20XX Magazine writer Hunter Frederick sat down with Naveed Ahmed, the Bengali King of Pop to discuss his new single, Ms. Communication, streaming now on all platforms. In the conversation, Naveed talks about his creative process, inspirations, and the journey of carving a lane for South Asian Americans in music.
20XX:Good to be talking to you and good to see you again! I know you just got back from Rolling Loud, down in Miami. What was that experience like? How did you enjoy that?
Naveed Ahmed: It was great! Being my first large-scale live music experience in a year and a half, since the pandemic, it was a bit overwhelming. Just because I’ve never really been to like rap or hip-hop shows on that bigger scale; if I’m seeing shows like that, it’s usually you know smaller DIY shows, on the block in New York City. I got to see so many of the household names that I like to listen to, like Post Malone, Megan Thee Stallion. Jack Harlow, Blueface, and Coi Leray. Another huge thing for me was finding a lot of new artists to listen to. In a word, it’s inspiring; the whole time I’m at the festival, I’m just constantly thinking “Oh, I can’t wait to get back home and write music that bumps like this or has melodies like this artist”. It was the perfect experience for me to have right as I’m about to release my next single, Ms. Communication, because now I’m full tunnel vision; ready to focus on that song and on everything else that I have coming.
Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much! And speaking of the new single, I know that it comes out this Friday, August 6th. I gave it a listen, and I gotta say I’m loving the sound that you’ve created; kind of like the slow, soulful, R&B vibe, and I was wondering if you could maybe speak to what inspired the subject matter for the track?
Sure! So, Ms. Communication is a song that I’ve been sitting on for a little over two years now. I wrote it in the spring of 2019 about a situation that I was in. I was involved with a woman and we weren’t exclusive necessarily, but we were involved with each other for some time. I guess the main message of the song calls attention to how, as we move towards a dating culture and a hookup culture where casual relationships are more normalized, that often comes with a lot of lack of communication. Partially, I think, because there are so many terms getting thrown around; friends with benefits, side chicks, you know, whatever, and we all define those types of relationships differently, which can lead to a lot of miscommunication, hence the title. How that connects to the song is the story of how I got hurt in this situation. Me and this person weren’t committed to each other and that was something we agreed upon. But at some point, I end up finding out that she did enter a new relationship, and I found out literally through the change in the Facebook status. True story, even though I just seriously dated myself, since we millennials were the last people to grow up on Facebook. And it’s like, just because we weren’t committed to each other doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. You could have at least told me that’s what you were going to do, considering we were seeing each other like not long ago. It makes me wonder, OK, what else did you have going on while me and you were seeing each other? But then I grapple with the idea of, is it my right to know if we’re not committed to each other? As you can see, there are a lot of questions and a lot of undefined boundaries; that’s the type of relationship it was. Ms. Communication as a song is addressing the pain that can come from not clearly defining your boundaries and your expectations in any kind of relationship. Whether it’s monogamous, exclusive, or whatever label you choose to give it.
Right, right, that’s interesting to hear. I’ve been in similar situations in the past and I have wondered myself how to have good communication, and handle honesty versus oversharing, if there could even be such a thing. I know you said this single is inspired by personal experience. Do you often draw from personal experience to write your songs? How do you go about the process, the incredible task that is song crafting and songwriting?
So for me, usually every song starts from something personal, Ms. Communication being no different. For my songwriting process, I would describe it as, if I feel something to a magnitude of 10, I’ll amplify it to 100 for the sake of a song. I try to make the high-budget movie version of whatever experience I went through. So, I could take a situation where, let’s say, a girl didn’t text me back and I could turn that into “You stabbed me in the back by sleeping with this whatever person”. At some point, I learned to rely on more of the storytelling aspect to make the song more relatable to people more than myself. I’m glad you brought up that you had a similar experience because I think the topic that Ms. Communication touches on is something very relatable to our generation. Our generation and the generation after us are accelerating the rate at which hookup culture is developing. Tinder all these apps, all these things weren’t around until you and I were already in college, and already adults. I recently saw a quote that I think perfectly sums up what led to the writing of Ms. Communication. It said, “Mistreating people and avoiding communication is not protecting your peace. It’s just avoiding accountability”. That’s where the pain that I went through came from; I feel as if this person disrespected my feelings and didn’t share information with me that I would have shared with them had the roles been reversed. They didn’t say anything just to avoid confrontation or awkward conversation or whatever it was. Hence, the moniker that she would go on to immortalize, Ms. Communication.
