By Ed Brennen
The irony of playing a Homeland Security official in the 2021 film “Don’t Look Up” is not lost on Shahjehan Khan ’14, ’16.
“A friend reached out and said, ‘I felt a little weird seeing you playing the role. You look like this (expletive) Fed,’” says Khan, who is better known as guitarist and vocalist for The Kominas, the trailblazing Muslim punk band that he started at UML in 2004 with childhood friend Basim Usmani ’07 — partly in response to rampant Islamophobia in the U.S. following 9/11.
For Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants who was born and raised in Boxborough, Massachusetts, the path from playing songs like “Sharia Law in the USA” at Fox Hall to sharing a scene with Oscar-winners Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in a major motion picture wasn’t always smooth. He recently chronicled his personal journey of addiction, identity and creativity in “King of the World,” a seven-part podcast series about what it means to be an American Muslim in the 20 years after 9/11.
“Initially, I didn’t want to center another 9/11 story around Muslims because it’s a very common thing, and you get kind of sick of it,” says Khan, who quit his job as a behavioral health consultant in February 2021 to produce the podcast with Rifelion, a media company started by friend Asad Butt. “Then we thought about it as a coming-of-age story because, whether I liked it or not, 9/11 was the most significant event of my life.”
While Khan is comfortable speaking through his music to Kominas fans around the world, opening up on the podcast about his battles with addiction (he’s been sober for over a decade) and a failed suicide attempt in his freshman year at UMass Amherst “felt like a therapy session.”
“You couldn’t half-ass this, because it would be kind of pointless,” says Khan, who recorded the podcast in his closet-turned-home studio in Winthrop, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife, Lauren.
He also uses the studio for his work as a voice-over artist, a career that began in 2009 when a producer from Audible heard him being interviewed with his band on NPR. Since then, Khan has voiced everything from audiobooks and the podcast series RomComPods (which debuted at No. 1 on Apple’s fiction charts) to an anti-drunk driving campaign for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
Khan’s love of acting, which he developed at UML in theater productions like Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” has led to a half-dozen roles in independent films over the past two years — as well as the nonspeaking “featured extra” role in “Don’t Look Up,” which was filmed in Boston during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even though I’m only in one scene for like a second and a half, it was still the coolest thing ever,” says Khan, who had to sequester in a hotel for eight days prior to his one-day shoot.
Khan says there’s talk of turning “King of the World” (which is the translation of Shahjehan) into a movie or TV series. The podcast also includes episode guides that educators can use in their curriculum, and Khan has been invited to speak at several schools about his experiences.
After several starts and stops in his own education, Khan says coming to UMass Lowell for a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in community social psychology was “definitely a reawakening of the self, a kind of reopening.” A big reason why, he says, was the mentorship of Psychology Assoc. Prof. Jana Sladkova, with whom he co-authored a paper on undocumented migration that took them to Spain.
As for The Kominas, they played the Boston Fuzzstival last September, their first show since the pandemic. “I think we have another album and tour in us, but everyone is doing their own thing right now,” says Khan, who has filled the musical void by playing with Ravi Shavi, a Providence-based garage rock band.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had so many projects going on at the same time,” he says of his acting, voice and music careers. “I’m one of those people who needs to have a million things going on, or I’m existentially questioning everything.”