Hasan Raheem’s unique footprint is all over his new album Nautanki

The singer, intent on doing things his own way, has his own style where his music career, fashion sense and life are concerned.
01 Feb, 2023

I am a few steps away from Hasan Raheem, singing live on stage.

Raheem is a veritable music sensation, a young, energetic wunderkind with a flair for mixing melodies, beats, adding a bit of Indie, a touch of R&B and developing his own distinctive sound. His fan-following is immense and I had heard of the jostling, over-enthusiastic crowds that tend to frequent his concerts.

And yet, here I was, evading the shoving and pushing entirely and getting to see Hasan Raheem up-close, performing live, celebrating the launch of his album Nautanki.

It is a definite perk of the journalistic profession to be able to attend exclusive invite-only events, where concerts and performances are staged for a select guest list. It was certainly a perk, since I meant to write this story on Raheem later in the night and, even while standing in this select, not-very-pushy crowd, I could witness the excitement that he inspired.

The audience dances along and many of them know all the lyrics, even the fast rap sequences — I know some of them too. Raheem has released so many popular songs in his short career and everyone has a favourite. On stage, Raheem is in his element. He smiles, talks to the crowd in between songs, dances a bit. Merely 25, hugely successful, having paved a niche for himself with his experimental musical sound, he is very visibly enjoying the audience’s cheering to his popular numbers, the way they sing along, the way they want him to keep performing on and on.

About half-an-hour before he came on stage, Raheem and I had a brief conversation, in which he described what performing live was like.

“I come on stage and I just forget everything. I am in a different state. I know that I am here to sing for these people and they are here to hear me sing. And then, when I look into their eyes and they look back at me, we have a telepathic connection. I know that they are enjoying themselves and I am too.”

His words come back to me as I watch him on stage now.

It’s been a while since I have wanted to meet Hasan Raheem but the coordination has taken ages. Last year, during a telephonic exchange, he had said that he wanted to have more to talk about when we met for an interview. Now, having just released his album and just about to get started on his Pakistan tour, my questionnaire for him has certainly lengthened.

“I am just glad that this is happening,” he says, right before we begin talking.

I am wry. Yes, it could have also happened sooner, though — there could have been two interviews instead of one! But I understand what Raheem means, because he barely sits for interviews — a quick Google scan has confirmed this. Why?

“Generally, our art doesn’t get highlighted by the media. The focus is on other things, like our personal life, and that’s just not necessary. As musicians, we are emotionally connected to our art and I just want people to ask me about that more.”

So I can’t ask you about your personal life? “Nahin, poochh lein [No, go ahead and ask],” he laughs softly.

It’s an invitation that I cannot resist, so I pitch a question that merges his art with his love life: is there any one particular girl that his songs, the romantic ones, allude to?

“There is no one [currently] but there are past experiences,” he concedes. “Every time the heart breaks then joins up a little bit, then breaks again and then you break someone’s heart … dil se gaana nikalta hai [a song emerges from the heart]. I have put all these emotions in the album and every song has a certain feeling to it.”

At a time when most artists simply churn out singles, Raheem has put together an album of five songs. Some of the songs have become immediately popular — the uniquely named ‘Kaleji’ and ‘Peanut Butter’ come to mind — others have met mixed reactions, such as the title track ‘Nautanki’.

Even ‘Nautanki’’s music video is off-the-wall; Raheem roams around a bathroom, struggling with his emotions, drenched in flower-blood at one point. His distinctive sound may be his claim to fame but, at this point in his career, does he ever consider also creating some songs that would be more commercial and connect with the masses more easily?

“Experimenting with music challenges me. It brings out the best in me and I come up with melodies that even I didn’t know I could make,” he says. “But I have never restricted myself when it comes to music. I love more commercial songs as well — I think I would sing one if someone brought me a song that I liked. And a lot of my songs do get danced to at weddings,” he points out.

With the mixed reactions that ‘Nautanki’ has received fresh in my mind, I ask him whether he ponders over how well a song will be received while composing and recording it. He immediately shakes his head in a no.

“When me and my boy Abdullah Kasumbi — a shout-out to Abdullah, my main guy, who has been there with me right from the start of my career! — sit in the studio, we just work on music that we love. We feel that, if we are enjoying a tune, then the audience will enjoy it too. We don’t dwell too much over reviews. We just throw the song out there. So far, the audience has liked what we like.”

And does he look out for audience reviews once a song has released?

“I don’t obsess over them but, yes, people tag me in the comments and I do end up reading some of the reviews,” he says. “Some will like a song, others won’t. I love that polarity. It keeps you in the conversation and I am absolutely okay with the bad reviews. My album’s title track ‘Nautanki’, for instance, is very conceptual and experimental, which some people have found odd. Still, they are slowly beginning to enjoy it. It’s gotten a good reception and this encourages me to do even more next time.”

