My conversation with Atif Aslam ricochets between two very contrasting phases.
The first leg of our interview begins some weeks ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc all over the world. Atif has a breakneck schedule, having just returned from a concert tour through Europe, he is about to leave for a shooting tryst in Gilgit.
Our interview takes place on a day in between.
Soon, though, life changes. The country sinks into a lockdown in an effort to control a mass outbreak of the coronavirus. Returning from Gilgit, Atif self-isolates.
A lot that we had talked about just a few days ago — charting his career trajectory of sold-out concerts, record-breaking YouTube hits and a ‘hamd’ that started last year’s Coke Studio (CS) with a high — seems to belong to a bygone world.
A moment of clarity
With a deadly virus running rampant, concerts may not take place for some time. The world economy is spiraling downwards, and there’s a chance that high-budget projects such as CS may get delayed. Multinational sponsors are likely to lack the wherewithal to sponsor musical events anytime soon.
Discussions inevitably begin revolving almost entirely around preventive measures against the coronavirus and its effects on Pakistan’s fragile economy.
And it is on this morbid note that I begin my second conversation with Atif: is he worried about how the current crisis may hamper his musical career?
His answer is characteristically philosophical: “The world has come to a stop. Every business is in lockdown. People can’t pray in mosques and they are restricted from visiting Makkah and Madinah, the most sacred cities for all Muslims. That’s what I’m worried about. I’m worried that we all need to keep breathing. No, I’m not worried about money right now.”
Atif continues, “What does worry me is the fate of daily wage workers. If the lockdown against this pandemic continues, how will they survive? I’m worried for our doctors. They are on the frontlines right now and need to feel appreciated. We need them to keep working in order to ensure our country’s survival.”
Some days ago, he uploaded a video on his Instagram account, lauding the efforts of healthcare workers, the government and the army. Another video thanked PM Imran Khan in particular.
“It is very important to acknowledge and appreciate all that these people are doing for us. A lot of people messaged me and told me that they felt better after watching my posts. Surgeons from all over the world said that they felt encouraged. It’s also very important right now to leave politics aside, stop pointing fingers, and stand together.”
His fans — a colossal following that calls themselves ‘Aaadez’ — were concerned that he had been travelling at a time when the coronavirus had only just broken out.
“My fans really watch out for me, and I’m lucky to have them. And yes, when they found out that I had been travelling, they were concerned,” he says.
"In my career, though, there are a lot of times when people pretend to be my friends. The next thing I know, they will ask me to just show my face at their event. Why should I? Is that why they befriended me?”
“Even a few weeks ago, when I got hurt on stage while performing in the UK... Some girls were extending their phone towards me, wanting to take a selfie but I told them that they were too far away and I couldn’t take the picture with them, and they decided on impulse to throw the phone at me and it hit me on the head. I managed to recover and continued the concert but there was some swelling later... even then fans started messaging, worried if I was all right.”
Fandom without borders
It is this fan following, spread out across the world, that has always spurred on Atif’s career. Perhaps, they are the main reason why he isn’t panicking as the coronavirus cripples the world economy.
“There are highs and there are lows. My work in Bollywood came to a sudden halt but that didn’t stop me, did it?” he points out.
“Despite the ban, it was evident how loved I was by fans of Bollywood music. The hashtag #UnbanAtifAslam was trending on Indian Twitter when my song was removed from the soundtrack of the movie Notebook. It wasn’t something that I orchestrated. I’m just blessed,” he smiles.
We rewind back to some time ago, when Atif had been one of Bollywood’s most coveted playback singers, until heightening Indo-Pak tensions brought everything to a halt. All Pakistani artists, including Atif, were banned from working in the Indian film industry.
Was this perturbing for Atif, given that he had sung some of Bollywood’s biggest hits in recent years and the ban carelessly disregarded his achievements, as well as cut off a lucrative source of revenue for him?
“No, it didn’t disturb me. I’m not from their country and the fact that I managed to do so much work in another country is enough for me,” he says.
