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Taqwacore: Punk Polyculturalism (4/4)

Taqwacore combines alternative interpretations of Islam with a punk anti-status-quo ethos, best known through the U.S. band The Kominas [1]. In the fourth and last part of her essay, Wendy Hsu describes how the band creates powerful social resonances and ethnic solidarity. Taqwacore, Hsu claims, can be a cultural space for alternative understanding, practices and identities around Islam.

Afropunkfest 2012 (Photo © by Flickr/Versus And Company 2012)

Part 4 of 4 – Part 1 [2] / Part 2 [3] / Part 3 [4] / Part 4

Minoritarian Vision

The multiplicity of The Kominas has created amorphous and powerful social resonances for their fans and friends. With an intentional cultural ambiguity, the band enacts a minoritarian vision of social inclusion. The Kominas evoke a brown-and-punk continuum akin to the taqwacore subaltern spirit. Through mobilizing this discourse, the band unifies a conglomerate of fringe social groups.

This conglomerate points at a polyculturalist (Prashad 2001) solidarity with those who fall outside of the white norms (and the US American black-white racial binary) in rock music-culture and by extension, in the U.S. and global society: Indians, Pakistanis, Latinos/Chicano punks, Afro-punks, Native Americans, Sri-Lankans, Southeast Asians, West Indians, Sufis, Arabs, Taqwacores, Muslims, immigrants, migrant workers, socialists, queers, the disabled, and other «others». Invoking an inclusivist punk brownness, The Kominas makes clear its home-base in the South Asian and punk worlds. Declaring its status as a minority within a minority group, the band branches out to touch those who are similarly marginalized within the society.

The Kominas frequently associate with other non-South-Asian musical groups of color. Forging an alliance with other artists of color took different forms. The band has shared a stage with a number of musicians and groups associated with Afro-punk: Amul 9 [5] from Atlanta, GA and Sean Padilla, also known as the Cocker Spaniels from Austin, TX. Basim devoted a session of his online radio podcast series Basim’s Goth Hour to the music of Afro-punk [6]. Additionally, the band made a short video satirizing American xenophobia and racism against «ethnic Americans» such as themselves and Mexican immigrants. Using jingoist imagery such as American fast food and mall culture, and conservative media rhetoric including «American responsibility», «collateral damage», and «support for the Taliban», the video marks «Ethno-Americans» – specifically, The Kominas, Das Racist, and Mexican immigrant workers in the food service industry – racially distinct from the right-wingers’ ideal «America».

«Brown Brothers»

Notably, the band has forged a connection to Latino punk. In the liner notes of their album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay, written on the bottom of the page in fine print, I found a sentence written entirely in Spanish: «para todos mis carnales cafes del mundo que chinga su madre el gobierno americano y que viva la raza». This message suggests an anti-U.S.-government stance: «For all my brown brothers in the world. Fuck you, American government and long live, the people». From my bilingual Chicano friend, I learned that the phrase «carnales cafes» («brown brothers») does not exist in formal Spanish. The statement «viva la raza», meaning «long live the people», is a phrase or protest slogan used by Mexican Americans to evoke ethnic solidarity with one another during the Chicano Movement (Alaniz and Cornish 2008). The Kominas employed a literal translation of the term «brown brothers» to show their alliance with Mexican and other Latinx immigrants over a shared brown identity.

It wasn’t until I went to The Kominas’ first show that I got a better sense of what this cross-ethnic alliance may mean. In a musty basement, I was caught in the middle of a swirling crowd of sweaty bodies. This was Nick’s Basement, two blocks away from the University of Massachusetts Lowell campus. Los Bungalitos, a local punk band, blasted its distorted power chords out of a decrepit Marshall amp. Shouting words in English and Spanish, the hardcore vocalist hyped the crowd, combusting the basement with energy and making the walls shake. In a conversation over the loud hardcore band, Shahjehan screamed into my ear, «The singer of Los Bungalitos is incredible. I love this band!» During the Los Bungalitos’ set, The Kominas set up their equipment. Shahjehan stood facing a short stack of guitar amplifier speaker cabinet while tuning his guitar. He wore a black kurta with gold embroidery. There was a sea punk signifiers in the basement like guitar mohawks, dim lights, skinny jeans, hoody sweatshirts with patches, guitar feedback, beers, grunts, chants, sweat, handmade merchandise and zines, fists of camaraderie, etc. A surge of social energy brought together a constellation of punk, brownness, and immigrant identities.

Immigrant Rights and Anti-Assimilationist Politics

In «Blow Shit Up», a bilingual song with Spanish verses, Basim repeated the lines, «I don’t want assimilation / I just want to blow shit up», over and over again. Jumping, shouting and body-surfing, the band pranced around the stage area and then lunged into the audience. On a burst of adrenaline, the band celebrated their co-presence with friends and compatriots. The Spanish verse of this song is an excerpt from «A Las Barricadas», a well-known tune of the Spanish Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. With a punk association, this anti-establishment fight song has been covered by many artists including Brazilian hardcore band Juventude Maldita and Estonian punk band Vennaskond.

