“Look at you, luminescent, with your battle scars…”- ‘Rajkumari’ by Meesha Shafi
“Lyrically, I was taking my cue from Faris, to be honest,” begins Meesha Shafi during a video-interview via Zoom taking place between Karachi and Toronto on a warm summer night in Pakistan. Meesha is just as interesting and open as she was during our previous interview. I always asked her what her musical narrative was beyond the material that emerged as a result of Coke Studio beyond a decade.
But Meesha Shafi knows what it is to be an independent artist. Along with husband-guitarist Mahmood Rahman, she was a member of music group Overload before going solo.
But by now, Meesha has graduated from being a vocalist and is using her degree from National College of Arts (NCA) to good use by applying it to her music. That influence is growing with each song.
The conversation, therefore, begins with her music in 2022. Even as Meesha has worked with corporate-names, her originality has begun to shine like a shooting star. As fans, critics and listeners, we first encountered it (during a post #MeToo revelation by her) in ‘Mein’ followed by ‘Leela’, ‘Amrit’, ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’, ‘Muaziz Saarif’ (with Faris Shafi) and the most recent, ‘Rajkumari’. The first decade in music was like a schooling in music and she graduated years ago. It no longer mattered if the song came from a platform like Velo Sound Station or a Coke Studio, the end result remained the same: a memorable, cathartic original song that we didn’t see coming.
“And I won’t put my hands up and surrender/There will be no white flag above my door.” - ‘White Flag’ by Dido
But the most pertinent question on my mind is how her electrifying first ever collaboration, for Coke Studio 14, with brother-rapper Faris Shafi happened.
Faris and Meesha came up with the song’s narrative and how it would be delivered with its doubled-up lyrical wordplay where Faris is slightly nonchalant and playful to Meesha’s intense, rebellious verses.
On the lyrical front, Meesha recounts how Faris came up with a bunch of different material preceding the final verses we hear in the song. What we do hear in ‘Muaziz Saarif’ are words that resonated with everyone involved in its creation. There was a conscious decision to give people a “banger” to mark the occasion of a Meesha Shafi-Faris Shafi collaboration because listeners longed to hear them together.
“He (Faris) does so many things; I do so many things…” she trails off. “With ‘Muaziz Saarif’, the question was both about the anticipation and what palette to choose from because of our wide spectrum as artists. It was mutually decided to give people a banger, and, still the messaging ended up being pretty hard-hitting,” she says, reflecting on the song.
How does something so compelling happen with each of them, each time - together or solo - even though they make different music and have their own individual styles, range, sonic, tonal landscape, thoughts, execution as artists?
But that is, according to Meesha, second nature to them, respectively. This simple ability to give us songs that are drenched in either nuance and subtlety or can be overtly perceptive, heartfelt, cathartic observations that find their way in Meesha and Faris’ writing processes.
“It is something we embody. The intent always shines through. For [our debut collaboration,] we wanted to make something irresistible, high energy and motivational, something that physically invigorates.”
The idea was to make, “something that makes you want to move other than something that moves you, both literally and figuratively.”
Meesha believes the intention they had was successful. She’s right. It is among the best songs from Coke Studio - and not just Coke Studio 14. She also admits that writing with Faris Shafi - a master of ferocious rap in my opinion - was challenging. “We never even discussed a collaboration before so it wasn’t surprising. It happened when it was going to happen. That’s how it took off,” she thinks back.
A multi-medium artist, Meesha Shafi followed ‘Muaziz Saarif’ with ‘Rajkumari’. Released on International Women’s Day, it is her second independent song after ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ and is quite different from the former. But it has that anthemic quality. It is meant to be an ode to women; something that does reflect in the music video. Her original plan for the music video was to include twice as many women but she couldn’t afford to shoot so extensively. “It was a heart-breaking call for me. I wanted to celebrate all the real-life women.”
