“Come as you are, as you were/As I want you to be/As a friend, as a friend/As an old enemy.” – ‘Come as You Are’ by Nirvana
If you were to indulge in an exercise that aims to shine a light on modern Pakistani music and surveyed to find some of the best hip-hop and rap music artists in and of the country in no chronological order, certain names would immediately rise from a crevice that expanded your musical consciousness.
Among the most prominent names would be Eva B and Faris Shafi. For me, they immediately rise to the surface from a partition of music within the mind.
But what about the rest? There are so many artists playing in the rap arena that it is hard to deny their existence and shifting star power. Some artists are even overexposed. Others are underdogs. In terms of overexposure, yes, we’re looking at you, the Talhas from Young Stunners.
While many artists have released singles or an album or two, Sunny Khan Durrani – who is the underdog of rap music - has released three albums (The Butterfly Effect, Khabbarnaama, and Aetizaaz) – and for an artist who never found a spot on a major, national and commercial music show for TV, it was about walking the road less travelled and being uncompromising about his art, he tells Instep as a fourth album is scheduled to release in 2023.
With a substantial body of work, Durrani’s artistic growth is plastered across each of his albums. With long hair and a messy beard, his image is sunny and completely defies his visual odyssey through music.
Under the music video of ‘Mera Koi Ghar Nahi’, the comments include a thumbs-up from Eva B and Mooroo (Taimoor Salahuddin).
For this rapper, they are the lot that is an encouraging troupe he has known for years. I wonder out loud about rap beefs and dissing one another through song. When probed on how he falls in that nexus, Durrani says it isn’t as belligerent as it seems. He explains: “Rap is a highly competitive form of music. It exists here and back in 2019, I had prominent rap beef. However, it can happen naturally and as a writer/artist you are put in a place where you must showcase grit. That said, some of the artists you’ve mentioned are friends and we’ve been making music together.”
As Durrani sees it, rap beef should be restricted to when you are making music and not carried forward. “I’ve stopped looking at other artists as competitors. They can, perhaps, be a driving force at times but people are not a competition.”
“Take your time, hurry up/Choice is yours, don’t be late/Take a rest as a friend.” – ‘Come as You Are’ by Nirvana
Born and raised in Peshawar, KP, the 26-year-old presently lives between Peshawar and Islamabad. But, Peshawar, once known as the city of flowers, has shaped so much of who he is; it reflects in his perception of everyday life. The conflict that we read about through newspapers, social media, digital news formats and from the safety of our homes, is something he has grown up around and it continues to create friction in his inner-outer world.
“Growing up in Peshawar always felt like a bad nightmare. It was nice until I discovered the city and even now when I go there, I am in denial. Experiencing conflict from blasts and the loss of innocent lives, to watching people getting tangled in serious violence over the smallest things was a way of life. It was normal. It was only later we realized that people are terrified. But from a young age, I’ve watched how a small fight in an alleyway could morph into one where guns would come out.”
Beyond the gunfights, Sunny admits that while he didn’t live in an area that was under attack, he clearly remembers several terrorist bomb blasts that took place in the city and what the aftermath was like, for him, for the people and for the city as a whole. It is a terrible journey down a rabbit hole I do not wish Sunny Khan Durrani to take. He admits though that he has seen far too much, there is no way to articulate those sentiments except accepting it as a part of life until years later in the present. He has now found a way to channel some of it into the music he is making and choosing to live between his hometown, Peshawar and the capital city Islamabad rather than just the former.
“Peshawar is a city for people who work hard. But I don’t feel it is a city for creative people,” says Durrani based on his years of observation.
As we discuss languages, cities and rap music, it is easy to like Sunny Khan Durrani. He isn’t trying to come up with intellectual answers nor is he banal or attempting to be someone he isn’t.
With two songs out, this is maybe the first time Durrani hasn’t dropped an album but is releasing one single at a time between days so it registers with the listener. It is also because this album took a lot out of him on an emotional level.
Well-versed in several languages, this new album, tho-ugh, is also the first where Durrani will leave his flair for languages aside to create a narrative in Urdu. His reasons have less to do with posturing and are more about how Urdu is, “an absolutely beautiful language”.
