Anik Khan on "Habibi" and celebrating the immigrant story through hip-hop

Anik Khan on "Habibi" and celebrating the immigrant story through hip-hop
Anik Khan
Anik Khan

Electro soul singer and rapper Anik Khan had a carefully laid plan for rolling out the singles from his coming album Kites — but then Trump happened. 

Fans were supposed to get "Habibi" months ago. Rapped over a mixture of trap and traditional Indian percussion, Khan's ode to the New York City bodega was meant to be the first single, the introduction. Trump's hastily attempted Muslim ban changed everything.

"It just didn't feel right anymore," the Bengali-American singer said in a recent interview held in the Mic offices. "Me being of South Asian descent, Muslim descent growing up in this country, I was just like, there's no way that if I have this platform I shouldn't utilize it to speak to this issue, just because I have this plan."

He put the roll-out on pause and released "Columbus," a hard-hitting battle hymn tracing the spread of white supremacy from Christopher Columbus' first voyage up to today, and the havoc and resilience it has bred among America's immigrant populations. 

It paints Khan, himself the son of a Bengali immigrant and former freedom fighter, as a bold and dedicated revolutionary. But his album has so much more to share. There is joy to his story as well. 

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Now, with Trump's travel ban still stuck in a Hawaiian limbo, Khan is back on schedule. "Habibi," with its earnest celebration of immigrant culture and the Queens bodega infrastructure, dropped Thursday. In our interview, Khan detailed the track, described the inspiration for "Columbus" and shared his thoughts about making music in the era of Trump.

(Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Mic: Let's talk about "Habibi." What side of the Anik story does that tell?

Anik Khan: It is a party, turn up, have a good time and celebrate culture. I've always tried to blend different parts of the world that I really appreciate. You have to remember I grew up in Queens around hip-hop outside on the block with the homies. But then inside I would grow up around foreigners. We would listen to Indian music, Bengali music.

So this takes drums from the Middle East and North Africa and fuses that with things I love to dance [to] out here, making a song about the habibi in the New York delis that stand behind the counter and always serve and supply whatever they can from the hood. People don't realize how much of a black and brown connection that it is. I wanted to put a highlight on that. Too many times it's like either your brown or your black or your white. But here's this situation where if you live in the neighborhoods that we live in, there's different types of immigrants going into this deli. And there's this one guy that is always supplying everything anyone needs. Because that's the place we go to get juice, food, swishers. Anything we need.

I mean yeah, I remember the Yemini bodega strike after Trump's first attempt at the immigrant ban. The neighborhood kind of shut down in a big way.

AK: Yeah. Can't go get your tings or your Cokes or nothing. You just gotta wait. It's really about being the plug and being a habibi — "habibi" means "beloved," for those that don't know — and celebrating the things you love.

Let's talk about your previous track — "Columbus," which deals with immigration and the Muslim ban and everything. You told me previously you've been sitting on that song for a year now and that when you saw Trump's first incarnation of the Muslim ban you felt the need to speak. Tell me a bit about how that felt making the decision to release that.

AK: Yeah, I mean we had a completely different plan. I was getting ready to release a different song, ["Habibi"] right that same week when it all started happening — and it just didn't feel right anymore. So we put that on pause and put out "Columbus" which is actually the outro to my new album Kites. It was supposed to be the last thing you hear ... and it's kind of an exception. Everything else is colorful, it's fun. It's celebrating immigrant culture, black culture and brown culture and everything we've done. "Columbus" is the deepest and most aggressive song.

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Walk me through the process of creating it. Starting a year ago, what was the inspiration?

AK: You're going to laugh. I used to take care of two kids. One of them came out of school and was talking about Columbus, because he was just learning about him. This kid is like 9. Shout out to Dex. This one day he was like, "I didn't really like school today," and I asked him why and he said, "I learned about Columbus, and he's a jerk." I started helping him with his homework and he was like, "Certain books show us that he did something so cool by finding this place, but look at all the bad stuff that happened." And in my head while he's doing his homework I'm thinking: "Even if it's yours I'll take your spot and make it mine."

That ending poem, I read it was recited by your father, who was a freedom fighter in Bangladesh. Tell me about the poem, what is it saying and what does it mean to have his voice on that for you?

AK: It's a very popular poem, about the freedom fighters in the liberation war when we were fighting for our language against Pakistan. It's about a soldier going to war and not recognizing home anymore because he's been at war for so long, but closing his eyes and thinking about his loved ones — at least that's the way I took it — and getting through because of that. It's about finding this balance between going to war and I don't feel at home, and wondering if you'll feel at home when you get back. That's the immigrant story in general. We always live in that hyphen, you know, Bengali-American, Sudanese-American, Filipino-American. It's like you're balancing two different cultures. I felt it was extremely important for me to try to describe that through someone who's lived that directly. 

My father left everything he loved to come to this country and try to give his children a better life. When I'm saying, "Now I'm Columbus, and look at the rage" — here's the prophecy that came out of that. Here's a man who left everything to become a cab driver — even though he has a master's degree in literature — [and] lived in a one-bedroom apartment with six people. Did that and sacrificed everything to have a son who can now speak for him and be this voice forever.

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Musicians have been some of the most active players in leading this resistance, do you think there's something unique about music to address these ideas of unity, liberty and understanding?

AK: I think musicians, actors, anyone in the entertainment industry — we have such a privilege of being able to alter one's emotions and feelings. Sonically or visually, we can do that to someone. We can make you feel happy with a song that we write, we can make you feel sad with a song that we write. It's a beautiful thing when someone can uplift that happiness.

That's very rare for someone else to be able to do that to yourself as a human being. Like, you'll go through your motions regardless — "Aw, I had a shitty day 'cause of this" or "My coffee dropped on the thing" or "Damn, I'm having a shitty day, let me turn on some Bob Marley and feel better." That is so powerful.

Yeah and I mean, everybody's always like "Bob Marley all on his feel-good stoner shit." Like those songs, specifically, "Three Little Birds" and all that. Those for me serve a political purpose. You come back after watching some terrible Sean Spicer press conference, you put on some Bob Marley, you get some of that motivation back that some people are trying to sap out of us at every turn.

AK: Sometimes we use art as we would religion — that same soul or spirit you want to get when you leave the church, or the synagogue, mosque or temple. You can get that through music or a movie. You can watch something or see something and feel motivated, inspired or even helpless. That's the cool part that you can feel all spectrums of these emotions. I think it's very important for creatives to do that, because when shit sucks we can make it better, and when things are great we can make them greater.

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