Urvah Khan is Helping Push the New Frontier of Punk From Toronto to Pakistan
"Making music in Toronto can be a grind. We want artists to first make it elsewhere. In Pakistan, many people immediately connected to my sound."
Images courtesy of the artist
Urvah Khan is all packed up for her first Pakistani punk rock tour. "I've been packed since Friday. I wanted to give myself a few days. I didn't want to be stressed." Khan is leader of Pakistan's first female fronted English language punk band The Scrap Army, that celebrates self expression and the victories of being a brown woman. Pakistan is one of the next frontiers of punk music and Khan's birthplace, but Khan formed her punk rock sound in Canada and is a quintessential Toronto artist.
Khan's style is definitive, dressed in black combat boots, fishnet stockings,and signature blonde mohawk. Growing up in Toronto, Khan watched both of her parents—her mother a prominent Pakistani journalist, her father a mechanical engineer—struggle in Canada's oft-impenetrable job market while trying to navigate her own cultural identity. The tension between her more conservative parents and her own ideals compelled Khan to drop out of high school and leave home just before her sixteenth birthday. By her early twenties, Khan was experimenting with samples and freestyle raps. But it was a meeting, and consequently a growing professional mentorship, with Canadian music producer Ruben Huizenga that introduced her to the expressive rock based music that's become her signature. After six years of honing her writing, recording, and live performance skills in Toronto, playing at NXNE, interviews with the BBC and actively courting media, she took a break earlier this year to visit with family in Pakistan. "I'm really proud of my Canadian values, but making music in Toronto can be a grind. We want artists to first make it elsewhere. In Pakistan, many people immediately connected to my sound."
Khan's time in Pakistan inspired her to form a Pakistani touring band. Now with a finalized line-up comprised of local rock musicians, the band will perform their first live shows in Pakistan this fall for a multiple date tour across several cities. "I've got the coolest kids in Pakistan in my band," she says proudly. Through an online video search that announced auditions and over 700,000 views later after it was first published, she'd end up finding a group of extremely accomplished musicians to join her. Since then, responses to the video and musical initiative have been full of love and encouragement but sadly, death threats made their way to her social media feeds as well. There is a contingent of people who have made threats against Khan's life on social media, comparing her to Qandeel Baloch, a young social media star who was killed in Pakistan earlier this year for being publicly too much of herself within a society that values homogeneity. "Freedom is seen as being characterless," Khan tells me. But the newfound media interest in Khan's Scrap Army is also not lost on her. "As a brown girl rocker do media outlets only want to know about me if someone is trying to kill me?"
Even so, the video also found the attention of young women across the world, primarily in Pakistan, US, Canada and the UK, who see their experiences being reflected back to them in Khan's music. "I write about me, my life, what I can relate to and what I want to say. I was getting messages from Hijabi's all over the UK. I got a [direct message] from a young woman in Pakistan, who said that she really related to "Call this a Confession" and "16 year old." Like me, she was a runaway. These are songs I wrote about the guilt of being a runaway. Like, I'm sorry I broke our family. But I needed to be who I am. I needed to be free. This girl really got that. We're thinking about maybe collaborating when I'm in Pakistan."
There is a large and active rock and metal music scene in Pakistan with a growing punk scene, as well as throughout South Asia. Many of Pakistan's commercially successful rock acts, such as Noori or Junoon, respectively, tend to lean more towards fusions of rock or pop rock with Urdu lyrics. Khan holds these bands in high regard however it's important to her that a punk scene also fosters a community of like-minded people and free expression. "I like collaborating. But I have no intention in being a part of the mainstream anywhere," says Khan. "Punk is a culture that can't have traditions, it stands against traditions, to not just fit in a system, but to try something new." Why did Khan take the time, energy and money to build a band and not just tour as a solo act? "I really want to bring back the culture of being a band. To promote being yourself but also being together."
Khan knows that she's a representative of all of the cultures that influence her work. For Khan and other female artists of colour, the responsibility is assumed, and Khan rises to the challenge. "I've been watching speeches by Trudeau and Obama and other world leaders, to just, be as clear and rational when talking to media here or in Pakistan. I want to make sure I'm making my point of view known. I want to share with audiences, I want to help heal their hearts."\
Each time she meets me, Khan gives me something of her own - this time, it's a gold and black promotional pen which says, "scrap." She adds that "rock is dead. The Scrap Army, this music is made from the scraps of East and West." With her journey back to Pakistan, she understands that she's on the precipice of a big personal and artistic leap. Nevertheless, it's the connections she makes through music that will always drive her and this is clear when she insists she give me her pen: "you must take this. I want you to have it. I want a part of me to be with you." Like her music, Khan gives you her all.