Instep Today

Arooj Aftab: Flying High

Instep Today
By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 04, 22

“Is this an audio interview?” asks Arooj Aftab, before I tell her a video interview would be better. She agrees, and says, “thank you”, as I wait for her to log on from a different device for five minutes.

Originally from Lahore, now based in New York City, there’s a decency and honesty to how Arooj speaks. Accomplished as she is, landing two Grammy Awards nominations in the categories of Global Music Performance and Best New Artist (and winning one) in 2022, Arooj Aftab has no airs about her and doesn’t speak from a place of arrogance. Forthcoming, humble, she does struggle to articulate some things but does her best to be clear about her thoughts. The first impression is an artist who is immersed in music that first and foremost appeals to the self.

Sitting between Pakistan and the USA, as technology allows us to connect, the Brooklyn-based artist talks about her music, mostly. What her persona represents is that music is her catharsis and passion, and she is not one to pander to a crowd, either in Pakistan or the USA.

At the moment, Arooj Aftab - who has just won a Grammy for her song ‘Mohabbat’ in Best Global Performance category - is the talk of the town. She also made her debut appearance in the recently concluded season 14 of Coke Studio, collaborating with Asfar Hussain (Bayaan), on the haunting ‘Mehram’.

But as Pakistan - upon her victory - suddenly decides to celebrate Arooj, (who has spent more than a decade abroad) as one of our own industry giants, we rewind to a conversation in March ’22, when a very reflective Arooj Aftab spoke about music, culture and ironically, the Grammys.

“All I need to write is a bitter song to make me better/I feel better, I feel better.” – Butterfly Boucher

It’s difficult to not ask about being nominated for two Grammys. The interview begins with obvious topics, and Arooj answers with the same individuality that fuels the artist in her. Through the interview, her personality reveals itself as a talented, intelligent musician.

We start by talking about the Grammys…

I ask her what it’s like being nominated for the Grammys, music’s biggest night in a global context and landing on former American President, Barack Obama’s playlist. It made Pakistan own her as opposed to the early years when Arooj Aftab was among the first artists to use the internet to release her music and most of us simply didn’t pay attention back then.

“It’s been a dream come true, as an artist,” she says about being nominated. Though Arooj does admit she is from two different communities, she explains she isn’t exactly from the Pakistani music community and there’s a good reason for it.

“I left when I was so young and I never came back so it’s a little hard from me to articulate in what way I’m a part of the Pakistani music community. I can’t continue to speak as if I’ve been a part of it because I haven’t and that’s just the truth even though I am Pakistani and I understand the industry and the musicians that have been operating in that industry. I respect them a lot.

“I think it’s very different from the industry that I’ve been operating in.”

“We, as a musician community here in New York, come from jazz and post-classical, experimental, minimalist, background.”

Living abroad, Arooj explains how as an artist she made sure to not let go of her roots. “I continued to try and make music that had integrity.”

Her music is multicultural - there is an effort that it represents both where Arooj Aftab is from and where she is.

Arooj describes this as a, “struggle for the last 20 years, trying to create something new that feels right, and finding a place here in the diasporic dichotomy, which is so competitive.”

Elaborating on the industry she comes from, Arooj articulates: “You’re not a big fish in a small pond; you’re actually really tiny. It’s a massive industry where millions of dollars are going left, right and center. Even in the basic jazz community, we know the Grammys isn’t for us. It’s for Billboard top 40 music and so it has not been aspirational for communities like ours for decades now.”

The nominations, therefore, came as a surprise. “They included us and not just to include me but also include me in their top four (Best New Artist) is just nuts, you know. It’s unreal but is an extreme triumph for me because I work hard and I work alone. No one in Pakistan has been aware of my work so it’s like if you put in the hard work, it can fall into place. As a community, we’ve been gunning for the opportunity to include us as well. It’s a game between labels and there’s no integrity to it. The pressure has been there for several years so they’re creating changes and it’s a big win.”

How does Arooj see this victory, being nominated, in the context of the Pakistani music industry and she thoughtfully says, “It’s a huge wake up call for them to diversify their listening and not be so insular with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude. There are other South Asian communities who really band together and keep an eye on their expats, and they see what they’re doing and pick them up and encourage and celebrate them.”