His spin on Pakistani music is refreshing, from the ‘oohs oohs’ to the quick sequences, to the mellow rhythm of some of his most popular songs. It makes one wonder what genre of music he used to listen to as he grew up. I ask him this now.

“I haven’t ever been picky about the music that I listen to,” he says. “So I listen to all sorts of music, whatever I like. When you leave yourself open to different genres, you subconsciously absorb all these influences and develop your own style.”

He continues: “When I was young, my dad would hum old Bollywood songs while he shaved and I would put my ear to the door and call out to him to sing a certain verse again. There was this particular verse I loved. Tum apna ranj o gham, apni pareshani mujhe de do [give me your grief and troubles],” Hasan sings out the Jagjit Kaur song, from Bollywood’s black-and-white era — I am tempted to ask him to sing some more!

But we have to proceed with the interview before he runs off to perform.

So he inherited his singing genes from his father? “Yes, he sang very well. I got my love for writing poetry from my mother. She’s done her MA in English and journalism, and used to write a lot. Parrhi likhi family hai [Mine is a well-educated family]! Good genes matter!”

He seems to be very close to his family, I observe. “I am. I am the eldest. Before flying down to Karachi from Islamabad [where he lives with his family], I asked my mother to pray for me because I was going to give a few interviews!”

You’re doing just fine, I tell him. He smiles in acknowledgement. He knows.

“I have received so much support from home. I wake up in the morning and my family members are all listening to my songs.”

What’s their favourite song? “‘Joona’ and also, now, ‘Kaleji’ — they say that it transports them somewhere!” he laughs.

And what are his fans’ favourite songs of his, till now? “‘Joona’ and ‘Aisay Kaisay’,” he names two of his earliest hits, which have been instrumental in his meteoric rise to musical stardom.

Raheem also collaborated with Justin Bibis and Talal Qureshi in ‘Peechay Hutt’, one of the most popular songs in last year’s reinvented Coke Studio (CS). What did being part of the country’s most prestigious musical platform, in a year that has been recognised as one of its strongest so far, achieve for him?

“It diversified my audience,” he replies. “There were people who accepted that I was alright. Logon ne thora sa galay lagaya [people embraced me briefly]. I look forward to working again with CS in the future.”

But while he may be a shining star in the country’s musical stratosphere, Raheem also has other dreams. He recently completed his MBBS and can now quite accurately be referred to as Dr Hasan Raheem. “I love it when people call me Dr Hasan Raheem,” he laughs. “I love my chosen profession in medicine and, one day, I plan to practise medicine full-time.”

And not make music, full-time? “Yes, maybe not. Sometimes I get tired of it,” he says, I think, half-jokingly.

What kind of doctor is he anyway? “I haven’t specialised yet. But I hope to eventually pursue cardiology or radiology.”

Part-doctor, part-musician and, when I comment on his eccentric, uber-cool dress sense, I discover that Raheem is also part-fashion aficionado. It’s not much of a discovery, to be honest — one instinctively knew that the boy had a unique dress sense when he serenaded the country with his very first single wearing a pink hoodie in Karachi’s DHA Phase 8!

“I created these clothes myself, with my friend. It’s something that we’re working on.” He points to his clothes, describing his denim jacket as a kimono design. “I got my dress sense from my ammi [mother]. She would dress my brother and me in completely the same way — same clothes, same shoes, same socks. I think that it all inspired me to create my own clothes once I was older. When I was studying medicine, I would go to the market, buy fabric and get my lab coats and pants stitched to my size.”

From the clothes to the music to the laidback take on interviews, perhaps Hasan Raheem’s main USP (unique selling point) is that he is intent on doing things his way.

His footprint is visible even at the venue where he is performing that night: I enter the venue by walking through a passage created by pink see-through plastic sheets. There are rolled up pieces of paper littering the floor, a tower created out of toilet rolls, a bathtub in a corner (a lot of people took pictures in it!) and a small pink washbasin — all the paraphernalia that one could connect with the recent ‘Nautanki’ title track video.

What’s next for him? He’s planning a Pakistan-wide tour. Most local artists just visit different cities to do concerts planned by event organisers. What prompted Raheem to invest in a cross-country tour of his own?

“We are initially planning to visit Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, because our capital is limited. Later, we hope to visit other cities as well. We’ve gotten so much love wherever we have gone, that I felt that it was important to organise these shows. We’ve been planning things for so many months, figuring out logistics, how to keep the concert locations secure and ensure crowd control, assessing the demographics of where we have the largest audiences…”

It’s obvious that he loves it. Later, while I see him performing, there is a point where he says, “Perhaps I should sit down and sing now.” I think that he must have sung seven or eight songs by then. He doesn’t sit, though. He dances some more. Jokes with the audience. Makes eye contact with the avid crowd around him and sings a verse, just for them.

Dr Hasan Raheem, performing his nautanki on stage, having the time of his life. So is his audience.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 29, 2023