"We’re not allowed to mention the nominations on set,” I’m told when I enter the studio compound where Arooj Aftab has been recording her vocals for the upcoming season of Coke Studio. Why not? I ask. “She wants to be completely focused,” came the response. “She doesn’t want the attention to shift from the music she’s making.”
That’s the first bit of information I get about Arooj Aftab, the singer whose name has been on everyone’s mind ever since she was nominated for two major Grammy awards in late November. I’m meeting her just a few days after the announcement was made.
But it didn’t come easy to Arooj. She’s been at it for years. From putting up clips of her music online way back in 2001-2002, before there was even a Facebook or Instagram, to going viral for her cover of Aamir Zaki’s iconic song 'Mera Pyaar' and Leonard Cohen’s 'Hallelujah'.
She then received the Steve Vai scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2005, where she formally studied music production and engineering as well as jazz composition. After graduating, she continued to live and work in the United States and, in the midst of all of this, released three albums — Bird Under Water (2014), Siren Islands (2018) and Vulture Prince (2021) — while collaborating with other artists and working full time as an audio engineer to pay for her music.
Behind these Grammy nods was years of sweat, blood and hard work.
When I meet her, Arooj is on a rare visit to the motherland. Ever since she relocated to the United States for her music engineering degree at Berklee, she’s only been back to Pakistan three or four times. As one of the artists featured in the upcoming season of Coke Studio, she’s been recording her performance in studios all day.
My interview with her has been rescheduled four or five times until, finally, I’m waiting for her to get done at her last recording stop. The last one before she heads back home, which is now New York in the United States.
She emerges, looking a little tired from a full day of recording, refreshingly make-up free, hair messy and in simple all black — the colour of choice for most artists who don’t want to get distracted by or waste time on clothing choices, prioritising convenience and comfort.
Arooj Aftab, the husky-voiced singer, composer and music producer, now best known for her rendition of Hafiz Hoshiarpuri’s 'Mohabbat', has just received a double nomination for the most prestigious music awards in the world, the Grammys. In town to record for Coke Studio’s upcoming season, she talks to Icon about how the world has changed for her…
TWO GRAMMY NODS
Arooj Aftab is no stranger to receiving prestigious awards. Last year, she picked up her first Latin Grammy in the best rap/hip hop category for contributing to Residente’s Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe [Before the World Ends] as a backing vocalist. In 2020, Arooj also received the Student Academy Award for composing the music of Karishma Dev Dube’s short film Bittu, which was also shortlisted for the Oscars in the same year.
But it still doesn’t prepare you for being nominated at the biggest music awards show in the whole world — the Grammys. Arooj was nominated in two of the biggest and most competitive categories: Best New Artist and Best Global Performance.
So, the Grammys, I start, and Arooj instantly breaks into a loud laughter. Her happiness and glee are so infectious we all start laughing with her.
Was she expecting it? “I was not expecting it at all!” she responds. “But this year I became a voting member myself of the academy and so I was very much getting emails almost every day or every few days being like: watch the nominations!”
The nerves would come flooding in. “I’d see it and have a heart attack and close my email,” she said. “Like, I do not want to think about this. [But] because of that emotional behaviour my body and mind were putting me through based on the approaching announcement, I realised that I really, really wanted it.
“And I just didn’t know what to do with that information. I just kept quiet. I just didn’t say anything to anyone. I didn’t even tell my dad, who was in town. I didn’t tell my close friends. I didn’t even tell Rasikh [Ismail, friend who managed her whilst in Pakistan]. I just told him, something might happen that’s really exciting or nothing would happen, but either way, we need to be together.”
As fate would have it, she would be in Pakistan, recording for Coke Studio, when the nominations were announced. “As they were rolling out the nominations, I was thinking: this is way out of my league, what are we even doing here looking at the screen?” she laughs, incredulously. “The Global Music category showed up and the first name — it was the first one — it was just there on the screen.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. And then all hell broke loose. “We were screaming and shouting and we forgot about the TV,” she says. Her management messaged again: ‘You should keep watching.’
“We missed it, The Best New Artist announcement,” she adds. “But we were over the moon, freaking out. My manager in New York sent me a clip of the Best New Artist. I mean, that’s just insane.”