Arooj maintains that we don’t do that in Pakistan. “It’s a nice moment for everyone to kind of learn and appreciate what is theirs and what is not and what it means.”

As for Arooj, she laughs and says, “Its f***ing awesome.”

The song that has fetched her a Grammy, had also made it to Obama’s playlist last summer. But a lot of Pakistani music fans like myself remember Arooj breaking onto the scene with a cover of ‘Mera Pyar’ by the late Amir Zaki, floating it across the dubious internet services of those times, before YouTube became popular.

Leaving the country was a rational decision for her because she wanted to study music and didn’t have the resources or tools that she felt she needed. They were not available in Lahore at the time and societal understanding of studying music was not the best, Arooj recalls.

“I felt alone, it was completely male-dominated. Trying to make people understand my vision would’ve left me where? It felt like too much. So, it was simply I have to go whether I have the money or not.”

She wanted to focus on music.

“Losing sight of your dream happens so quickly when too many things are happening. I just realized that and I knew I had to go.”

From student loans to getting accepted at Berklee School of Music, everything came together almost as a blessing and the path to her dream became real. It allowed her to learn the language and tools she needed to learn. It gave her confidence without being torn down by people.

Once Arooj was done with college, she had the tools she needed and was part of the New York jazz community. “I was not trying to be in a place that’s so adjacent to Bollywood in your ears. I wanted clarity and I needed the scene to be big enough so that I could go into an incubator and listen to my own thoughts musically and try to figure out how all the pieces fit and how do they fit in a way that isn’t just fusion, but more of a dialogue. The music choices and direction, the production to create a mirrored language to the words so regardless of your understanding of the words, you understand what’s happening musically and to create really deep, graceful, elegant, royal, sensitive music that ebbs and flows. It takes its time and tells its story.”

To Arooj, all these elements aside, it was also a goal to not make pretentious, self-important music where the singer takes frontstage glory, or the soloist is now soloing. “Its special,” says Arooj.

“This is something that is inviting me to think about my childhood, inviting me to think about ghazal music, jazz but, I’m not really being pulled anywhere. I wanted to create music like that and New York is kind of a melting pot and no one interferes with your stuff; you do your thing.”

Staying in USA also allowed mental freedom, in simple acts like buying a pack of cigarettes from the corner shop post-midnight. “Small freedoms go a long way when you’re a lunatic creative person. You have to be in a space without restrictions and judgement. You have to be in a place where you can play all your neuroses.”

This takes us to Pakistan, where Arooj Aftab made her Coke Studio debut in 2022. Speaking about the Coke Studio experience, as the conversation comes to conclusion, Arooj says: “I have a lot of respect for Xulfi as a producer. I realise that Coke Studio is a rite of passage for a Pakistani musician. The song (‘Mehram’) was exactly my style. One of the biggest things was that Xulfi allowed me to co-produce it. You can’t take me out of my artistic element. I’m not going to just join as a singer.

The reputation is that the singer comes and sings a song. But I’m not just a singer and I felt that this needs to stop. We are all producers, and we all have ideas. Let them flourish. It can’t be a dictatorship because its unnatural for one person to create like an entire season of music with musicians that are fixed and all of them are on every single song. It’s weird. Xulfi was like I want you to make this, and he won my heart because he told me he wanted me to do what I do and no Pakistani person has said that to me or even acknowledged that I have a very unique and signature style. I was like ‘wow’- thanks for saying that. Xulfi is not afraid and confident. “It was no nonsense, and all we care about is the music-centric vibe and how it can be the best thing we’ve ever made. It’s not exactly my vibe, but the fact that he invited me to make it my vibe, and have a real collaboration, has been amazing for me.”

Post-Coke Studio and Grammy win, Pakistanis are bound to research the artist that is Arooj Aftab. This is the sort of thing that happens all the time; we wait for external recognition before owning our homegrown talent.

Perhaps Arooj Aftab entering the public consciousness with her award will prompt Pakistani audiences to broaden their musical horizons, prompting them to explore across genres, genders, and eras.