“‘Rajkumari’,” she goes on, “is not a very lengthy song so it doesn’t feel as sparse. What we’ve released with the music video features such powerful women that the impact was achieved. The song is a celebration; you can definitely call it an anthem and it is a tool for self-empowerment…”
Working with creative, like-minded people such as Hashim Ali who is “very good at conceptual symbolist thinking”, ‘Rajkumari’ was made.
Intrigued further, I asked what she meant and Meesha offered what went into the music video beyond what we may or may not understand fully in a quick glance. “When I say symbolism, I mean - take for instance - Anaya Rahimi and Jannat Ali from the music video. We used hair to illustrate how we are all connected so one of them has a long braid and it doesn’t end but just turns to the other one’s braid.”
From featuring trans women to a pregnant one, Meesha pulled all the stops she could. “We spoke to them about it and I wanted it to be handled very beautifully and sensitively and not have tokenism at all. That was something I was very nervous about with respect to the music video. I didn’t want it to come across as ‘just for sake of’. A lot of concepts were discussed with the women individually because I wanted them to feel that sense of ownership.”
“With ‘Hot Mango’ and ‘Rajkumari’, it was like ‘what would they be wearing and what it signifies and what is it trying to say’. It’s not accidental or unconscious. Everything is very deeply thought out.”
Meesha recounts how they have BTS videos of the girls (in the music video of ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’) getting catcalled, chased and harassed. But there was a plan in place because this kind of behaviour is not entirely new to Pakistan.
“We made sure they were safe. I didn’t want them wandering in the streets. We had people on the ground while they were in this truck so they weren’t vulnerable. We mapped out the whole route and had a start time and end time to make sure we didn’t need to improvise on the road. We needed to know how to get them from point A to point B and what the shots would be. God bless Awais Gohar for doing his homework. There were these bikers and what did the girls have to defend themselves with: mangoes! So, these girls had a whole truck of mangoes and they were throwing them at the bikers.”
Coming back to Meesha Shafi’s music, I ask her how she landed on the word ‘Rajkumari’. We, by and large, hear Mughal and think of men as rulers unless it’s a Bollywood film perhaps. Think Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
“It is about reclaiming. You know how the word ‘queen’ is used in pop culture where anyone out there is being themselves, doing ground breaking work or just being secure in their own power makes us say ‘Oh my God, absolute queen’. There are so many different ways to be one. At the same time, I’m always interested in empowering narratives like pulling them back from English and returning them back to our South Asian royal roots and vocabulary and that’s why it’s called Rajkumari and is basically about a queen.”
The song also has English affirmations that arrive towards the end akin to a rap. What is the larger context?
“The affirmations come last in the song - I didn’t only want it to be about warfare - and lyrically, ‘Rajkumari’ is a warrior queen, a doer, somebody who is action-oriented and shakes things up and makes a difference and there are so many ways.”
“My intention - that I want to always communicate - is the action part of our time on earth and the chorus neatly and precisely sums that up. She is gorgeous, she is battle-ready, she is hardened, she is someone who can nurture, but then you can also take all of those things and sit at home and we see that so much. So, the chorus is about being out there and setting for action. The world may or may not be ready but they have to adapt and deal with it.”
What is most curious to me is what her writing process is like with recent, independent, original releases like ‘Amrit’ to ‘Hot Mango’ and then something as blistering and addictive as ‘Rajkumari’?
“I do this in my writing a lot,” says Meesha as our conversation is wrapping up. “I oscillate between addressing someone and addressing myself so it’s sort of like talking before a mirror (mirror-talking, we all do it or some of us maybe?) and when you look in the mirror, it’s almost like you’re talking to someone else and it is not intentional but I’ve noticed it happens in my writing a lot as well. That leads me to define this song as the most obvious sort of collection of affirmations. Especially when I brought the rap verse in. It’s just affirmation after affirmation.”
After being an introspective mode through the quarantine period, Meesha confirms that while this period did delay her original EP (if not LP), work is now underway and she has been recording. To that I say, what an absolute queen.