worst music ever made”, is far from the thrash metal influences he cites as inspiration, from Megadeth and Slayer to more hardcore punk acts such as Minor Threat and Anti-Nowhere League.
“Interestingly, I didn’t premeditate what genre I was doing when I started writing songs,” Kakakhel tells me. ”It just so happened that the style of music I wrote was punk rock, and I was like, so be it.”
Marg’s songs address many things; hypocrisy, political and theological deceit, nihilism, drug use, and death – issues many young people in Pakistan are dealing with.
Given the context of the band’s songs, one would think it’d be difficult living in Peshawar as a Punk due to the tense circumstances, namely after Taliban militants massacred 132 children and nine teachers from a military cadet school in December 2014.
“I don’t blame people who perceive Pakistan that way. The news is constantly filled with hellish images everyday – anyone would think that’s all that happens in this country of 200 million people. In reality, living in Pakistan is just plain boring, normal and ordinary, with moments of cheer and excitement every now and then. Peshawar isn’t really the nightmarish city it’s usually deemed to be. There are millions of hard working people who are just trying to get by and make ends meet and who have nothing to do with guns, militancy and terrorism. But some majorly poor decisions and policies of the past and the proxy-armies we created are unsurprisingly going to haunt us and tarnish our global image for a long time.”
Against the backdrop of violence and terrorism constantly hitting the headlines, Pakistan’s music scene is still alive and fighting back. Despite this, more underground scenes have been given little recognition.
When one of Marg’s singles was featured in Never Mind the Taqwacores, Here Is the Real Deal, a Pakistani punk compilation album released two years ago, it received support globally, but not so much in Pakistan.
The term Taqwacores was adapted from the 2003 book of the same name by Michael Muhammed Knight and was later made into a documentary. By mixing punk and Islam together, a subcategory of the genre was made.
Kakakhel, however, doesn’t think punk and Islam go together.
“Taqwacore punk got really famous as it was given a lot of coverage in the international media thanks to a book/documentary by the same name and mostly due to the realisation of a greater need to highlight ‘progressive’ movements within the Muslim youth in the West. Personally, the term Taqwacore doesn’t make any sense to me nor does the genre. I don’t think Islam has much room for the arts, especially music, and a genre like punk, which is inherently wild and free from any sort of cultural or religious restraint. The compilation album paves the way for ‘real’ Pakistani punk rather than ‘media-hyped styles’”, Kakakhel says.
With 55 percent of the Pakistani population being below the age of 24, a new generation of individuals has surfaced in the country.
For instance, Hassan Amin is a film and television student from Lahore by day, and lead singer of Multinational Corporations, also known as MxCx, by night. Coming from a family with links to the army, Amin was brought up with a lot of propaganda, eventually influencing the political nature of his music.
Forming hardcore punk band Foreskin in 2009, his inspiration came from the likes of Discharge, Doom and Extreme Noise Terror, leading to the formation of MxCx and Kafir-e-Azam – Urdu for the great infidel.
“Punk is the entire middle finger to the world,” the 23-year-old says. “When I started MxCx, my main band was Foreskin, which was this silly shock-value punk/metal mashup. I wanted to do something serious, something more political, so I formed the band with my guitarist Sheraz. Making a ‘grindcore’ band was a pretty obvious choice for me. It’s the noisiest, most abrasive, most politically aware punk subgenre out there, with a strong metal crossover tendency. Grind gigs have everyone from crusties to thrashers so it’s always a great healthy atmosphere. It’s my favourite shit in the world so it was a no-brainer.”
When asked about the punk scene in Pakistan, Amin calls it the “aata stage of the roti.” In other words, the dough stage of bread.
One advantage of being an underground punk band in Pakistan is that the authorities don’t take notice because most gigs are low key. Nevertheless, Kafir-e-Azam was for a period accused of being anti-Islam by conservatives even though Amin maintains the band had nothing to do with religion.
“We actually just named the band after what Indian Muslim clerics called Jinnah, to highlight the irony of our nation slowly being cuckolded at the hands of these right wing Islamofascists. Anyway, we ended up taking the page off. It doesn’t matter, our music is still spread around.”
Amin’s lyrics reflect Pakistan’s instability, which doesn’t end with terrorism. A dysfunctional government, corruption and religious intolerance are all reasons for why the country’s youth feel frustrated. More than half of Pakistanis live under the poverty line, earning $2 a day, according to a 2014 Economic Survey.
“Life can be great anywhere in the world if you’re part of the specific demographic that the state caters its interests towards. I’m not, so I’d be lying if I said it was fantastic.”
Across the pond, American life in the day and age of ISIS has become a strain for many second generation Pakistanis growing up in the US. Post 9/11 America and having to deal with Fox News-style rhetoric blaming Muslims for anything and everything paved way for the Kominas.
Formed ten years ago, its band members Basim Usmani, Shahjehan Khan, Sunni Ali and Karna Ray have toured all over the world and aren’t shy to controversy with songs like Sharia Law in the USA, featuring lyrics that did more than turn a few heads – “I am an Islamist, I am the antichrist, most squares can’t make most wanted lists, but my my how I stay in style.”
Being an American Pakistani Muslim punk though, how does that work?
“Religion is as much about identity as it is about beliefs,” lead singer Usmani tells me. “Punk is absolutely a ‘me, me, me’ genre, every song is someone’s tantrum about something whether that’s worker’s rights or veganism, but punk keeps getting further and further from reality. It’s much more style than politics, which is a conservatism in its own right. People want to keep punk irrelevant; they want to just reuse the same contrasted black and white promo photos and same themes again and again. It’s comfortable to ignore the lived experiences of others, but punk doesn’t speak for the rebel, it speaks to a certain type of consumer,” he adds.
Also featured in the critically acclaimed Taqwacores documentary, the Kominas have managed to piss off the likes of right-wing nut Pamela Geller, but have also experienced their fair share of Islamophobia, racism and discrimination.
Muslim punk bands date back to 1979 when British band Alien Kulture emerged. Vocal against Nazis and fascism at a time when South Asians were dealing with race riots in the UK, the group inspired others to mix Islam with the genre.
“A lot of kids think we complain a lot, but our read is, aren’t you fucking Punx?” Usmani asks.
Post Charlie Hebdo, the Kominas have given the next generation of kids a voice, not just those from a Pakistani background, but those from all walks of life.
“At the moment, even conservative Muslims get why some kids like us would make some noise about the fears felt towards Muslims, and they like the myriad ways we’re dealing with issues rooted in older things like colonialism, capitalism, exploitation and fears. They’re more sympathetic than many in the West assume.”
Going against the establishment regardless of the definition is what makes me find a sense of belonging amongst Pakistani punks. Whether that be tackling patriarchy in my culture or fighting racism, this generation will not be silenced.
The Kominias finished off with something that made me smile: “Muslim Americans are the last American heroes.”