“I’ll bet the people who hate me are hiding and listening to me right now,” Meesha Shafi grins at me from across the digital stratosphere that separates us. She adds, “I’m not saying that in a cocky way. It’s a fact!”
At this point in our conversation, Meesha and I are talking about Boom Boom, her rendition of Nazia Hassan’s iconic ’80s hit, performed for the Velo Sound Station (VSS) platform. Surrounded by digital graphics and bouncing strobes, Meesha takes centre stage in a neon jacket, her hair flying, dancing in a performance that is so charged that you can’t help but watch it, and listen to on repeat.
It’s a song that’s been thumping on sound systems ever since it released last month — in cars, at homes, in dholkis and even in discotheques around the world — according to Meesha, it’s been a big hit in Mumbai as well. And she’s followed it up with a deluge of many more singles, switching chameleon-like from one musical genre to the other.
Released in the same week as Boom Boom was Na Tutteya Ve, a female anthem that started off Coke Studio 2020 (CS), sung by the female vocalists that were part of the new season, including Meesha, who raps solo in Punjabi.
Following up the very next week was Meesha’s song with Ali Pervez Mehdi for CS, the euphoric Gal Sunn. Then, there was the haunting Amrit, for VSS, where Meesha chanted about life and liberation while blindfolded and bound in chains.
In an about-turn, came the Indie-electronic Sufi Sakal Ban Phool Rahi Sarson, in collaboration with Mughal-i-Funk, where her raw voice swerved in new directions with some of Amir Khusrau’s most popular verses. Earlier, there had been the experimental, riveting Magenta Cyan with Abdullah Siddiqui.
Most of last year may have been a pandemic-ridden, sad one but Meesha, at least, managed to close it off with a bang. Her songs have hauled in plenty of YouTube views — which is why she feels that she’s merely stating ‘facts’ when she talks about everyone listening to her music.
Given the number of singles she has released, one after the other, it is certainly very likely that ‘the people who hate her’ are going to end up listening to her one way or the other.
Talking to me via the internet from her home in Canada, she says, “Last month was often crazy. I would be up till late in the night, waiting for when the songs would release in Pakistan time. How could I fall asleep if there were just two hours to my song airing out?
“It is because of the coronavirus pandemic that, somehow, both VSS and CS ended up getting aired at the same time,” Meesha continues, “and I couldn’t have planned it better myself. It’s literally been a gift from heaven. It’s all been so hyper online that I have often found it hard to go offline.
Sometimes my emotions have gotten the better of me, and I have cried a lot. But it has been a good kind of crying. I’m enjoying the love and support that I’m getting from my fans, as well as from the industry that I work in.”
She muses, “As an artist, I think I prefer this kind of support. I’m not looking towards people for emotional support. For over two years now, I have remained mostly silent, contemplating and self-reflecting. When you have been cut down left, right and centre, it’s important to regain your sense of self-worth, and believe that you have something to offer which is not a joke.”
Our conversation has shifted now from her recently released songs to her references to the time following a tweet where she accused fellow musician Ali Zafar of having harassed her, and the ongoing courtroom trials that have followed. Any interview with Meesha Shafi is inevitably bound to do so…
You’ve once again truly returned to the limelight with a spate of releases. Were you ready to be back, under public scrutiny, when you were approached for them?
I was absolutely ready. I could not let what had happened in the past more than two years define me. I could not accept that I could be reduced to just that. And I just wanted to get on stage and enjoy myself.
Did you, at some point in time, worry that brands may opt not to work with you because of the controversy with Ali Zafar?
My priority was not whether I would get work in the future but to take care of myself and get back up on my feet again. As a creative person, it is very important to have positive energy in order to perform. The fact that my latest songs have done well proves that, if you work hard and are good at what you do, the work will come to you and people will appreciate it.
Which performances have you personally preferred — VSS or CS?
It’s like comparing apples and oranges, isn’t it? Both platforms are as different as they can be, from the entire ethos, to the direction and the musical genres they are spotlighting. VSS is pumping, energetic and modern. When I first saw the set, I felt that it had a retro ’80s’ vibe to it, with the loud lights and the huge boom boxes on the side. CS is raw, rustic and organic, set in an all-new Covid-19 format.
The songs that you have sung have also been completely different, from a Nazia Hassan hit to revamping a popular qawwali to originals. Looking at the viewership ratings on YouTube, do you think that today’s audience gravitates more easily towards covers as opposed to originals?
This is something that I have been thinking about for a while. I started my career as part of the band Overload, and I sang original songs with them, songs that I had written myself. However, when I launched commercially as a solo artist, I often encountered the critique that I was singing too many covers and wasn’t releasing any original work.
But the relationship between people and music is often strengthened by nostalgia and recall value. The pull is greater towards a fresh take on a song that you have previously loved. And mind you, not all these songs were huge hits in their time. It’s just that, over time, they became iconic or became symbolic of a popular artist’s musical journey.
A good original just ages really well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s wrong to attach so much importance to the views a song gets in a few days or a week. Music, like all fine arts, sometimes takes time to seep in. It isn’t linear and is open to different interpretations. It’s not like the box office where a movie airs in a theatre for a specific time period and is seen by a certain number of people before it is replaced by another. You can’t put a time limit to music.
And what did you enjoy more — singing the covers or the originals?
Originals are much more enjoyable from a creative perspective because you’re making something from scratch. Everything is reflective of your own vision and thought process and it can be challenging. But fortunately, I have a healthy relationship with challenges. I feel that they push me to learn more about what I can do.
Based on the numbers, what has been your biggest recent hit?
Boom Boom, of course, is the biggest commercial hit. I think it’s also made a lot of people aware of my range as a vocalist.