Songwriter and Guitarist Arjun borrowed only the first stanza of the original version: «Negras tormentas agitan los aires, nubes obscuras los impieden ver, aounke los espere el delore la muerte contro el enimigo los yama el deber». The verse translates into English as, «The black storms agitate the airs / The dark clouds impede our view / Even death and pain wait for us / Duty calls against our enemy». This passage paints a dark imagery of war and a sense of urgency for a battle. The Spanish verse allows Spanish-speaking Latinx individuals a unique cultural vantage point. This is an instance of social bridging between the brown-identified South Asians and Latinos and Latinas in the United States. Conservative rhetoric against immigrants have manifested as censures against speaking Spanish in schools and in other public spaces. Within this political climate, the Spanish citation within the song is read as an anti-assimilation gesture.

Brownness as an Immigrant Identity

I argue that this bilingual anti-assimilationist articulates the position of two subaltern groups in the current United States political landscape: the Spanish-speaking Latino/a immigrants and the individuals of Muslim, South Asian, and Arab descent who run the risk of being stereotyped as bomb-throwing terrorists. Uniting the two enemy groups of the state could be a response to the so-called «the Al-Qaedization of Latino identity»: a political process that fosters a conservative and near white-supremacist homeland security culture, lumping the «bad» Latinos with «terrorist threat» (Lovato 2006). This race-based attack has targeted Chicano activists. Slandering Chicano activists as «America’s Palestinians» [who] are gearing up a movement to carve out the southwestern United States… meeting continuously with extremists from the Islamic world» (Mariscal 2005: 43; cited in Maira 2009: 244).

With the vision to dismantle the racist backlash against Muslim and Latinx immigrants, The Kominas stake a claim to their brownness and highlight a similarity between the Muslim and Latinx Americans living in the United States. The articulation of ethnic brownness is rooted in anti-assimilation politics. In «Blow Shit Up», The Kominas align themselves with the left-leaning spectrum of the Latino/a immigrant community. They embody an inter-ethnic brown identity driven by immigrant politics. Maira describes this kind of political affiliation as being based in a «shared political relationship to the nation-state rather than a shared identity based on culture or color» (2009, 180). I would argue for a slight different theoretical relationship between the two. Rather, for The Kominas, it is upon this shared political relationship to the nation-state that their inter-ethnic identity has been built. The Kominas’ cultural activism is not only driven by their own dissent as postcolonial brown subalterns (Hsu 2013), but also equally fueled by the shared narratives of being unjustly treated as non-citizens in the United States.

Playing loud and high-energy music at the basement show, The Kominas led a multiethnic crowd to throw up their fists shouting «oi-oi-oi»!The band intentionally decontextualized the punk anthemic «Oi»! shout from its historical association with the working class and white-supremacist punk skinheads in the United Kingdom. For the here and now inside Nick’s Basement in Lowell, and around in The Kominas’s social sphere, the band’s «Oi!» chant spread an anti-racist and anti-U.S.-assimilation resonance. Embracing the abject in the style of punk, The Kominas’s «Oi!» shout-outs reached fellow youth of color, some of whom were brown Latino/a, others were brown Asians.

Epilogue

The Kominas embody the punk anti-establishment ethos to challenge the essentialist notions affiliated with South Asian and Muslim identities after September 11th. The band brings together various contestational micro-universes among subaltern groups via a polyculturalist, brown, pro-immigrant identification. To conclude this series, I should recapitulate the meaning of Taqwacore and emphasize that Taqwacore was a cultural phenomenon that was born in a specific historical moment. Some of what falls under the umbrella of Taqwacore has dissipated and transformed into other progressive formations questioning the political and cultural status quo. It’s worthwhile to mention that the Taqwacore spirit still lives on.

What has gone under the Taqwacore banner is an interpretation of Islam and the humanities surrounding it. It is also an interpretation of life in the era bombarded by intensive global exchanges of media, music, ideologies, images, subcultures, dissent, affects, and spiritualties. The life of Taqwacore resists discursive simplifications and social injustice. What I know is: Taqwacore is a not a religion. It is not even an alternative to «Islam», as portrayed by mainstream U.S. media. Taqwacore is a cultural space for alternative understanding, practices, identities, and relationships to and around Islam. And the journey to understand it only begins, and should not end, with The Kominas’ music.

Part 4 of 4 – Part 1 [2] / Part 2 [3] / Part 3 [4] / Part 4

Bibliography

Hsu, Wendy F. (2013): «Mapping The Kominas’ Sociomusical Transnation: Punk, Diaspora, and Digital Media», Asian Journal of Communication, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2013, p 386-402.

Lovato, Roberto (2006): «Cruising on Military Drive: ‹Good› Latinos and ‹Bad› Latinos in the Age of Homeland Security and Global War», The Public Eye Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall (accessed September 21, 2010), [Link] [8].

Maira, Sunaina (2009): Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11th, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Mariscal, Jorge (2005): «Homeland Security, Militarism, and the Future of Latinos and Latinas in the United States», Radical History Review 93, (Fall), p 39-52.

Prashad, Vijay (2001): Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.