We spend a day in Astoria with the rapper of Bengali heritage, and premiere the video for his new song "Shadows."
Photos by Atif Ateeq
“I’m trying the best I can to give people my balance. Because I’m not the ‘brown, Bengali rapper.’ I’m a rapper from lower income housing in Queens that happens to be brown,” Anik Khan explains to me, both of us perched on a stoop in Astoria. “I don’t want to be the kid who represents the Bengali/Indian story, I want to be the kid who represents the immigrant story.”
Anik and I first meet at Aladdin Sweets & Restaurant on 36th Avenue in Astoria, a well-known Bengali spot in the area. He’s wearing dark washed jeans, a burgundy kurta—a long tunic worn by men in India and Bangladesh—with delicate embroidery around the neckline, and a gold chain. Inside the restaurant, he takes the initiative to order us a full meal, including gulab jamun, a saffron-based dessert. We eat family style, with our hands, sharing the vegetables, the rice, the lentils. Immediately, he is kind and giving: he pays for the meal, walks the food over, gets napkins and water. We are, after all, in his neighborhood, close to his middle school I.S. 204 Oliver W. Holmes ( he’ll tell me later this is where he was bullied, and where he even got his Jordans stolen).
But let’s rewind. Who is Anik Khan? He is a rapper—with a penchant for harmonies—whose functionality straddles two cultures: hip-hop and Bengali, two cultures that don’t necessarily get along and are, at times, opposing forces. Music is, of course, a large part of South Asian culture, but hip-hop has struggled to establish itself. Anik says his mission is to bridge the gap between his worlds, even starting with how he dresses: the kurta, the gold chain, and the pashmina he wears in the latter half of his video for “Shadows,” which Noisey is premiering below.
“The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know shit. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, that’s the most beautiful part about it: the willingness to want to learn. You know, growing up I was extremely confused. Bengali-born immigrant that moved to Queens, New York City. There’s a balance that I didn’t understand in the early ages of my life,” he recites during the introduction of “Shadows,” waxing poetic on his dueling cultures.
Anik’s opening hook then comes in with a thud, amid the melodic interplay of a high-pitched whistle and a pulsating bass drum, “Truth is I haven’t shook my shadow,” the sample begins, his vocals echoing the same sentiment, swapping a fierce flow for glossy harmonies and then back again, ad-libs scattered in between. As a lead single from his upcoming project I Don’t Know Yet, it’s a song centered right on the essence of his polarities.
Anik was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and immigrated to Queens when he was four because his father sought political asylum. His father was involved in Bangladesh’s politics and was a freedom fighter in the Bangladesh Liberation War. His father provides financial support for his extended family and his home village. His father is also a writer and prolific speaker. Whenever Anik speaks of his father, there is admiration in his voice and a sweeping smile comes across his face.
“My dad’s always recited poetry. In Indian, Bengali, and Pakistani families, you go to a function and there’s always somebody talented that does something… So they’d tell my dad to recite his poetry. That’s why he got his Masters in literature,” Anik says. “He focused on Bengali poetry and Bengali poets. I grew up watching him give speeches. I started [rapping] because I would watch him do speeches and like, in my language we call them kobita and I would just watch him recite kobitas at home. Then I would have rap music when I would go outside on the block. I think those subconsciously just made me start [rapping]. I think that’s why I fell in love with it.”
But in America, Anik’s father is a cab driver. “That’s why he’s my idol. The man drives a taxi here, but he still was able to build roads, a mosque, and a school all back in his village.”
Anik felt the pull from hip-hop when he was 14. He would come home to an immigrant family and embrace his Bengali side, but then would go outside and be on the block with his homies, listening to Jay Z, Eminem, Nas, and Biggie, growing up in a culture outside his immigrant upbringing.
“I fell in love with rap music, that shit was amazing. And then I just thought… I actually don’t know why, I just one day thought—you know what I used to do? I used to rap other rappers’ shit.”
His family moved to Virginia when he was 14 because his father had the opportunity to work elsewhere. While in Virginia, Anik worked full-time at a bank to help pay his parents’ mortgage down, and was in the studio whenever he wasn’t working. After he attended college for a year, and spent a few years back and forth between Virginia and New York, his family finally settled back in New York in 2011. Like his father who left his home, car, and material possessions in Bangladesh, Anik also left Virginia with nothing, selling his car and every item he owned.
“When I first came [back to New York], I was on a mission... I was like look, all of my sisters are here, all of my cousins are here, you have more support than just me. So give me like a year and a half, let me sleep on some couches. I don’t wanna work, I just wanna see if I can make this shit happen. I would leave the crib with like five dollars. And I would jump the trains and I would take the five dollars and I would go get dollar pizzas and some soda… In the afternoon, I would go to events and at night I would go to somebody’s session, just meet as many people as I can and then come back home.”
For awhile, it worked: He met Fadia Kader—Def Jam’s director of brand partnerships and strategic marketing—who managed him for a couple years. He started a project and almost got signed. Yet he never released anything substantial until now: his upcoming project I Don’t Know Yet, slated for a July release, is his debut as Anik Khan, as Khanfidénce (an ode to teaching himself charisma and confidence and to repel any more bullying), shedding the skin of his former incarnation as the emcee whose name he won’t divulge.
If you speak to Anik, he is effusive, always talking about his family, his father, his nephew, Queens, Bangladesh, and hip-hop. He isn’t shy: He’s proud of these parts of his life. But growing up, he wasn’t always so proud of his ethnicity.
Anik isn’t always identified by others as Bengali, which caused him to distance himself from the culture. He felt socially and culturally disconnected from other Bengali kids; he related more to the black, Spanish, and West Indian kids. The fact that Astoria is one of the most diverse areas in the world only further reinforced his ethnic ambiguity. But once he moved to Virginia and was given a chance to grow up away from New York, he was able to find his balance.
“Regardless, if I’m outside at a Bengali function, the shadow of my urban shit, my hood shit will come out. Regardless, if I’m outside on the block, the shadow of me being Bengali and telling the homies let’s go get some mango lassi will come out,” he says, laughing. “But [my] culture now plays a huge role with me because it is an extremely big part of me.”
In the beginning, he says he didn’t even want to talk about being Bengali. He was just a rapper. Eventually he understood that he couldn’t run away from his nationality; his culture isn’t exactly a nuanced part of him. He watches Bengali movies, speaks Bengali at home, prefers to eat with his hands, and wears traditional clothing; he injects his music with Bengali and Bollywood melodies. Despite his current cultural positivity, the foundation for his music was bred within the disconnect he previously experienced between himself and his heritage. Through IDKY, Anik speaks for the immigrants who left their country to pursue the American dream only to struggle. For Anik, his project is an undeniably attempt to find himself—as any debut project is for a young emcee—but it is also a more concrete attempt to find an equilibrium in two worlds, to achieve harmony between his American and Bengali selves. His cultures are no longer dueling; he’s no longer combative about being placed in a box.
“Regardless of whether you’re the Bosnian kid that moved here, or the West African kid that moved here, or the Guyanese coolie kid that moved here to Richmond Hill, where your parents had a lot of stuff, had a home and everything, but left it and came here to work fucking low income jobs and do the best they can just so their kids can be better. That’s my story. That’s always going to be my story,” he says. “Culture, to me, is the most divine form of education.”
Tara Mahadevan is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.