What Atif won’t do

January 22, 2023

From contributing to Coke Studio in its various iterations to things he will not endorse, a quick chat with the singer, songwriter and cherished celebrity.

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ccording to Spotify, which is now in its third year in Pakistan, Atif Aslam is the most streamed Pakistani artist in the land and was the most streamed artist in 2021 as well.

Spotify allows artists of and from Pakistan a global stage and Atif Aslam is grateful to his fans for listening to his music.

Even though he is the most popular male artist in the country, Atif does draw a line at things he will never do as part of the material he puts out.

Singer, songwriter, composer, actor, and a cherished superstar, Atif told Instep - in an extensive interview - about how he walks the line between experimentation and responsibility.

In a 20-year-long (and counting) career, Atif has sung ghazals, kalaams, modern pop songs, playback songs in Pakistan and Hindi cinema, folk songs, and judged music shows as well as showcased his acting prowess with Sang e Mah. But the diversity of his craft does not compromise on his values as an artist.

Understanding the fact that when you’re so popular that fans hang on your every word, he admits this dedicated following is not without a sense of responsibility.

“Why do you think,” he poses, “I’ve never used cigarettes in my music videos or shown intoxicating gimmicks in my music videos?

“Does my heart not hold a desire to play remarkably different characters as part of the bug an artist carries? However, music is growing at a rapid pace. Do I not want to indulge in vices onscreen like swearing because it is seen as something cool these days. Sometimes I do think ‘I’ll do it’ and to be honest, it is very easy for me to do that. When you’re in a space where every action you make is seen minutely by people, it is a responsibility.

“What makes me happy is that teenagers are reading ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ with me while I’m onstage.”

Atif Aslam covered ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ in season 7 of Coke Studio, which has since garnered over 400 million views since its release.

The popstar adds: “These are young kids who don’t necessarily know the connotation of these sacred verses. And they also hang with others who swear and party. I have nothing against anybody. But I believe it is a matter of choice. I don’t think the artist within you is bigger than the responsibility that must be adhered to.”

“Keeping certain vices that are within you to yourself is absolutely fine. But, when you start revealing them (with your work), you are responsible for everyone who may end up thinking it’s cool, acceptable and picks it up.”

In other words, according to Atif Aslam, if you follow the inner artist with absolutely no boundary, it can influence people.

“Keeping certain vices that are within you to yourself is absolutely fine. But, when you start revealing them (with your work), you are responsible for everyone who may end up thinking it’s cool, acceptable and picks it up.”

Atif Aslam, who has lasted two decades – with 2023 bringing him full circle from the debut in 2003 with ‘Aadat’ - is miles away from playing his last innings.

“It is the journey that matters,” he says.

Being crowned metaphorically as Pakistan’s biggest star is irrelevant to Atif. “There’s no need to fear because it is the journey that brought you here that counts. You could be popular until the day you die or it could happen when someone else eclipses you. There are myriad of ways. When it is meant to happen, it will. But fearing that moment is pointless, it is the (proverbial) ride that shapes you and your art.”

Speaking of music, Coke Studio 2022 is the elephant in the conversation. It must be addressed. Though last year’s season (Coke Studio 2022) did break new ground, Atif Aslam has been a permanent fixture on the series, appearing at least half a dozen times, working with nearly every producer including Rohail Hyatt, Strings, and Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan (Xulfi).

What has he learned?

“I don’t think I’ve learned from Coke Studio. I think I might have contributed something,” says Atif, with a hint of laughter. “What it did allow was meeting beautiful people and artists.

“There were some liberties in terms of experimentation, which is the right of any artist. And I think you have to be daring enough to do a Sabri Brothers qawwali and also sing something by Mehdi Hassan sahib. There is a huge different. A qawwal’s voice is at the top of the lungs and Mehdi Hasan sahib’s has that buttery tenor. There is no room for mistake. Mostly, all the work I’ve done, 70 per cent is my contribution because I’ve added parts to songs or I’ve made new melodies. In ‘Go’ (with Abdullah Siddiqui), there was a part I created. In terms of compositions, I’ve made all the compositions. Some of them were in respect to running time like ‘Jalpari x Man Kunto Maula’. Others were planned.”

Perhaps the biggest high for Atif with respect to Coke Studio has been working with other artists, ranging from Abdullah Siddiqui to Mai Dhai, Banur’s Band and showing respect to every artist and their art. “Until you’re not on the same page as artists, there will be no joy in working together. For instance, I loved the tune in ‘Mubarik Mubarik; I made a special part for a section. To this day, I get calls from Banur Bands’ family about when I’d visit. That’s the beautiful part.”

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