Meet Anik Khan: Rapping for Immigrant Visibility and Queens Pride

Anik Khan
Eric Henderson

Anik Khan

Receiving a personal invite to join Jidenna on his Long Live the Chief Tour was a humbling surprise for New York rapper Anik Khan. But as an independent artist, with a job teaching writing to underprivileged youth at a non-profit and a mortgage he shares with his parents, putting a pause on responsibilities and accepting his first national tour wasn’t an easy decision.

“[Jidenna] got my number, gave me a ring and said, ‘Brother. I would love to have you out if we can figure it out.’ Obviously, anybody who shows me that much love I'm going to try to return twice as much back,” he tells Billboard.

Earlier this year, Khan released his first full-length project Kites, an EP filled with genre-fluid harmonies and narratives that explores what lies at the core of Khan -- Queens life and Bengali culture.

Combining jazz and hip-hop bars with dance rhythms from Caribbean and West African inspirations, Khan never loses sight of telling the immigrant story that’s synonymous with Queens – the NY borough where over 160 languages are spoken. EP tracks such as "Habibi" plays homage to bodega owners, while "Tides” uses Diwali Riddim to express the ups and downs of a quarter life crisis in a gentrified city.

“As a brown person, a Bengali American doing stuff in hip-hop or just in the music industry in general, we're very few and far between,” he says. “With my music I had to realize that I'm talking about a lot of sh-t people may have never heard before.”

Khan emigrated to the U.S. when he was around 4, with his father seeking political asylum after fighting in the Bangladesh Liberation War. The importance of language and culture was instilled from his father, who had his masters in literature and practiced a Bengali performance art of reciting poetry.

“I've watched him perform poetry in front of thousands of people and get people riled up to love their country,” recalls Khan.

And Khan naturally brings a similar kind of pride to his live shows, which he says is his favorite part of music. Most of his songs are designed with performance in mind and Khan truly flourishes on stage.

Although he’s on his first major tour, Khan previously opened for the Swet Shop Boys and had his first headlining show in July at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade. Accompanied by a band of his collaborators and close friends, he sold out the venue out to a communal and diverse crowd.

“The amount of different types of people that were there really blew my mind. There were so many beautiful black and brown people in there,” says Khan, who often preaches of unifying brown and black communities. “You would think it was a bad thing growing up in low-income housing, but no. I was blessed to be able to grow up in that neighborhood because my family was allowed to mix around other cultures and other cultures of black people. I really value unity and color, and making sure that's something noticed and addressed.”

A packed venue didn’t stop his mother from being in attendance (on a FaceTime call), and his father proudly bragged on Facebook about his VIP access to Khan’s recent SummerStage performance for Basement Bhangra’s 20th Anniversary show in Central Park. “The reason we're so close is because we've never really had s--t besides each other,” Khan says of his family's closeness. “When these moments happen, they're very emotional for us. We went from a one-bedroom apartment with six people to their son being on a nation-wide tour”

SummerStage brought Khan to familiar territory, as his family used to take him on day trips to Central Park. He remembers not being able to afford a cone from Mister Softee and running away towards the sprinklers whenever he saw other kids buying the $1.75 treat. Except this time, his trip involved a sound check in front of thousands of people, and Khan was able to make up for some lost time with the ice cream truck: “I bought myself two mother f--king Mister Softees.”

As Khan completes the last leg of the tour, even his after-show merch puts his borough at the forefront. He partnered with three Queens-based food businesses for long-sleeve shirts that play homage to local restaurant uniforms (menus on the front of the shirt and addresses on the back) that have become known in the neighborhoods.

Khan’s pride doesn’t come without industry pressure to put his heritage to the side, or accusations that he uses it as a crutch for his music. But he refuses to let that silence him. “People have said, ‘He might be leaning on his culture' -- that doesn't really make any sense because you can't lean on something if that's just who you are," he explains. “There might be people who are of immigrant descent where it doesn't really matter to them, and that's cool... but that is really who I am. I love immigrant life, I love Queens hood life.”