Urvah Khan: This pint-sized punk rocker hopes to take Pakistan by storm
Canadian-Pakistani punk rocker Urvah Khan is pushing the boundaries of rock music — and gender and cultural stereotypes — one performance at a time
Canadian-Pakistani punk rock artiste Urvah Khan, as press coverage on her will tell you, is "pushing the new frontier of punk from Toronto to Pakistan". But that isn't the only frontier she's pushing. A fiercely individualistic performer, Urvah is also shaking up gender and culture-based expectations in the country of her origin, where she returned last year to put together a band called 'The Scrap Army' (named after Urvah's brand of music, 'scrap', built from the 'scraps of rock'). While her music has been featured on BBC Radio and the Winter X Games, January 2017 will mark her first-ever live performance in Pakistan. In an interview with Firstpost, Urvah talked about her life, and music. Edited excerpts:
Your first performance in Pakistan is coming up on 14 January. It must’ve been quite a rollercoaster ride since November 2016, when you got The Scrap Army together. What has the process been like?
Yes, a rollercoaster of a ride is the best way to phrase it… I returned to Pakistan for three weeks in April of 2016 after many years to visit family; at which point I noticed a female punk act like me didn't exist in this industry. So I returned to Canada and put a plan together to audition Pakistani talents for a local live line-up named 'The Scrap Army'. I traveled between Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, networking and connecting with likeminded people.
It was scary at times, being in a country all alone… but I am proud that I didn't give up, although it got difficult at many times. I have been in Pakistan since September of 2016 and we finally have this debut show lined up on 14 January at The Base Rock Cafe in Karachi. My band members are awesome, dedicated and professional to the bone. We look forward to throwing an entertaining energetic set and showing Karachi how far a Pakistani woman can go when she is truly free.
You were born in Karachi, but raised in the UAE until you turned 12, and then moved to Toronto. What about your life in these places influenced you to become the individual that you are today?
I always felt different… was never a popular kid or someone who fit in. Growing up in Abu Dhabi, I never questioned what I was told or never attempted to break out of the box – but then again, I was really young and busy just trying to lead a 'normal' life. My upbringing even in the UAE was in a Pakistani Muslim household. Once I got to Canada, it was a huge culture shock for me – why? Because freedom was in the air! I tried to fit in, tried to make friends, but I was at an age where it was difficult because I came from an eastern background. I was an outsider, a foreigner who spoke with an accent – and weird!
Anyway, I spent years after that defying what I was born into; I spent years finding myself and making a life that worked for me. About seven years ago, rock music found me… It found me at a stage where I was depressed, lost and didn't know what my purpose in life was. And today I found my purpose, I found my place in this world. I am Urvah Khan, a scrappy li’l brown girl with lots to say.
Did you ever take music lessons growing up? Were you taught to play any instruments?
Nope, I was never into making music or learning (it) growing up. The options put on the plate for me career wise were doctor, engineer or lawyer. But the past seven years of being a performing and recording artist have been my learning playground. I am blessed to have some of the best musicians in the world mentoring me, who have been a part of my project since day one in Toronto. They have taught me so much and in the past couple of years I have started taking vocal lessons so I can keep learning and growing as a musician. I play keyboards and stuff here and there, would love to play the guitar live one day, but for now my main instrument is my vocals.
What was the music you heard in your early years? What would your parents play at home, and when you began to develop your musical tastes, what kind of music did you start by seeking out?
My parents played a lot of Indian and Pakistani music at home. My mom would always be playing songs while she was cooking… So a lot of black and white classic film music comes to mind when I look back on those days. My dad was into Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, I would say he was kind of like the 'Top 40' listener. As a music listener, being a young girl the first act I really liked were – the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys! [laughs] I have since a young age also been a huge fan of AR Rahman, I remember watching movies he would compose music for just because of him and watch the dubs in other languages to hear his music. A band called Junoon from Pakistan is my favorite rock act from the subcontinent. Once I got to Canada, I got busy with life... withdrew from music, but was into rap and hip hop – Eminem is my rap god – (before) and eventually finding myself in Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Rage Against The Machine, to name a few, as a rocker.
What drew you to rock as a genre?
I started off as a rapper in 2009. I did a few gigs alone and then with a DJ. I had a lot of energy live and sometimes the electronic music couldn't keep up with it. I was meanwhile also working with various producers, trying to compose an original sound, during which time I met my Canadian guitarist/ producer Ruben Huizenga. He was impressed by my aggressive energy and believed it was a perfect match for rock music. So our journey began together in early 2010. Since then I have been a student and lover of rock-n-roll. (I) spent uncountable hours making our hybrid version of rock – ‘scrap’ – studying bands, researching their sounds and learning to grow not just as a musician but also as a person.
From 2013 onwards, you've spent a lot more time discovering the musical traditions of Pakistan, and you took Urdu lessons as well as classical music lessons... What was the 'trigger' to revisit and rediscover the music of Pakistan?
