Urvah Khan wants to build an army. The singer-songwriter from Toronto calls her blend of rock, rap and world rhythms “scrap,” and the Pakistani-Canadian has plans to spread her music and message of independence to “brown girls all over the world who want to get involved in rock music.”
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, raised in Dubai, UAE, and having immigrated to Canada with her parents at age 12, Khan, now 31, recently returned to her birthplace for what local press called the first shows by a female Pakistani punk artist. (She assembled a band of local musicians via Facebook video, looking for “like-minded rock ‘n’ roll warriors,” who she has since dubbed The Scrap Army.) With her bleached-blonde mohawk, tattoos, and piercings, she caused quite a scene before even setting foot on stage.
“I was riding in a rickshaw and got stuck in traffic” she recalls. “When I stuck my head out to see what was happening it turned out everyone was stopped to take photos of me. After my show, I couldn’t get backstage for all the people wanting selfies.”
It’s not just her wild looks that command attention, it’s her whole personality. Khan is decidedly high-energy. She speaks quickly, and with the confidence of someone who is their own manager, agent, and publicist. In 2010, she convinced guitarist/producer Ruben Huizenga (Glueleg, Edwin, David Usher), who she met at a gig, to help her transition from rap to rock.
“I had been writing rap lyrics, but was still experimenting with my sound,” she says. “I met Ruben and said, ‘I want to make a rock song.’ He was, like, ‘Hey, you can’t just make a rock song. You have to study rock, and understand what it’s about.’
“I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman.”
“I invited him to one of my shows,” she continues. “He was impressed with my onstage energy, and gave me an opportunity to write a rock song with him. But the first song we made was super Western. I found it hard to relate to it. At that point, we decided to use rock music as a base, but incorporate more world instruments. A form of rock music that would appeal to other South East Asian kids.”
Khan’s first recording, 2011’s Universal Rhythm Venture EP, showed a young artist boasting, “I am me, I’ll always be!” while still experimenting to find a sound of her own. By the time of her first full-length, 2013’s cheekily titled The Wrath of Urvah Khan, she’d taken Huizenga’s advice and had become a student… of Black Sabbath. In between her original rap-rock, punk, South Asian bhangra, and calypso songs of empowerment and independence, the album features a cover of the metal band’s “N.I.B.”
“When I heard Black Sabbath, I was so impressed,” she says. “Tony Iommi’s riffs, Ozzy’s singing – one in a million, right? In my heritage, we have a lot of Bollywood songs, Indian music. And I find Black Sabbath has a cinematic feel. They totally won me over. I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman. I don’t want to be the second of anything. I want to be the first of something.”
We ask if by “second of anything,” she’s talking about M.I.A. Comparisons to the British-Tamil superstar are somewhat easy to make, even if that’s more the fault of limited exposure and references for South East Asian women in Western music than any true similarities between them.
“When I started rapping and doing live performances, working with electronic producers, right off the bat I was getting comparisons to M.I.A.,” she admits. “Don’t get me wrong. She’s a total inspiration. But I didn’t want to be the next M.I.A… I wanted to make something original, something that represented my journey.”
And thus began the full-throttle drive to create a Scrap Army. Inspired by her gigs in Pakistan, Khan has just started writing the follow-up to 2015’s Rock Khan Roll, this next one an EP aimed squarely at her new-found Pakistani audience, with material in both English and Urdu. She continues to partner with Huizenga as a co-writer and producer (he also plays guitar in her live band) but Khan has also been working with renowned Pakistani composer/songwriter Sohail Rama, who now lives in Mississauga, ON. When complete, she’ll take it back to Pakistan, where she wants not only more gigs for herself, but to create a live music series that encourages female-fronted punk and rock acts.
“There are no female punks there,” she explains. “The freedom that allows me to rock that look, boldly, when I travel there, was given to me by Canada. So I want to take everything Canada offers me and create a platform for more women who come from where I come from. It feels good to have big dreams. And to chase them like a mad woman.”