Known for being brutally honest and touching upon topics most artists shy away from, Faris Shafi is an artist that commands the respect of his peers in the music industry. His music is also peppered with a teeny tiny bit of profanity. Perhaps this is why it’s taken him over a decade to finally break onto the mainstream and he’s managed to shake things up — for the better.
More recently, he’s seen delivering verses at dizzying speeds — with Atif Aslam in Cricket Khidaiye, with the darlings of modern rock music in the country, Karakoram on Yeh Dunya and with the pop music icon Meesha Shafi on Muaziz Saarif. The latter two tracks are from the ongoing season 14 of Coke Studio, helmed by Zulfiqar ‘Xulfi’ Jabbar Khan who has breathed new life into a show that had otherwise gone somewhat stale.
It took several months to get Faris Shafi to give an interview — he’s incredibly reclusive and barely has a presence online — but once he started talking he spoke with clarity and an almost endearing honestly. Considering there is almost nothing out there to indicate who is behind the persona he presents through his music, I decided to start with the basics…
When did you start writing music? What kind of music do you listen to personally?
He burst on to our screens recently with back-to-back hits and major collaborations with artists that have defined contemporary Pakistani pop and rock music. But the songwriter and rap artist has been consistently releasing music online for over a decade and has somewhat of a cult following. He’s also famously reclusive but decided to break his silence and talk about his work and influences, his famous family and why chasing the spotlight is not for him
FS: I guess the intention started very, very early. You know, trying to mimic things in different rap songs. So, between seven and eight, I started consuming a lot of hip-hop music and since then I’ve trying to figure out what I can relate to once I hear it.
Whose music do you think had the most impact on you?
FS: That has been a secret I’ve tried to keep for a really long time. But I guess everyone wants to know. The first album I stumbled upon was a Snoop Dog album. I don’t think I can even take the name of that album because it wouldn’t be appropriate.
I don’t know how I got my hands on it and why I was listening to it so much because nothing out of that album was for anybody under 21, probably. Then it started to evolve to the others, the greats — Eminem, a lot of Tupac and a lot of Biggie. That was basically the foundation of where I began to go into discographies of particular artists, as opposed to a range of artists. I know all of their things [lyrics] even now.
And that’s what helped shaping how I used to handle things — through confusing times while growing up. To say “hip hop saved my life” is a very potent and old saying, but I know exactly what that means.
What was it like growing up with one of television’s most prominent actors, Saba Hameed, as your mother and pop music icon, Meesha Shafi, as your sister?
FS: Meesha wasn’t ‘Meesha’ until I was 21 or 22-years-old. With the Saba Hameed as my mother, I think people think hum har waqt ghar mein paint hi kar rahay hotay hain [we’re always painting at home] or we’re always writing scripts.
What we saw from the house was that she was a single mother in a massive financial crunch. We were in a rented place. Our grandparents were living with us. We had three unmarried khalas in the same house. So, there were nine people in three rooms. My mother was always at work. Our grandparents and khalas were raising us.
Although it may seem like there were these flambouyant artistic ventures taking place, it was mostly… you’re locked in a room doing these things [writing verses] because you have nowhere else to express how you feel.
You’re also known for using a lot of profanity in the music that you release independently. Have you ever gotten in trouble for that?
FS: Yes [Chuckles]. I only care about the kind of work I want to do. The same way my idols did and they literally saved my life. I know that profanity seems like profanity, but kaun dil mein gaalian nahin nikalta logon ko? [but who doesn’t curse at others?] Sab kartay hain [Everyone does it] but the moment the cameras are on, they completely change. That wasn’t very interesting for me.
For an artist you keep a very low profile. You’re not spotted at any social events. There are no interviews of you out there. You’re off social media except for one Instagram account that’s occasionally updated. You’re not known for chasing the spotlight. Where does that come from?
FS: There are a bunch of reasons for that. Where should I start? Fame wasn’t anything new. People generally discover the underbelly of fame once they’ve achieved it but that wasn’t new to me.
I understood that your problems will follow you home. I
do like fame for the work. I want the work to be very famous but I don’t want much part of it personally. Of course, I appreciate it, we need that validation for our work.
It also translates into the nature of the work that I try to do. If I make a song about addiction or violence or drugs. It doesn’t mean that I’m constantly engaging in these things. It’s really tough with this spoken word business because people really attach what you say to you.
Whereas if an artist were to paint a massacre, that would be taken as a piece of art separate from the artist. We’re complex beings. Why I feel I need to withdraw is because people just seem to think they know. Fame is not something very charming for me.