Did VSS’s producer, Bilal Maqsood, suggest that you sing Boom Boom or was it your idea?
I suggested it. It was fascinating to me that Pakistani musical platforms had done covers of everything ever produced but they had never reworked this one song. Perhaps it’s because it’s a difficult song to sing. For a while, I was worried that we might not get the license for performing it but, as soon as we got it, I just knew that it was going to be epic!
And you weren’t worried about reworking a huge hit, veritably one of Nazia Hassan’s most iconic songs?
I actually wasn’t, and I think that’s why it turned out okay. If I had been scared of disappointing the audience, my nerves would have gotten the best of me. I loved performing it and none of it was even rehearsed. I don’t really rehearse too much. I can be lazy when I’m not working. Perhaps it’s a sort of energy conservation which comes into great use when I’m on stage!
Do you think that the way Boom Boom has been filmed — on a zany neon-lit stage — has as much to do with its success as the song itself?
I think people have loved it because it’s a combination of many, many things. For one, Pakistan has never produced an EDM banger on a mainstream stage, by a mainstream artist. But it’s something that is very popular with today’s audience. It’s also just such an irresistible track, produced ingeniously.
Moving on to your other song for VSS, Amrit, the visuals are evocative and even disturbing, with you bound in chains. What made you opt for such a dramatic setting?
The verses of the song are extremely beautiful and fragile but also, initially dark. I’m singing about non-confirming and spiritual awakening, and I wanted to express myself, not just with the lyrics but also with strong, conceptual visuals.
I consider myself to be a multi-disciplinary artist and I have also worked with theatrics in past songs. When I performed Mein at Pepsi Battle of the Bands, I had the liberty, as a judge for the show, to design the performance however I liked. I worked with puppets from the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop and mime artists and dancers from the National Academy of Performing Arts.
With Amrit, similarly, I wanted to create an experience that was open to different interpretations through the non-linear poetry as well as the visuals.
Besides, I’m a big fan of doing things differently. There’s an eclecticism to the way I dress, the way I have done up my home and the way I create music — mixing different textures and mediums, crossing lines and breaking boundaries. There was a time when I used to regret not having trained as a singer with an ustad [master] but now, in retrospect, I think being self-taught really worked for me.
No one pinpointed a list of rules for me or told me to colour within the lines. Sometimes, it’s important to have someone brave and crazy who will be willing to do things differently, with music, the way that it is performed.
Sakal Ban… is very different too, with its funky take on a popular qawwali…
Yes, and people have loved it. It’s one of Amir Khusrau’s most popular kalaams and qawwals regularly recite it in mazaars [shrines] on Thursdays. It’s gotten a lot of acclaim in India, especially in Delhi. And I do know that I have a huge fan base in Delhi — it’s where I used to perform the most before the Indo-Pak borders closed.
Which song did they ask you to perform the most?
Dasht-i-Tanhai. I think that there’s a part of Delhi, the literary crowd, that enjoys poetry and the arts, who like my music. And I feel as if I can relate to them too, because those are the sort of people that I grew up with. I even have family living in Delhi, my paternal grandfather was from there.
You worked with Rohail Hyatt on the CS platform after a very long time — the last time was Season 5 back in 2012. How was the experience?
It was amazing. I have a lot of admiration and respect for Rohail. The vision he has is one-of-a-kind. Na Tutteya Ve wasn’t originally written to be a feminist statement. He turned it into an anthem that women all over the world can relate to. It says something that every woman wants to say.
The song that you have sung with Ali Pervez Mehdi is a Punjabi original. Was that your choice?
CS this year has consisted of 100 percent original songs, and I told Rohail that I missed singing in Punjabi. I wanted to sing something upbeat, to have fun, I felt like celebrating. Rohail always starts with asking the artist what he or she wants to do. I think that he then takes his cues from the energy that the artist brings.
This year’s Covid-19-compliant format must have made recording for CS quite different…
It was. Previously, there used to be a house band and all the instrumentalists and vocalists would be performing together. We would get to hear the song. This time, the songs were recorded in segments and then merged together. Even I got to hear the complete song along with the audience, when it was released.
Doesn’t not knowing what the final song sounds like make you anxious?
At this point in my career, I think that I have come too far to be anxious and not trust the people that I have opted to work with. I just do my job and then I leave my producers to do theirs. With Rohail, I don’t think that anyone gets a preview of the final song but, even if I did have that option, what would be the point? It’s not like I can ask a producer to have changes made to the song. I’d rather perform and then, just go home.
You built up plenty of anticipation for your songs by posting images leading up to their releases. Tell me, how does every image turn out to be so dramatic and fabulous?
Does it? I don’t really hang about during a photo shoot getting more and more pictures taken and retaken. I don’t have the patience for it. But you have to remember that I grew up in a household where being in front of the camera was like a family business. No one taught me how to get my pictures taken, but it was something that I was comfortable with. I also modelled quite a bit back in the day.
I remember my mother once telling me that if you’re constantly self-aware of how you’re looking, then you won’t look good in the picture, you’ll look worried. The camera doesn’t lie.
What’s next for you?
I have been working on a very sensitive labour of love that I hope to release this year. It’s an album that I have been writing over the past few years. I went through a dark time and I didn’t want to feel better before I started writing. In fact, I think that writing played a major role in helping me feel better.
It’s not very commercial and the poetry is more philosophical, with a lot of depth to it. I would have released it in 2020, except that I want to work with multiple producers and it was becoming difficult to do so virtually, without physically sitting together.
I do want to release it sometime this year, like we release work, but also as an emotional release.
This piece was originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 17th, 2021