When Masuma Khan—noted Halifax activist and rapper—lists the likes of Busta Rhymes, Lauryn Hill and Notorious BIG as key influences on her art, it’s hardly surprising (not just because her picks are inarguably classics of the genre). See, like her heroes, Khan—who makes music as rapper General Khan—spits while knowing that the mic in her hand can be a weapon, a tool: A sharp verse lacerating or a boom-bap baton of hypnosis. Across On God (her new EP, out June 30), she wields it as both, a master of verse and audience attention as much as a master of ceremony.
“I think music is great to listen to, but also it can be really great education. And so, if a lyric of mine is something that makes something click in someone else's mind, then maybe they might unlearn some biases or relearn things that they learned incorrectly, right?” Khan says, sitting in the back of a north end cafe, iced drink at her side. “So, talking about histories, talking about my own history as an Afghan person and growing up in the city and dealing with Islamophobia and racism in so many different ways—and traumatic ways: It’s also cathartic for me to talk about that stuff.”
And just as Khan was always clear that her move into music was more straight line than switch-up, her listeners undoubtedly knew the score from the opening bars of her debut, 2021’s Wrath of Khan: “Systemic abuse, huh: It hasn’t let up” she raps, 30 seconds into the album opener and certified earworm “Garam Chai.” The vibe across On God is the same, with a vintage soul sample blending into Khan’s announcement “I will speak my truth on god” as the opening seconds unfold. “I'm trying to deconstruct where people get stuck and just say: Now is not the time to get stuck in that guilt. It's time to step up. Be the person that says something. Don't be a bystander, you know, that type of thing—without sounding like one of those, like, commercials,” says Khan.
“It's a silo. I mean, even in the city alone: I'm the only one doing it,” Khan says when asked how it feels to be visibly Muslim and a rapper. “In Canada, I don't think that there's any MCs wearing hijab or that are visibly Muslim.” Khan grew up listening to hip hop and was always rapping with friends in the car on the way to protests. Her albums mean she’s creating the very representation that would’ve benefited her younger self—but it also means microaggressions come with the territory. “It can feel hard because there's a lot of stereotypes that you're dealing with and nuances and, yeah, people might not really flex with your message,” she says. “But it's the people who do: I mean, they're gonna be down for whatever, right? So yeah, not playing for the masses—but rather, those who are into the message.”
Alongside other local rappers like Shay Pitts and LXVNDR, General Khan is part of a wave of women in hip hop taking Halifax by storm. For Khan in particular, that’s manifesting in a golden-age aesthetic that her influences would see as familiar. Working closely with scene veterans AMBEEZ and DJ Uncle Fester (both of whom have producer credits across Khan’s catalogue) means that listening to Khan’s work feels like watching the latest permutation in the Halifax sound: Steeped in ’90s stylings but with a particular East Coast raw edge, all while On God sees Khan slouching into a laid-back, slower style of rap that fits her expressive ruminating perfectly. (A standout on the project is “Most High”, which Khan describes as “a continuous freestyle”.)
When asked how it feels to be part of this wave of women rappers, Khan replies: “I love seeing them perform, because they inspire me. And they do their thing. And, you know, like I said, [if] they didn't do their thing, I wouldn't have the space for me to be able to do my thing or fit my little, little spot that I got in between,” she continues: “But it's definitely a silo. I mean, I don't fit in as much as they do into the scene.”
She shifts slightly, the Adidas crest on her jacket catching light at the edges and calling her party-starting, Outkast-indebted bop “3 Stripes” to mind. “I want to make sure that the kids in my community see themselves represented—and represented in art. That's such an important thing for society and everything,” she says. “So, it's important that people see themselves represented and hear parts of their identity also supported in that, too. Those are the parts of hip hop that hit me: Lauryn Hill has a lot of bars about Islam that people don't really recognize. And so for me, that's what got to me about art. I could hear myself in that.”