A few months ago you collaborated with Talal Qureshi and Atif Aslam on the sports anthem Cricket Khidaiye. As of this moment, it has almost 13 million views on YouTube. What was that experience like?
FS: It was beautiful. I’ve been a fan of Atif’s for a long time and I still am, deeply. You can’t even put a science to him, he’s just blessed. If you think otherwise that’s your loss because everything he touches turns into gold. We’ve been seeing that for 18 years and I also understand how tricky it is to be famous.
That famous? Where he’s the favourite celeb of celebs. I really, really appreciate the front and the background of a situation like that. We made our entertainment debut at the same time as well — through a theatre production of the Moulin Rouge when I was 15 years old and he was around 18-19 years old.
One of the other major collaborations you have had this year is with Karakoram and Talha Anjum on a heartbreakingly beautiful rock song that has a very strong 1990s vibe, Yeh Dunya. It was an altogether unexpected collaboration but one that worked. How did you navigate through that?
FS: People don’t really know this but I have been a big rock music fan. I can also sing a bunch of A.R. Rehman songs. I could sing you anything, really but personally, I have been into a lot of rock music but I don’t play any instruments.
I had no problems setting up for that song. It was a last-minute thing for them to put these rappers into it but was smooth. I didn’t have any problem with it.
I actually like that song so much that initially when we made it and I got the demo, I would be listening to Sherry [Shehreyar Khattak, lead singer of Karakoram] and then Talha [Amjum] and then Sherry’s hook and then I’d come on and I’d be surprised — I’m on this song too! I would be enjoying it just as a song. I loved it. It’s very important for us to grow together.
Who is the one artist from Pakistan you are listening to right now?
FS: You’ll hear everyone say this, but I really do like Hasan Raheem. Maybe for a different reason than most. He’s a really good writer. People don’t notice that. For them he makes these soft, nice pop-ish songs. Things only seem easy when they [come across as] effortless and the way he articulates his messages and what he wants to say is actually really quite brilliant.
A few years ago, your sister came out with an allegation about being harassed by one of her peers. It was a pivotal moment that kickstarted the #MeToo movement in Pakistan. How did that impact you? How do you observe it having impacted the industry?
FS: I’ll keep what the therapist needs to know to myself for now. I will say that it really also helped. It taught me a bunch of things.
I had to do a lot of introspection and research and reading about the right way to move forward in life and make notes of things I could’ve done better in the past. I don’t think I’d have done that if it wasn’t so close to home.
At the same time, because it was so close to home, I had to get into how I can improve myself and be a better person in the future.
But for it to have real impact on a grassroots level this needs to be translated culturally. We need the right language to get the message across.
But I really think this conversation is better with Aapi [Meesha Shafi] in the room.
An academic recently suggested on twitter that you’re a member of the elite and that you should leave rap to marginalised groups. Your sister (and the internet) jumped to your rescue. Did you hear about this? What were your thoughts?
FS: I only heard about it because I started getting a bunch of calls and people started sending me a bunch of tweets which were fun.
I’m not on social media so I didn’t know. What kind of elite is she [the academic] talking about? I know I’ve practised enough so my craft is pretty elite. I know intellectually my grandfather was pretty elite. Are you talking about money? Because no, we didn’t really have much.
I’m not interested in talking about her or what she thinks.
It was such a moment seeing two firebrands — Meesha Shafi and Faris Shafi — finally share the stage on the fun, somewhat self-assured and yet, incredibly groovy track Muaziz Saarif that came out recently. What was your experience like working with Meesha Shafi?
FS: The performance part was smooth. I didn’t even have to think about it. It took me a long time to figure out what this song is going to be about.
I know how to mix genres. When I started, rap was growing in the underbelly of the music scene. It was the underbelly that you don’t want to hear.
The initial challenge was still what am I going to say? I have to speak for two minutes. What am I going to say with my sister? Once I had that figured out, I don’t think much to write music. It’s a flow-state thing. The essence of the writing process was: if she were to say every single word of my verse, would she be able to own it? Would it be a fact for her as well? Would she be able to say it as her truth as well?
Did people know the artist you collaborated with, Meesha Shafi, is your sister?
FS: I don’t know how many people knew but a lot of people didn’t know. My point was to never ever market this. If I’m marketing this, then I’m marketing [my relationship with] my mother, my grandfather and there’s no end to that.
It’s about what you’re looking for. Are you looking to be a famous instagrammer or are you working on a craft? My whole point is that it’s about the craft.
What was the reaction back home when Muaziz Saarif came out?
FS: It’s a great thing for my mom seeing the two of us together. I love it, but it’s not surprising. I know we can do a lot more. This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the beginning.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 20th, 2022