Rasikh had uploaded a video boomerang on his Instagram of the exact moment Arooj found out she had also been nominated in the Best New Artist category. There she is, messy hair, in what look like comfortable pyjamas, open-mouthed and looking intently at the screen, a million emotions running across her face at the speed of light.
A few days later, in person, it sounds like she almost still can’t believe it. “That’s one of the five main categories,” she relates. “No one cares about anything else. This is the one that everyone is sitting there waiting for. This is what put Drake and [Justin] Bieber [on the map] and everybody starts in that category. And it is extremely competitive.”
So she was surprised? I ask. “I was shocked,” she responds. “I’m still not sure how that happened. It doesn’t make any sense. [But] they changed a lot this year with the Grammys. They were under a lot of heat from the industry, because everyone was just like, this thing is all rigged. And it’s the only award ceremony that we have that’s super sought-after.
“What they did was that they dissolved the committees. What would happen earlier is that everyone would vote and then the committees would sit together and consider the votes but at the end, give it to whoever they wanted. That’s just nonsense.
“The World Music category is also very competitive. They changed it to Global Music and divided that into two categories — best album and best performance. They increased the number of nominations in general — from five to top 10. Phir hi humara naam aaya hai uss mein! [Only then could my name have entered into consideration!]”
But it couldn’t have happened if the music wasn’t good, I suggest. A number of prominent people, including the iconic Elvis Costello, have mentioned listening to her songs and music this past year. 'Mohabbat' even made it to President Obama’s summer playlist.
“Yes,” she responds. “The credit is there because the people voted. It was in the top 10 most-voted artists.”
Do you feel validated? “I feel very validated,” she responds.
All those years of hard work have finally paid off and you know people are listening, I offer. “Absolutely,” she responds. “It’s very legit and very honest. And it’s very… exciting.”
This has been a year of incredible highs — album release, international tours, the Grammy nods, recording at Coke Studio, being signed on to a major label — and also devastating lows — Arooj lost her younger brother, Maher, while working on her latest album. In previously published interviews, she mentioned how she was in the middle of working on her album Vulture Prince when she got the news.
A part of the album was written and produced while she was processing this loss — the song 'Diya' from the album was the last one she had played to him — and it shows. The music, the songs in the album, are both meditative and yet contain this undercurrent of a raw emotion so strong, it’s hard not to be moved while listening to it. The album is dedicated to him.
Most of the album was produced while New York was in Covid-19 lockdown. “Being able to work from home was really, really nice, and it really sort of stabilised my mind,” she says. “And grounded me. I love my house in New York. We have a beautiful garden. It’s very nice and I never get to spend any time there, so that kind of took away some of the negative feelings that I had.
“This year, since it [the album] come out, it’s been insane, completely bonkers. The record has been appealing to so many people, it’s like every day is a surprise. Every day, something happens and I’m still personally surprised. Because this has never happened before.”
Did she ever go back to what she was dreading the most: working from the office again? “Actually, my company survived the pandemic but a few months ago they just couldn’t do it anymore,” she relates. “They got acquired and we all got laid off. They let me keep my laptop, my iMac and, since I was there for five years, they gave me five months of severance pay. And I started collecting unemployment, because I can…
“The first few weeks I was like: is this what a trust fund baby feels like? I’m just chilling and doing my art aur paisay aa rahay hain meray paas? [and money is coming in?] This is crazy, I love this!” she laughs.
But that’s not where the highs of the year end. “And I signed to Universal Music!” she says triumpantly. Universal is, of course, one of the top labels in the world.
Now that she’s finally done something music-related in Pakistan, does she plan on working or doing any collaborations with artists here?
“We all know each other but there is no plan [at the moment],” she says. “Now that I’ve entered the industry standard league, I cannot make any decisions on my own ever again. They [the label] own me forever. If I have to collaborate, it has to go through them. They don’t get to say no if I really want to collaborate, but it has to go through their 16 lawyers and it’s more complicated than just being like, ‘Sure I’ll just hop on your track!’ I just can’t do that anymore.
“I don’t even know ke yahaan pe concerts ka scene kya hai [what the scene here is with concerts]. If we get invited and the offer is good, and if we’re taken care of — the way we were for Coke Studio — then I’ll come.”
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 12th, 2021