The napkins are emblazoned with red roses, the far back wall adorned with vermilion Chinese lanterns and other traditional New Year’s decorations. The tables and chairs are stained a cherry red; Indian music issues softly over the speakers. We’re sitting in Tangra Masala, a small Indochinese restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens. Immediately, the borough feels different from the rest of New York: Namely, the people appear more genuine and real, a trait that is also embodied by my lunch companion, Queens’ own Anik Khan.
Though it’s cold today — Khan’s wearing Timberland wheats and a navy-blue Canada Goose jacket, the medallion on his gold necklace peeking out from his heather-gray hoodie — he is beaming. He’s fresh off a six-day trip to Puerto Rico, looking sun-kissed and refreshed. It was his first vacation ever.
We scan the menu and order a few dishes to share: shrimp tangra masala fried rice, gobi manchurian, paneer chili. In the middle of our conversation — he’s telling me about how he canoed through the mangroves in Puerto Rico, swam in ice-cold, waterfall-featuring pools, and got fully inebriated on a boat cruise — he receives a phone call from his brother-in-law. Though I don’t speak Bangla, I get the feeling that Khan is needed for something. He hangs up the phone.
“There are eight women in my life and three men,” he explains. “Well, one of them is my father, but he’s too old to do anything. I get called a lot.”
Though Khan grew up in Queens and calls it home, he was born in Bangladesh and emigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sisters when he was four. His father was a freedom fighter in Bangladesh; in order to escape political persecution, his family sought refuge in America and settled in Astoria, the six of them cramming into a low-income-housing one-bedroom apartment. A majority of Khan’s adolescence was spent this way, until his family was given the chance to live in a townhome in Virginia. They stayed there for a few years and then eventually came back to Queens.
The food arrives. The fried rice has a reddish-orange hue from its masala soak; the gobi manchurian — a fried-cauliflower dish — arrives in craggy orbs, roasted in ginger and garlic. The paneer is almost unyieldingly crispy and browned to perfection, the thickly cut onions heightening the texture and taste of the cubed ricotta.
Khan recalls the moment when he and his family came back to the borough — and found that they couldn’t afford to live in the one-bedroom he grew up in. In fact, like many Queens natives, they couldn’t afford Astoria at all anymore and were forced out. One sister moved to Lefrak City in Queens — where his parents eventually wound up — and another moved to Kew Gardens.
“I was a true nomad man. I had a suitcase and stayed with my older sister in Kew Gardens, but then couch-hopped back and forth from Lefrak to Kew Gardens — a big jump from having a big townhouse [in Virginia] to the ’hood, with only a room to call your own.”
Calling himself a nomad man is a nod to his song of the same title, from his 2015 debut, I Don’t Know Yet. While the song specifically delves into the adversity his family faced in America, that’s also a large part of the project’s overarching motif: In the face of immigrant struggle, cultural assimilation, and socioeconomic hardships, the music will bring him a little closer to…something. Ultimately, it’s an eight-track project about where he’s going and where he’s been.
His immigrant experience became the driving force behind his music. When he was at home, he spoke his native tongue, ate his native food, and was a family man; but when he was with his friends, he was on the block, listening to rap, speaking in slang, and rapping himself. IDKY is proof that Khan can rap, that his foundation is hip-hop: He references Nas and his first Queens apartment building, Gina Marie, his verses marinated in personal history and multiple cultures. Though he’s Bengali American, he’s also Queens through and through. Still, while Khan subtly interweaves his Bengali culture with American hip-hop, that light touch is something he’s now moving away from: His latest single, “Obsession,” approaches immigrant culture head-on.
“I remember one guy told me ‘Obsession’ just didn’t come together lyrically for him, and I had to remind myself, ‘Holy shit, he thinks that because he has no idea about some of the stuff I’m saying.’ It takes people a little longer to digest because they’ve never heard a tabla be the lead drum in a hip-hop song. It’s literally me against everything and everyone, fighting for something that I know people want and crave,” Khan says. “They just haven’t had the avenue to know it yet. My shit has always been a slow burn.”
As we drive to Al Sham Sweets in Astoria — he assures me they make the best baklava in the city — and to Little Morocco to drink his favorite mint tea, he shows me his elementary school and Gina Marie. He plays me a mix he’s made, a blend of Bollywood, African, dancehall, and rap, with cuts from 50 Cent, G Two, and See Francis representing local flavor. He puts on for his friends, that’s for sure, but listening to his mix, you can feel his authenticity and sincerity. He puts on for the culture.
Indeed, like with his own music, the mix he’s made, the food he’s fed me, it’s a show of his upbringing, a means to bring people together, to share stories and enjoy each other’s company. That, absolutely, is something to crave.