Bengali-born, Queens-raised Anik Khan’s in Astoria, rocking the hybrid salwar kameez kurta and denim jeans alphet religiously. His EP “I Don’t Know Yet” is a smattering of influences — classic Bollywood interpolations, shades of 50 Cent and G-Unit cadences, Jamaican and Patois slang, sifting Sade samples, strong melody throughout. The album floats along in its brevity.
What separates Anik from these influences is his voice, literal and figurative. The vocals take twists and turn throughout the EP, tackling varying tones and inflections to fit the content of his songs — simply confident reflections of life as only he knows it. That confidence wasn’t always there. He used to get jumped in and around Queens public schools. Sure, they took his Jordans — but they also planted seeds for a spirit strong enough to release art into the world.
Anik Khan: Everything that I got bullied about is everything that people love about me now.
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Brown kids and hip-hop. It’s a closer bond than you would think, especially for those of us in our early 20s. It’s deeper than the Ismaili kid spending all his time in the gym, finding an identity in shooting hoops all night long and yelling “Kobe” after every poorly timed fadeaway. It’s deeper than the Gujarati girl cherishing her escape of dance, clinging to the rhythm and the motion of losing herself in movement.
Yet, worldly perception has not been the kindest. We are sons and daughters of immigrants. We are supposed to be vocational in our efforts, work hard, achieve academic success, make a lot of money, live in a big house and stunt damn near every day. It’s why the family came to the U.S. right?
But the culture is shifting, a lot of it along a generational divide. Humans contain multitudes. There are more brown kids letting their voices ring out. Be it in music, literature, dance, theater, film, television, comedy, politics, activism — there are more brown artists, period. Queens has become a New York hub for these artists. Heems puts on for Queens every day. Big Baby Gandhi became one of my favorite rappers of all time over like the shortest amount of time possible.
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Khan is at his family home, a few weeks before moving to Richmond Hill. Someone in the distance tells him she likes his shirt. He graciously accepts her compliment. A few pleasantries, the faint spark of a lighter, the cluttered spoken Bengali in the background — they all paint the picture of a young man coming into his own, accepting an identity.
Khan: I grew up with a big family. They always made sure to show how important family is. Every week there would always be something. Fifty, sixty people sitting, laughing and dancing together.
Everything on the EP was recorded sitting on the mattress at a friend’s place, while having good conversation, letting the music come out naturally. Khan’s pen skills come from his father, a decorated poet and lover of literature. In Queens, his father drives a taxi cab.
The road to the release of the EP has been a long one. Khan maneuvered throughout the industry at an early age, at one point a client of Fadia Kader. He left New York and moved to Virginia before coming back to the concrete jungle, armed with purpose and a distinct take on transitioning raps to full-fledged songs.
Khan: It was huge, man. It opened my eyes. Astoria, Queens is the most diverse place in the entire world. In a 40-block radius, you almost see every nationality in the world. From Ethiopian to West Indian to Latin American, you see everything.
You go from that to Virginia to where I’m literally the only Bengali American in the whole vicinity. There were three black families and three Spanish families — total. It got bigger but when I first moved out there, that’s all there was.
It was cool cause on one side I always had that dream like ‘damn, I can’t wait to one day have a house like this.’ I still didn’t have a house like that but going from a one bedroom apartment with six people in it to going to a townhouse with two or three bedrooms and freaking central air conditioning? That’s like going from nothing to a five-star hotel. Like oh shit, I have stairs in my crib?
There’s nobody there. I couldn’t relate to anyone. Education is different. Transport is different. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. If I didn’t leave New York, I would have been just like one of my friends who don’t know anything past the eight blocks that they live in. Some of my friends are perfectly content with going to work during the day, coming home, eating, chilling with their friends and doing it all the next day.
Going to Virginia opened my eyes like ‘Yo, I can get this whenever’.
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The day Anik released his EP, he held an event called the “I Don’t Know Yet Experience,” an alternative to getting drunk and listening to his music and then going home. He reached out to eight or nine different artists of South Asian descent. Some came from Toronto, some from Florida, some from the DMV [DC-Maryland-Virginia area]. Every single one presented a piece tied into lyrics from the EP.
Khan: The goal was to show that this is about a community. No matter if you’re Pakistani, Indian, Bengali — the goal is to show you that as much as we are doctors, engineers, lawyers, Dunkin Donut workers, etc, there’s always a flip to it. I thought it was my own responsibility to create a platform and celebrate not only my EP but the community as well. These people came together and showed that they were proud via art. I wish I had somebody to look up to besides my dad growing up…. If I can be that to somebody, I’m going to definitely take it in stride.
It is more than myself. It’s not many of us doing this. At the same time, you don’t hire a plumber and say, ‘oh, he’s good for a Puerto Rican plumber’. I’m here for all immigrants.
The move to Queens from Dhaka was grueling. The sacrifice is clear and the pressures are even clearer. Khan moves with an inquisitive mind, a valuable trait in our short-attention span times. By assuming the mantle of immigrant rap, while never letting his listeners feel preached to, an even heavier burden has been placed on his shoulders. Brown kids never stop looking up to other brown kids, no matter how many of us exist in the public eye.
Khan: I don’t remember anything from Dhaka. My furthest memory back is in Queens. I went to I.S. 204 Oliver Holmes. I was never the coolest kid. I was too broke to have the coolest clothes. My parents didn’t know any better. I got schooled by the outsiders.
Khanfidénce is me finding the confidence to not care about any of that stuff. People don’t learn things like that until they get older.
I ask Anik what he wants people to feel when they listen to his music. He takes a pregnant pause, letting the question marinate. When he answers, his voice is clearer than ever.
Khan: I think it’s up to the people — what they want to feel. As long as they feel something, I’m good.
Mustafa Abubaker is a 21-year-old writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. Twitter: @brownboyflyhigh.