“Despite the ban, it was evident how loved I was by fans of Bollywood music. The hashtag #UnbanAtifAslam was trending on Indian Twitter when my song was removed from the soundtrack of the movie Notebook.”
The movie’s record label also lost a million subscribers when it removed his song 'Baarishein' from their YouTube channel. Fans quite evidently weren’t happy and the song had to be put back up again.
“It wasn’t something that I orchestrated. I’m just blessed,” he smiles.
According to him, the ban did not hurt him financially. “For the past few years, my earnings have been from concerts. And fans from India, Pakistan and all over still come to see me perform. The tickets are still selling out!”
He goes on to describe the audience’s reaction to the qawwali that has proven to be one of his biggest hits, 'Tajdar-i-Haram' from CS Season 8. “There is complete silence. This serenity seems to descend over the audience. People want to listen to it again and again.”
Another big hit was his rendition of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan hamd, 'Wohi Khuda Hai', which started off last year’s CS. Interestingly, his most popular songs for CS have been rooted in spiritualism. Is this indicative of a more religious phase in his life, particularly since he also performed hajj last year?
“It was my second hajj,” he tells me, “but I don’t think that a sudden change has come over me. The change has always been there. I don’t believe in material things and I’m always in search of the truth, for what gives me peace.
“It’s very important to realise what matters, to not get caught up in fame and fortune, and keep your feet on the ground. There may be a time when I don’t have any work at all and, at that point, I will only be able to survive if I have stayed true to what is real.”
What's fame without fortune?
What has always been real for Atif, then, is making music. He’s working on new compositions while locked down at home. And even in the past, while sponsors came and went and political controversies ran loose, Atif’s musical career surged on.
Does he never feel the need to make a comment when he feels wronged — when the ban was imposed, for instance, or when sponsors resort to unethical wheeling and dealing?
“Controversies and political crossfire is irrelevant. I don’t want to pay attention to people who just want their 15 minutes of fame — I’ve got work to do!”
"We have seen so many artists being underappreciated — cricketers, actors, musicians who were immensely popular in their time but who ended up impoverished in their old age. It’s very important to be business-savvy.
Atif has a reputation for being one of the most expensive rockstars in the country and is very upfront about being paid for his work. Is this true?
“I think that it’s very important to be upfront about money. I’ve worked very hard for 17 years to reach where I’m today. When people ask me for freebies, they are actually disregarding all my hard work. And why should I allow it? If a multinational is benefitting by associating with me, why shouldn’t they be paying me for it?”
He points out that many new musicians get enamoured by corporate culture, and end up being taken for granted.
“It’s very important for artists to make sure that they dictate what happens in their career. A corporate sponsor will ultimately only be looking out for itself and may not fulfill its promises. Artists need to keep focused on making good music, and earning from it.”
He continues, “We have seen so many artists being underappreciated — cricketers, actors, musicians who were immensely popular in their time but who ended up impoverished in their old age. It’s very important to be business-savvy.
“But this doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be involved in projects that I believe in. If one day, I get the opportunity to collaborate with an artist that I have always looked up to, I would happily consider it. In my career, though, there are a lot of times when people pretend to be my friends. The next thing I know, they will ask me to just show my face at their event. Why should I? Is that why they befriended me?”
This is, of course, the pitfall of being one of the country’s most popular musicians. Who are his friends then?
“I have a very small network of friends. And I have two sons. They are my friends. The baby is very young and, so, the elder one has become my responsibility.”
And while quarantined at home, he is enjoying spending time with his newborn. He also just celebrated his wedding anniversary.
“I have basically been working like a machine all these years. I’m really enjoying just spending time with the baby, playing with him, seeing him laugh. My wife and I may not have gone out to celebrate our anniversary but we cherished the fact that we were all home, together, healthy.
“Things may be different right now, they may have slowed down but what I’m meant to earn, I will earn.”
And what will be, will be. Wise words from a rockstar with a strong philosophical side. In these difficult times, a bit of philosophy can help all of us keep the faith.
Published in Dawn, ICON, April 5th, 2020