Right, I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate that you mentioned the “protect your peace” thing because it is a legitimate viewpoint. There are certain things that you may not want to engage with for your own mental health, but it can also be almost weaponized in a way. People use it as an excuse to avoid every possible conflict.
I agree, and I think a lot of people in our generation especially weaponized the fact that we are not committed to people. We use that as an excuse to not give people basic decency and that is very messed up in my opinion.
I agree, I agree. Speaking of which, I also saw the music video for the single, beautifully shot by the way. It gave me huge feelings of nostalgia, seeing the visuals and aesthetic you crafted to go with your music. I know how proud you wear your identity on your sleeve. You’re the son of immigrants and you know you’ve got the pressure of success on your back as you try to build a career and carve a path in music. How would you feel that your upbringing has affected how you make a way for yourself in music?
I love that question! A huge part of my motivation as an artist is to be the representation, the voice, the face that I wish I could have seen or heard when I was younger. As a first-generation Bengali kid from Queens, there were no role models in Western culture that I had to look up to. Nothing showed me that a working-class immigrant kid like me can go on to excel in music, sports, politics, or movies. Name any facet of American culture, and kids like me were not represented in it. So when I create music now, I think to myself, what experiences do I have, as a South Asian-American, that I know are prevalent to people in my community, yet I don’t hear them talked about in music or at all? I know that’s a strong problem that our community faces. I know a lot of us feel a lot of apathy towards the Western rhetoric on many topics, like mental health and racism, because oftentimes the intersectionality of our identity is not represented in those in those spheres. So I try to reflect that in my music and my videos; the visuals, the branding, the marketing, it’s all part of it. I try to ask myself, what would I have wanted to see or hear when I was younger? In the context of the Ms. Communication music video, it served as motivation for me to dress the part and to look the best I can. I’ll put it this way: if young Naveed saw a music video like that, he’d be like “Whoa, who’s this? Who’s this brown dude with a slick red leather jacket and glasses, looking fresh and singing, this R&B song?” It would have blown my mind to see something like that as a kid, but it’s funny because it’s not anything super crazy or groundbreaking. We’ve seen so many videos and songs like that, but at the same time, that’s how I feel I can best inject what I do with my identity, my perspective, my image, and my essence, for lack of a better term.
Right, yeah, and I love how one of your goals is to show that people that look like you and I can occupy these spaces; we can be the rock stars or the musicians in the video with the beautiful girl. Getting back to the music video, what was it like shooting for the single?
The filming of the Ms. Communication music video was definitely one of the more fun shoots that I’ve done. I did the video with my boys at Silverfade Media. Shout out to Kevin and Brenden; they’re two amazingly talented content creators from the Bronx. So for the video, we filmed the indoor footage in, I believe it was, the Stewart Hotel in Manhattan. We rented for a day, pulled up, and did our thing. Huge shout out also to my friend Victoria Kuàng, who is the model in the video. She’s so beautiful and talented; she showed up and killed it with very little guidance or direction. I knew all she had to do was listen to the song and feel it out. The only instructions I gave her was to look and act as if you’re ready to break my heart and ruin my life. From those directions and the song, she did everything that you see her doing in the video and she killed it. It was a very fun experience. All of the hotel stuff was actually filmed this past November, and it sat in the works and then got shelved for a bit due to me leaving my previous project and figuring things out; like, what am I, what’s going to happen with this song, when am I going to release it, and where does it fit on the Naveed Ahmed timeline? Pretty early on, I knew that I wanted Ms. Communication to be the second song that I released, right after Somehow I because I’d been sitting on that song for so long. Fast forward from last November to this May, I met up with my boys in Silverfade and we filmed the rest of the outdoor footage in Flushing, Queens. All the people involved are friends of mine and we took advantage of the beautiful scenery that New York City has to offer. It was a very DIY experience in that sense; just me and the talented people I know making art on the block.
That’s a great way to put it, and I can tell that the way you go about things is very genuine; these are things that you put a lot of work into. I know you mentioned Silverfade Media, based out of the Bronx, and it seems like you’re really trying to, as you rise, take as many people as you can. I know you mentioned your previous project, which came to end after a lengthy existence. I know it’s a difficult question, but I was wondering if you could tell us what was going through your mind during that time? What inspired you to continue your musical journey as one project came to a close and you faced the decision of continuing as a solo artist?
