How Pakistani-Canadian Urvah Khan is boldly changing the world of rock music for South Asian women

The Toronto musician wants to build a new music world out of broken pieces — one that's inclusive and fearlessly feminist.

Khan is building a new music world out of broken pieces — one that's inclusive and fearlessly feminist

Urvah Khan. (Urvah Khan)

You'd be hard pressed to find a more enthusiastic rock historian than pioneering musician Urvah Khan. And you better not tell her she's a punk rocker.

It's not that the Toronto-based musician minds being called a punk — but she'll tell you that her distinctive sound is South Asian influenced progressive rock informed by her Pakistani roots and Canadian identity.

"I wanted to make the kind of rock music that Brown women like me would want to listen to," says Khan, who has studied classical Indian vocal singing and infuses rock with melodies from Pakistan. She also wants to use her music to motivate the next generation of women like her to dominate the music industry. "I want little Brown girls everywhere to hear my music, and feel like they can make music too if they want to."

I wanted to make the kind of rock music that Brown women like me would want to listen to.- Urvah  Khan, musician

Khan, like other artists who instinctively understand how to command a stage, uses her personal style as artistic self-expression — and self-preservation in an industry that favours artists who look and sound mainstream. She rocks a fierce style all her own with a blonde Mohawk, piercings and tattoos, including one on her neck that reads "made in Pakistan, product of Canada."

It's a look that's carried her through almost a decade of evolving musicality, from rap to alternative/progressive rock to fronting her band, Scrap Army, which she founded in 2010. This Thursday, Oct. 18 marks nine years since Khan's first show.

While others in the music industry might perform a rock and roll attitude, for Khan, it's her life's philosophy. Ruben Huizenga, her bandmate and musical collaborator, explains: "Urvah's music is direct reflection of her personal journey: anger, vulnerability and roller coaster highs and lows. She's so intertwined with her music I don't think she could ever let it go. She could never say, 'I'm giving up on music.'"

Urvah Khan. (Urvah Khan)

After immigrating to Canada from Pakistan with her family at 13 years old, Khan says she ran away from home as a teenager to find and define herself. She dedicated her life to that pursuit through music. "My music is progressive and alternative, but my attitude is punk," she says. "I'm going to be who I am, and I don't care what you think."

Though Khan says she loves being Canadian and Pakistani, like so many Canadians, she must reconcile those two cultural experiences — simultaneously belonging and feeling like an outsider in both worlds. "In Canada I'm too Pakistani, and in Pakistan I'm too Canadian," she says.

She used those experiences to build resilience to deal with the backlash she's encountered against her non-apologetic commitment to be herself, and to her feminist approach to rock.

In Canada, she leads a rock band in a predominantly male and white scene and has experienced being seen as the other. And though there is a vibrant rock scene in Pakistan, Khan says that there aren't a lot of women who make music or who look like her. That's something she hopes to change by making more of her own music and creating more opportunities for South Asian women in rock music.  

To describe her particular sound, she has coined the term "scrap rock," rooted in the idea of creating something new from the scraps of the old rock world. ("Rock is dead," she says bluntly.)

"She calls it scrap rock, because it's built from the broken pieces left from trying to reconcile two worlds," says Huizenga. If rock was co-opted by white, male performers, Khan sees scrap rock as a means of reinventing the genre — and going back to its roots.

When she talks about the origins of rock, Khan's electrifying energy goes up a volt.

"Let me tell you something, OK?" she says animatedly. "In the late 1930's in the American South, when slavery was still in effect, there was a woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe who strapped on a guitar, and she played gospel like no other. She was the daughter of an African American slave. She was a woman and she was also a lesbian. And this was in the 1930s!"

I believe that there is a section of rock that's never been explored which is [made by] South Asian women.- Urvah  Khan

To this day, she's called the true unsung hero of rock and roll, and she's referred to as the godmother of rock and roll. "Chuck Berry, Elvis Priestley, Little Richard, everyone credits her as the main influence of rock," says Khan.

"When you hear Elvis Priestley and all those men try to hit those high notes, they are trying to imitate a Black woman," says Khan. "So the birth of rock and roll, for me, came from a Black, gay woman. Maybe Sister Rosetta Tharpe wasn't appreciated in her lifetime, but that doesn't change what she did for rock and roll."

As Khan starts working on her fifth album, she is inspired by other artists who she says have been her spiritual mentors, citing Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse and local musicians like Bandana Singh. Like these artists, she too exudes a combination of strength and vulnerability that lends depth to her songwriting: she has experiences, some dark and complicated, that she wants to untangle through her art.

There is another musician who made an impact on her musically. "I remember the first time I saw M.I.A on TV," Khan says. "No South Asian woman has broken into the western music world the way she did."

Her dedication to music and scrap rock is also the inspiration behind a grassroots project she hopes to launch in Pakistan. Khan has been working on Scrapfest — her vision for a female-fronted, LGBTQ2-friendly grassroots festival celebrating rock music in Pakistan, which she hopes will be a platform and a way to showcase rock artists in her birth country.

"Over the years, rock has seen a lot of change," she says. "But I believe that there is a section of rock that's never been explored which is [made by] South Asian women." It's the determination to create that new world of rock, despite resistance from naysayers, that motivates Khan to persevere in creating new music and new platforms for other artists.

About the Author

Veronica Zaretski is a writer covering arts, culture and technology.