The Kominas, Stereotype (2015)
This is the multimedia version of Matthew Pierce’s review of the 2015 album by The Kominas, “Stereotype.” A podcast version of the review is available for streaming below.
If breaking stereotypes is a virtue, then The Kominas might be the shaykhs of our age. This Boston-based punk quartet has racked up a decade of experience offending people of all types. Their fourth album, Stereotype, came out last summer, and it features ten unpretentious punk rock songs rooted in a Desi/American/Muslim mashup that has earned them a niche international following.
The Kominas are most often thought of as “that taqwacore band.” And indeed, the almost accidental Muslim punk rock movement inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores helped members of The Kominas sort out their own identities. Omar Majeed’s 2009 documentary about the movement focused on the band, prompting an onslaught of media attention, much of which failed to get beyond the shock that a Muslim might be a punk rocker. Despite the group’s protests, the “Muslim punk rock” label has stuck with them ever since.
Clocking in at just over twenty-seven minutes, Stereotype is not a lengthy album. Most of the songs follow the classic short and sweet punk pattern, with no instrumental or lyrical flourishes.
And if you’re hoping to find a Muslim “punk rock manifesto,” you’ll need to look elsewhere: The Kominas aren’t concerned with preaching or promoting particular beliefs. Most of the time, they are just about the music, which is fun and catchy. Take the quirky and comical song “Banana”: any temptation to search for a serious message is defied by the ridiculous video they made for it. Adolescent humor involving food and vaguely phallic bodily references has long been a staple of punk subculture, and The Kominas are taking their turn in a line of satirical banana songs like The Dead Milkmen’s “Smokin Banana Peels,” going back to folk examples like “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” by Harry Chapin.
These songs are not necessarily about depth, but it would be a mistake to not take The Kominas seriously. They are pushing the boundaries of punk with their own unique fusion that draws on everything from reggae and ska to South Asian and American pop. The influence of ‘80s punk icons like The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, and The Clash echo throughout this album, but The Kominas resist purist definitions of punk.
Yes, even punks argue over definitions. A case in point: Tim Yo purging Maximum Rocknroll of any music that didn’t fit his definition of the genre in 1994, setting in motion an ongoing debate about what counts as punk. But punk rock has never limited itself to music. It is an expression of anti-authoritarianism, individualism, and counter-culturalism, and this is the mantle The Kominas wear, even when they step outside the genre’s musical conventions.
Alongside its lighthearted melodies, Stereotype expresses genuine social concern. When The Kominas yell, “read the Qur’an, pigs are haram,” they aren’t talking about bacon. In the space of less than a minute, with all the straightforward power of punk rock, they take on police profiling, racism, abuse of force, and corruption.
The Kominas’ criticism isn’t limited to structural injustices. The song “See Something, Say Something” is a poignant reminder that the unconscious bias of well-meaning citizens can result in unfair suspicion and surveillance of anyone outside the mainstream.
Other songs like “Again & Again” focus on problems in Pakistan. This is what makes The Kominas so interesting – their Pakistani, American, Muslim, punk, activist identities are too complex and interwoven to categorize neatly. They defy stereotype and demand to be listened to.
As an educator, The Kominas provide me with a thought-provoking case-in-point as I push students to think about what counts as Islamic, or American, or South Asian. The group’s Facebook page may describe them as “weird brown dudes in a band,” but many Americans experience cognitive dissonance when they hear that a punk rocker identifies as a Muslim. This is how The Kominas end up being given labels they themselves resist. The fact that most of the band members identify with Islam in some way, but do not consider themselves a Muslim punk rock band, raises an important question: in the contemporary American context, can a group of Muslims just be a band?
Questions of identity aside, this is an enjoyable album. It is not a dramatic departure from their earlier work, but it is more melodic and less gritty overall. The band has had some minor lineup changes since their last album: Shahjehan and Karna Ray have rejoined the other core members, Basim and Sunny Ali. Abdullah Saeed still plays on a couple of tracks, though. The album also puts to rest the notion that The Kominas were a passing gimmick of the Taqwacore movement. They continue to develop and deserve attention as a serious band.
Fortunately, some of the more recent coverage of the band has continued to mature as well. Their music can be sampled or purchased on their bandcamp website, and they appear to have a tour planned for August 2016.
MATTHEW PIERCE is Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College. His research focuses on early and classical Islamic history, particularly the development of Sunnī and Shīʿī socio-religious boundaries in those periods. He is interested in the ways in which the construction of historical narratives reflect and influence the scope and meaning of cultural symbols related to gender, identity, and authority. He also listens to a lot of punk rock. His book Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shiʿism will be published by Harvard University Press this summer.