The best way I can answer your question, is to refer you to verse two of Somehow I:
Somehow I, embraced the change
When 8 years of grind went down the drain
At least that’s how it felt when times got rough
Every night, I told myself to give up
But I hold on when I see all the names
With my words on skin they can’t erase
Even though everything feels strange
It’s a brand new day, and the fact remains
I’m a slave to the music, some things don’t change
You’re right; not a single day went by where I didn’t contemplate giving it up altogether. When my previous project ended, I looked at my life and I was 25 years old. And if you’re a brown immigrant kid, being 25 feels like you’re 40, because of the level of expectations that’s you. That inspired more lyrics in Somehow I — 25 years old, was supposed to have a 6-figure job by now, but I’m still so convinced that I could be somebody, change the whole damn world with a hobby. That’s really what it came down to. I had thoughts like, “You know what Naveed, you gave music an honest shot; you tried and it didn’t work out. Maybe it’s time to just be an engineer and throw in the towel”. And it’s funny, I remember in my younger years, around when we were in college, telling myself, “Yo, if I don’t make it in music by the time I’m like 25, that’s it. I can’t keep playing games”. Fast forward to me being 25 years old now and starting over, let alone making it by now. To answer the question directly, I just love this shit. I just truly can’t see myself pursuing a fulfilling life any other way. And I say that with the context of what a privilege it is to be able to pursue a life of fulfillment. We grew up with parents who came to this country with so little, and lived their entire lives in survival mode. They didn’t get to think, “Oh, how can I be happy?” Their entire lives were lived in sacrifice for our generation. Sometimes that can manifest a lot of guilt, a lot of pressure. But I try to look at it in the positive sense of, my family went through everything they went through, so that kids like me could have the opportunity to break barriers in culture and lack of representation. All of which is a huge motivation for me to continue, rebrand, and start myself over. And using my real name, Naveed Ahmed, this time. I went by Naveed Stone for so many years because I remember being a teenager and thinking, oh I my name needs to be more marketable because a guy with the last name Ahmed can’t be a rockstar; thinking all that messed up self-doubt. I don’t want the next generation to live in a world where they have to think like that. They should grow up with enough representation that shows them they can be their unapologetic selves; you don’t have to be ashamed of your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, whatever. They can make a difference with talent and merit, regardless of identity; that’s simply the world that I hope to push towards by doing what I do.
Right, I see how it comes back to how genuine you are about yourself. It’s very “Here’s what I’m about. Here’s what made me. Here’s what I want to do. Take it or leave it.”
I know that you mentioned rebranding as a solo artist. What has that process been like for you? Do you feel like you go about it in a more planned and methodical way, or do you tap into the music and artistry and see where things take you?
Even just a couple months into being a solo artist, I feel how much more permission I’ve given myself to just be my full, authentic, unapologetic self. I think that’s what’s going to be the unlock in me to find success when my previous project didn’t. Coming from the world of bands and stuff like that, I felt like I had to water myself down and present myself a certain way. Especially as a brown kid from Queens surrounded by the world of rock and metal music, which was, let’s call it what it is, mostly suburban white folks, right? I always felt out of place. I was pretty much always the only other brown person around, let alone, the only person of color in the room. Any person of color knows when you’re the only person of color in a room; you feel it, absolutely. After years and years of being in spaces that made me feel out of place, it’s just such a breath of fresh air for me. I feel like I’ve rediscovered who I am. Truthfully, I feel more in touch with who I am; what I stand for, what I want my brand to represent, and what I want my music to represent. As I’ve been growing up and coming to that realization, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting in other areas of my life as well, especially in the last like two years. I found myself reconnecting with a lot of amazing people from my childhood and from my past; people that I’ve lost touch with over the years just because I ended up gravitating towards different spaces and music. I just have a much more refined sense of who I am and what my purpose in life is. It’s just beautiful to be in that position now. I’m very thankful that I had to go through something as difficult as putting an 8-year-old project to rest and starting over from zero. I’m glad that I went through that because it just fills me with so much more optimism for the future.
