Instep Today

Every little thing she does is magic

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 03, 23

Arooj Aftab talks to Instep about her Grammy experience, performing at the ceremony and what the future holds

Arooj Aftab and Anoushka Shankar gave a stirring, beautiful performance of their song ‘Udhero Naa’ at the 2023 Grammy Awards.— TNS
Arooj Aftab and Anoushka Shankar gave a stirring, beautiful performance of their song ‘Udhero Naa’ at the 2023 Grammy Awards.— TNS

Yep, she did it again

When Arooj Aftab, originally from Lahore, Pakistan, who has been living in Brooklyn, New York City for years, got nominated for double Grammys in 2021 (including one in the Big Four as Best New Artist) as well as in one of the most exciting categories: Best Global Music Performance for ‘Mohabbat’, she candidly confessed in a brief conversation that the ceremony was certainly on her mind pre-victory. Not only she was surprised and excited, Arooj was – above all – humbled. ‘Mohabbat’ from her third album, Vulture Prince, was also on the Summer Playlist of 2021 of former American President, Barack Obama, which made Pakistan suddenly take notice of this incredible artist. After winning, Aftab played hundreds of shows, far and wide, before visiting Lahore, Pakistan in 2022.

Now, fast forward to 2023, Arooj Aftab went to the Grammys again, as a nominee in Best Global Performance category (again) but for a different song: ‘Udhero Naa’ with Anoushka Shankar. This time, she didn’t win but something curious happened: she was invited to perform ‘Udhero Naa’ at the Grammys 2023, which is the most prominent musical stage with viewership across the seven seas.

When such an accomplished artist – whom you haven’t known for at least a decade like an Atif Aslam or a Hadiqa Kiani or a Bilal Maqsood (and those are just the big guns) – there is a moment where you wonder how to remove territorial distance to elevate the conversation and go beyond the basic question and answer session. How to convert it into one that allows a precious moment of authenticity. She somehow managed it in our first extensive interview, and she’s done it again.

With this Grammy Award winning artist though, it is easier to find such moments of authenticity and truth. She is a professional but has no airs about herself or to put it bluntly an attitude issue so even across oceans, talking to Arooj Aftab is like talking to an old friend.

“In a New York minute, everything can change.” – ‘New York Minute’ by Don Henley

My conversation with Arooj Aftab takes place when she’s back home in New York City after the Grammys had taken place in Los Angeles and she had delivered on every front from networking to hanging out and mingling to giving an astonishing performance at the Grammy stage.

What was the difference between last year’s ceremony and the event held this year is the first question that pops in my head.

“The Grammys over the last couple of years have been held in one covid-conscious iteration or the other,” begins Arooj Aftab, “but this year they were back at their home in Los Angeles in full glory.”

Pre-Grammys, as Arooj recalls, was also an experience in itself before the main event. “It is a largescale event, spanning all week with a lot of different industry players throwing parties, throwing brunches, giving concerts … so lots of moments to meet people and peers and celebrate.”

Arooj Aftab was a part of these festivities before the Grammys due to her own talent, the cadence with which she sings, the melancholic, sparse and astonishing songs she has released including ‘Mohabbat’ and ‘Udhero Naa’.

“I was there because ‘Udhero Naa’ was nomi-nated for Best Global Music Performance this year. I was pretty excited to experience the Grammy phenomenon in L.A. for the first time. And it was really beautiful. The weather in L.A. is amazing. The Grammys approached my team in early December actually, inviting me to perform ‘Udhero Naa’ at the ceremony with the incre-dible Anoushka Shankar, who is featured on the song. So, ofcourse once they sent that invitation, I was over the moon. Award shows will always have a weird vibe to them because, essentially you are being asked to participate in a ranking ceremony of yourself and everyone in music that you love and admire. But to be able to go into a space like that, and do the thing I love the most, which is sharing my music live with people, that made everything really purely exciting and special. It definitely took the edge off being nominated and wanting to win again.”

When you are going to the Grammys, a great deal of effort goes into every single thing – from the clothes you will wear at the red carpet to what you want to wear while performing to the events you’ll be attending.

