- The 36-year-old Pakistani American also uses her music to speak openly about social issues in her native country and around the world.
Brooklyn, New York-based singer-songwriter Arooj Aftab may not be a household name in the U.S., but the young Pakistani American has been making waves in her home country for almost a decade. This year, the 36-year-old has been nominated for two Grammy Awards — Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance. For the latter, she’s made to the coveted list for her critically-acclaimed track “Mohabbat,” from her third album “Vulture Prince.” She is also the first Pakistani to be nominated for the best new artist; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was previously nominated for the best world music album.
Earlier, in honor of Women’s History Month, Aftab was featured on a billboard in New York City’s iconic Times Square, as Spotify’s artist of the month for their “EQUAL Pakistan” initiative, a playlist that aims to amplify the voices of Pakistani female artists by giving them a platform that highlights and celebrates their music.
In an interview with The Guardian, she admitted that while getting two Grammy nominations is “nuts,” it “restores my faith in the industry and in the listeners.”
The Guardian points out that “while the best new artist category has long been an international launchpad for stars such as Adele and John Legend, the global categories are more contentious.” The category was renamed from ‘world’ in 2020 “to avoid connotations of colonialism,” the British daily added.
However, Aftab told the paper that she believes “any catch-all term for music from non-western origins still feels reductive.” She has spent the past 20 years “living and growing musically in New York,” she said, and so she doesn’t feel like a ‘world’ or ‘global’ artist. “My music is a product of my experiences and I don’t want to engage with this nonsense of being put in a box, but these awards further your career in a big way, so I have to care.”
What sets Aftab apart is her choice of language. She prefers to sing in Urdu and blends minimalist jazz and neo-Sufi sounds. She developed her love for music after moving to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia. She is an “entirely self-taught female soloist and guitarist in a culture where opportunities for music study—especially for women—are severely limited,” according to her profile on the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she studied music production and engineering.
Now she uses her music to speak openly about social issues in Pakistan and around the world. As a student at Berklee, she and three others started the Berklee Peace Institute, a group of musicians working together as social activists, motivating people with music and instigating them to make positive changes.
Speaking about “Vulture Prince,” she told The Guardian she had originally conceived it as a dance album, as she was “tired of being described as saintly and mystical.” But the death of her younger brother Maher, to whom she dedicated the album, and another friend in 2018, pushed her into a zone of a “minimalist, delicate and graceful” sound. “I didn’t write the album out of grief, since the songs were already forming,” she said. “But their overarching essence – that hopeful sadness, the layer of emotion that was added in the final moments through production – is what pertains to loss.”
Aftab’s mixing of familiar sounds and personal experiences is evident in “Vulture Prince,” which has also reached her widest audience, Pitchfork said in its review. The online music publication called it “a deeply layered and multifaceted album, each sparse note and repeated motif building upon the emotional resonance of the last.”
Following the album’s success and critical acclaim, Aftab has signed on to the major label Verve.
However, the album did not come as easily as the praise,” she admitted to The Guardian. She has spent more than 10 years figuring out some of the songs in the album, she said. “I wanted ‘Vulture Prince’ to have structure, to have a sexiness and darkness to it.” The title however came early on, she told the paper. Then, she sought to make sounds that would align to this emotive concept, “and looked into the poetic form of the ghazal, adapting Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s Mohabbat, as well as the poetry of Rumi and Mirza Ghalib,” according to The Guardian.
Using Urdu verse hasn’t limited Aftab’s global appeal. She has gained a lot of followers from across the world – including former president Barack Obama. In July 2021, Obama listed her song “Mohabbat” as one of the tracks in his 2021 summer playlist, which he posted on his Instagram account.
Music has been a part of Aftab’s life since she was a young girl. In several interviews, she’s revealed that many of her earliest memories involved music with her family and friends hosting evenings where they talked about their love of music and played songs together. There, she was acquainted with rare recordings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwalis (and their meaning), while also discovering singer-songwriters like Jeff Buckley on her own, she told Pitchfork.
As a result, she felt a deep connection to the art form. “I think I felt very connected to it from a very early age – the desire to kind of integrate it into my life was becoming stronger and stronger, and I think I do remember being in school and listening to music and using it almost like a friend,” Aftab told Our Culture magazine.
In a profile on the Berklee website, she recalls how as a young kid, she would listen to music a lot in her room … “to different types of music, not just what was popular. And the desire to recreate that music and change its elements.”
Due to her passion for music, she decided to pursue a degree in it. However, as a young teenager in Pakistan, nobody understood her dream. “My dad was talking about how some people think that they want to do music but they actually just really like music,” she told Pitchfork. But she decided to give it a shot anyway.
And to prove herself, she recorded a jazzy cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That was a pre-YouTube/ Instagram era. Her song went viral in her native Lahore, thanks to chain mail, Napster and music sharing sites. The success empowered her to apply to Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was 18 at the time.
She eventually moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee. “I had always dreamed of going to Berklee, but it wasn’t until I won a scholarship and began studying music online that my family took notice of my abilities and agreed to let me study abroad,” she said in a student profile on the university’s website.
After graduating from Berklee in music production and engineering, she moved to New York. She began her musical career in 2014 and has three albums under her belt. She has also picked up her first Latin Grammy in the best rap/hip-hop category for contributing to Residente’s “Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe” as a backing vocalist.
Her debut album “Bird Under Water” (2015) and her sophomore album “Siren Islands” (2018) “are both early attempts at melding the worlds she grew up in, plating qawwali and Urdu lyrics with jazz instrumentation and ambient electronica respectively,” according to Pitchfork.
Currently, she is working on her next album and beginning research into the 18th century Urdu poetry of Chanda Bai, as well as readying the release of a jazz trio project with the pianist Vijay Iyer, “Love in Exile,” and a repressing of Vulture Prince featuring a new track with British-Indian artist Anoushka Shankar. “I’m in a good place right now,” she says. “For once, I’m not fighting. I’ve already won.”