I’m glad to hear that you’re taking the positives from the end of your last project. It must be an unimaginably difficult thing to go through, but I can hear your determination in your words, and in your previous single, Somehow I, which I would describe as a kind of a“planting of the flag”. Almost a way of saying, what happened happened, and I went through it, I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep bringing my brand of realness and genuineness to the music space.
Looking back to Somehow I, that track has more of a rap/hip-hop feel to it, while Ms. Communication has an R&B feel to it. You said that you’ve been feeling a lot more confident and energized in many facets of life, as well as your music. How do you take this confidence and use it to navigate transitioning between genres when it comes to crafting your songs?
I’m very glad you asked this question. I gotta speak in the frame of Western American culture, because I’m an American kid and have grown up here, and I can’t really speak on what music genres and scenes are like in other countries. But as far as American culture, you think of the two major cultural forces as being white-ness and Black-ness. I say that completely in the context of, those are the faces that we typically see at the forefront of music and culture; a lot of Asians and Asian-Americans aren’t in those spaces, yet. We just haven’t quite broken through yet, but we’re definitely on the cusp of that. With that context, regardless of what genre music I was into or what shows I went to, I always felt out of place anyway. For a lot of years, I’ve struggled with the question: how can I synthesize my wide range of influences in a way that somehow allows me to fit in all of these spaces, while at the same time still being true to myself? Lately, and I guess this is what we call maturity, I’ve come to the realization that instead of me trying to change how I present myself to fit in other spaces and subcultures, I might as well accept that I don’t fully belong anywhere. That has given me the freedom to carve my own lane, and in that sense, I’m excited to keep releasing singles in the coming months. Somehow I is more like a pop ballad meets trap and hip-hop. Ms. Communication is more of an R&B, lofi, dark-pop, kind of vibe. My next single is not gonna sound anything like the other two. The single after that is gonna sound very different too. I’m excited to release singles that show my range and my versatility as an artist. In doing so, I hope that my listeners will be challenged. My goal is to get the hip-hop kids into acoustic pop stuff; and to get the pop kids into songs that have bars in it or get rap kids to listen to stuff with guitars in it. I’ve been in all those spaces and I see how much of a separation there is between these different subcultures and genres. So my goal as an artist is to kind of create a sound and a lane and a brand that can coalesce all these different influences of mine. I’m so excited to see how that takes shape in the coming months.
That’s a great plan and I think you’re probably in a really great place to do that because of what’s happening in music right now. Willow Smith is doing the punk rock thing, and Travis Barker is kind of becoming the new Ty Dolla Sign, with everyone sprinkling a little bit of him in their tracks. You see all the walls kind of coming down of not only just music but all over as well. You can’t assume things about someone’s sound or what lane they ought to be in.
I’m glad you bring those specific examples because I think pop culture is more open minded than it’s ever been; there’s weirder and weirder things topping the charts now and that makes me very excited. There are more collabs between rock artists and rappers and other top artists like. We’re really seeing the effects of the Internet age and the social media explosion. All of us are just consuming more content and more music than we ever have, and I think that’s resulting in very nuanced and refined tastes. In general, I’m very excited to see where music culture as a whole is going and I think I’m very blessed to be my age, and in this time period. As you touched on, I think this is the perfect time period for an artist like me to really spread their wings. I’m very grateful to have that opportunity.
To end on a lighthearted note, do you have a message for one, Mr. Kanye West, trying to muscle in on your release date? All holed up in the Mercedes-Benz stadium down in Atlanta, trying to finish Donda; what would you say to him?
That’s funny because one of my guys, my videographer, was like “Oh man, you really trying to release the same day as Kanye?” All I’m gonna say is, bro, your album was supposed to be out already. Let me have my day. That’s not cool! Wasn’t his album supposed to drop like last week or something?
I believe so, yeah; last Friday, after the listening party.
Yeah, I’m sorry bro. I’ve been planning for August 6th; I’ve been on that. I’m sorry but you gotta get in line. *laughs* As if I have any kind of weight to it, to hold against Kanye.
I mean, maybe he might delay it another day or two. You never know. So August 6th could be yours after all.
But you know what? August 6th is the day regardless. He could drop that day. I don’t care; the 6th is mine!
Exactly exactly well, it’s been great talking to you. Great learning more about your new single Ms. Communication, which is out this Friday, August 6th!
Absolutely! Thank you so much for having me man!