Says Arooj: “I was in Pakistan in December 2022, and was fortunate to meet up with Nilofer Shahid, who is a real artist with her fashion design aesthetic. She and her team put together a beautiful outfit for the Grammys, but in the end I went with my stylist’s command and wore Anna Kiki at the red carpet, Emanuel Ungaro for the performance, and Peoples of All Nations at the Roc Nation Brunch.

I also wore a beautiful blazer by Manish Malhotra at the UMG afterparty, but I somehow missed all the cameras at that (see: partying too hard).”

With the 2023 edition of the Grammys, Arooj Aftab was also invited to a very exclusive Roc Nation brunch that is thrown by (drumroll please) Beyonce and Jay-Z. Suddenly the world turned on its axis because how cool is that. I have to ask what it was like and Arooj happily explains.

“Being invited to the Roc Nation brunch was kind of a highlight for me,” she says. “It is a highly, highly exclu-sive party where very few people from the industry are invited and is hosted during Grammys by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

“And yes, they were all there. Kelly Rowland (solo artist, Destiny’s Child) was there, Janelle Monae was there, Beyonce and Jay-Z were there, Lil Uzi, Teyana Taylor, Tyler the Creator, Vic Mensa, Miguel was there, DJ Khaled was there… it was also just very real and chill, no one had velvet rope around them; everybody was just hanging out and chatting and being totally normal. It was great to be included, I had a great time, and I felt very elevated.”

That can’t be all, or can it?

A candid Arooj Aftab responds: “What else happened? So, we went to these parties and then we obviously went to the Grammys. I was very happy this time because Maeve Gilchrist, who is one of my main collaborators and one of my oldest friends in music, was with us for the performance and the whole thing. As I said before events like the Grammys can be like really shiny super-network space, so it’s nice to have your crew – who are people that you love, trust and people that are real, people that you make music with around to keep you just grounded in general so it was very incredible to be there with Maeve.

“Anoushka Shankar is of course amazing. What am I supposed to say that about that incredible woman? The performance itself was great. I can’t believe I was singing to people like Viola Davis in the room! ‘Udhero Naa’ is not a super-showcase-y song but it is a gentle, deep, beautiful, beautiful song and I was really, really happy. I think we looked great and moved a lot of people, and the feedback has been incredible. After that, we got off stage and right after that they announced our category and we didn’t win. And we were like ‘oh, wow, so we’re done now!’ If you win there is a whole other whirlwind chaos going through the media center and everybody’s on you, your night never ends.

“We were like ‘we can just chill now’ and that was also a blessing in a way because we had been doing a lot and I went back to the hotel.

We went to the parties that were happening that night. One of my recent favorite artists and label mate Samara Joy won Best New Artist, which is insane so we were celebrating.” “The rest of the performances were amazing. A friend of mine, Melo Gia - we went to Berklee together – who is an incredible singer was actually dancing in Bad Bunny’s performance so there was a lot of good stuff going on that we were all collectively enjoying. That was the Grammy weekend. I came back to New York to the freezing cold and I slept for days.”

Future starts now

With the Grammy weekend behind her, Arooj Aftab explains she has great plans for 2023. Among them is being part of a trio that’s actually a super-group. You think you’ve hit the point where you can pinpoint Arooj Aftab’s musicality but she is one of those artists whose work can’t be labelled or predictable.

When we last spoke, she revealed that she’s working on a new project. “It is not my solo work like Vulture Prince. It is a collaborative trio project that we recorded almost two or three years ago. We’ve decided to release it this year.”

The first single, ‘To Remain/To Return’ has released and like all things Arooj Aftab tends to explore, this one shows the chemistry between the super group trio and is nothing short of being one of those arresting songs that once you hear it, you want more. Its beauty allows you to escape into the song and as you do, the world falls behind.

“The album is called Love in Exile. It is myself, the esteemed, incredible pianist Vijay Iyer and the incredible Shahzad Ismaily and the album comes out in March. In the meantime, I am writing my fourth album, which will come out early 2024.”

There is a reason why other accomplished artists including Anoushka Shan-kar, Shahzad Ismaily and Vijay Iyer work with Arooj Aftab. Her voice is a notch above the many voices we come across (while exploring music of all sorts). To put her in a category would be misrepresentation. She can sing in multiple languages and when she does, you can’t help but feel like there is a magnetic pull, almost visceral and beautiful in the ambience it offers.

Read more about Arooj Aftab next week in Instep on Sunday