In 2013, my band members and I took a small break as things were moving too fast and were hard to control. I was emotionally in a real bad state… constantly arguing, being depressed, and just unable to focus and continue in a positive manner. During that break, I felt alone and didn't know who I was. While I had found myself in rock music, I had also lost my self in it. It became an addiction where I constantly needed that high... and if I didn't get that high, no one was at peace [laughs]. I decided to go back to where it all started, and as a musician I thought the best place to find myself culturally would be via classical Urdu/Hindi vocal training. And after taking these lessons for almost about three years, I was ready to return to Pakistan and see how I could contribute. And being the 'ONLY' woman doing what I do, I'm in a league of my own. So it’s my rules, my way!
You ran away from home just before you turned 16, and then it was the next seven years that were crucial in helping you find your identity as a musician... Please tell us about this time in your life.
As I mentioned earlier, I always felt different inside. I had trouble fitting in. When I moved to Canada with my family, things became even more complicated. I saw the freedom Canada had to offer and didn't want to live within the boundaries of culture and traditions, which I was born into. So, a naive little girl ran away from home, thinking she would figure everything out. And she dealt with tough times, teenage depression, being homeless, giving in to the street life and abusing substances to fill in the pain. And eventually, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I got into music. The life I lived armed (me) with content to write, rap and sing about. The difficulties I faced being an outsider everywhere and being so crazy gave me what I needed to take command on stage. It's almost like the years I spent on the streets were building and gearing me to become the 'Urvah Khan' I am today.
An aspect of your appearance that gets commented on a lot is your tattoos – apart from the Mohawk and the piercings! Which of your tattoos is the most meaningful to you?
I love tats man! I feel that as an artist, my body is also my canvas where I ink memories and symbols of things that matter. My favourites keep changing depending on my mood. But I recently got a crescent and star tattooed on my left hand as a tribute to Pakistan. So every time you see that horn sign going up in the air you see a piece of Pakistan as well. My second favourite would be a henna or mehendi design I have on my right hand. It constantly keeps me in check and reminds of how brown I am!
Would you say you're a nonconformist?
No, I would say I'm more like a pack dog. Give me a reasonable person with a valid vision and I will support (them).
You said in a previous interview that you think of rock as being the voice of oppressed people...and that rock was (dying) because no one had anything left to say anymore. Do you think that's really true of us as a generation?
Nope, that statement was in regards to rock and roll as a movement and a liberation front. We can never blame the listeners because it is our duty as artists and musicians to be relevant and to speak out. Rock and roll was invented by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a lesbian African American slave. Rock n Roll legends like Chuck Berry and Little Richard have credited her as the inspiration that created this sound and that we today so are in love with. Since then rock has evolved plenty of times, with generations of youngsters rebelling with something to say, a call for change, a call for freedom and equality. So here I am, using the same epic, historically proven rock sound to create an army of likeminded individuals in Pakistan, who would join me and in the name of rock, get scrappy.
How do you see your role as a musician in society? Do you think about what your legacy will be, as an artiste?
I'm far from perfect. I screw up, lose my cool, say things I feel bad about. But I try my best to be honest to my faults, apologise and move on, learning from the experience. As a punk musician, I have one role in society: to cause a ruckus! [laughs] I will speak of issues that I find need to be spoken of. I will dress, walk, dance the way I want to... I will be free and hopefully that will be inspiration for a few if not more. As far as legacy (is concerned), it's already written... I'm just playing my role.
What have your impressions of Pakistan been over the past year, and how have people responded to you?
I returned for the first time in April of 2016 for three weeks, and then again in September till now. I have used Facebook as a platform to pitch my music to a Pakistani audience and due to the diversity of this project it has generated a larger than expected buzz. People are awesome everywhere and not so awesome everywhere as well. So I am grateful for the love and support this country has offered me. And obviously, if you are a woman who hails from India or Pakistan, you know it's going to be difficult. You know that our culture has envisioned women to live a certain way and when you cross those lines, there's going to be anger. But you’ve just got to remain focused, enjoy the ride and do it for your supporters.
Are you conscious of any pressure to kind of live up to some exemplary standards as one of the rare female punk rock artistes in South Asia?
More than pressures, there are assumptions. One I constantly deal with is being told that 'I'll go to hell' or I am an 'Illuminati' worker. There is no excuse for hard work, consistency and dedication. And if I am a rare female punk artiste in South Asia, let's get together and change that. Viola Davis, one of my favourite actresses, once said; "The only thing holding back a woman of colour from achieving greatness is opportunity". So the only pressure I am willing to deal with is creating that opportunity for more brown girls to get involved in rock music.
What are the projects you're currently working on, and are there any artistic collaborations on your wishlist?
After the 14 January show, I am returning to Canada. I need to re-charge, re-group, save money, make a new record which showcases the inspiration I have drawn from Pakistan. I will return again in the fall of 2017 with a new string of shows in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. A new album to promote, I'm excited to see what I come up with because the past 10 months of my life and pitching my music to a Pak audience has changed me in many ways. Apart from that, I pray that the political situation between India and Pakistan can find a way to heal our relationship. I am a huge fan of the Indian music scene and would love to showcase my music to an Indian crowd. Artistic collaborations? Most of my idols from the western world are retired or dead! So nothing on the radar – unless AR Rahman decides to give me a call!
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