Writing came to Durrani at an early age. He remembers writing when he used to scribble poetry when he was in class four and five. By class seven, he learned you could record your own music on software and in studios. “Around that time, I started figuring out how to record a song. A cousin of mine had a proper microphone and PC. It wasn’t the best but it was a proper mic and we recorded something that sounded awful. It takes more than a PC and a microphone to record a track but at that time we didn’t know,” he laughs.
“One day I started releasing my music, I remember the prominent place to put your music was ReverbNation and that was before YouTube. I’ve been making music properly since the eighth or ninth standard.”
Durrani’s last music vi-deo, ‘Mera Koi Ghar Nahi’ – which is directed by Awais A. Khan – finds him at his most uncompromising, angry self on one hand, and entirely vulnerable on the other. It is a conundrum that needed the gritty direction, provided by Khan. It flows perfectly with the song, but the single hardly offers a positive discourse. It is ferocious and brimming with a fire that devours.
However, Sunny Khan Durrani, as I learn during the course of this interview with Instep, is not one to embrace any kind of a facade that would help sell his art in significant fashion; he’d rat-her be obscure and honest than make neon music vid-eos because it is, as he tells Instep, not exactly about pulling other artists down and that isn’t something that comes naturally to him anyway.
As the conversation goes from professional to personal, Sunny agrees that he does suffer from insomnia but he also doesn’t wallow about it. He lives on very little sleep and it doesn’t bother him. He avoids looking at things in one-dimensional or binary fashion.
Living in a visual world, his newest album comes as singles with music videos and he admits that the days of walkman and mixtape seem to be over, particularly in the age of a Velo Sound Station and a Coke Studio.
Dealing with the radical shift from the walkman era to the current one was not something Durrani had to deal with as an artist.
“I believe my listeners are not conventional hip-hop listeners. Or conventional music listeners. Many grew up with me and this music I make so now I don’t have to worry about what else is happening. I never have and I just knew that with the upcoming album (titled) Siyaah, that it had to be made in isolation. I had separated myself from everything and knew that until I don’t take this out of myself – in the shape of a record – I will not be able to do anything.” If the emotions feel closer to life and therefore with a shade of dark and profound truths, it is – as Durrani explains – what was inside him.
“I make music because I want to make music. It was never going to be about what is the current trend in music. Awais A. Khan does all my music videos and manages me as well. Throughout this process, we almost lived together and neither I nor Awais have the mindset that what we are doing has to be the biggest success.
We know we cannot go down that path because that’s not our path or ever was to begin with. If I want to take the longer path because I know it’s mine and I have found a method where I can make music and be solvent, which doesn’t mean rolling in cash, that to me is acceptable instead of selling out art for money.”
What about rap music with cars, girls, flashing cash kind of idea in a rap song, I pose, just as a notion.
“See, it isn’t my reality. There is space for everything but it isn’t my reality. My reality can be a void like, how I long for the idea that what if Peshawar was not the way it is and I could live there and work as a creative person and how there was not such a tremendous loss of life and grief? My reality is I wish I could have survived in it. That’s like the song ‘Mera Koi Ghar Nahi’. It is also a metaphor because an artist has no home.”
“I don’t shy away from my reality; I’d rather put it in front of you and let you be the judge. If you feel at home somewhere, it can be your home but maybe you can’t live there. You pay a price if you decide to live there,” says Durrani as we conclude the interview, but not before he admits that another music video is in the pipeline. Expect great things from this young rapper and producer who found solace in music and is willing to share very personal emotions via his art, lending truth to a genre that is misunderstood for reasons past understanding.
“I make music because I want to make music. It was never going to be about what is the current trend in music. Awais A. Khan does all my music videos and manages me as well. Throughout this process, we almost lived together and neither I nor Awais have the mindset that what we are doing has to be the biggest success. We know we cannot go down that path because that’s not our path or ever was to begin with. If I want to take the longer path because I know it’s mine and I have found a method where I can make music and be solvent, which doesn’t mean rolling in cash, that to me is acceptable instead of selling out art for money.”