Arooj Aftab on Making Musical History—And Making Barack Obama's Faves List

Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani singer to win a Grammy this year. The track that won, "Mohabbat," off her 2021 album Vulture Prince, is an 8-minute ethereal journey through Aftab's take on an Urdu-language poem.

After helping to shepherd in a new era of DIY music in Pakistan, working as an audio engineer in New York City, and catching the proverbial ear of former President Barack Obama, Aftab has certainly made waves.

And, as she told Newsweek ahead of her first Coachella set, she has no intention of slowing down.

You are a Grammy winner as of very recently. How does that feel?

I feel good. Yeah, it feels awesome, it's a very wonderful and positive feeling.

I would love to talk about the album, Vulture Prince, which I know is dedicated in part to the memory of your brother. I don't want to get too in the weeds about your grief or your private life, but what was your brother like? Who was he?

He was really full of life. And he loved music a lot. And he really liked fashion. He was very handsome, kind of a ladies' man. Very positive, very enthusiastic, super excited about the music that I would put out. We spent a lot of time sharing music with each other.

And also, you know, he was six years younger than me. That age gap is interesting, because you kind of also more than a sibling too. When he was born, he was a little baby in my arms, you know what I mean? So it's like sibling-plus-child in a weird way. But yeah, that's who he was—he was really into music. He had great musical sensibilities, a flute player and singer.

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Arooj Aftab performs at the Coachella festival on Weekend 2, Day 1. Timothy Norris/Getty

Did you ever work together in a professional sense?

We did have plans to, but you know, those plans are... Life is too short, sometimes.

For the American audience, let's talk about a form of poetry you sometimes reference called a ghazal, and how it's important as spiritual work as much as it is poetic and literary. What is it?

It was basically a lot of different things that come together, kind of like a ballad. It's kind of the feel, the poetic content, the instrumentation, that all kind of comes together in that sort of semi-classical South Asian tradition. I haven't been a student of South Asian classical music in that sense. But I do think it's more contemporary. It's love songs, a light, contemporary classical genre.

The music that I'm making is not ghazal. And it's not it's not Sufi traditional either. I think what I'm making is kind of post- a lot of that stuff. Definitely borrowing a lot of poetry from those centuries and stuff, but it's not an interpolation. It's what feels personal to me, like minimalism, which I love. Jazz theory? Almost even pop.

You've described Urdu, the language you often sing in, as an emotive one. In Western contexts we think of the Romance languages—is it a similar sort of thing, where there are sentiments you just can't convey?

Yeah, I think there's so many beautiful romance languages that exist in the world. The popular ones are all the European ones, which I feel like is a bit of a shame.

But yeah, there's a lot of mysticism, and actually, literally romance in the way you express an idea [in Urdu]. It's kind of through analogy and the beautiful, wraparound kind of way, which makes it extremely romantic. It's a little bit indirect. It's not super on the nose, which I really love.

I just love very understated, very open, that sort of free-flowing organic type of concept. Less is more, you know? I feel like a big story that has a lot of narrative to it is something that I wouldn't want to fit all into a song. [My style is] more like four lines here or there. So that's kind of what Urdu does very, very frequently and very easily, which feels like it fits.

Vulture Prince came out in 2021, so was it a work that you began during the pandemic? Or before the pandemic?

Before.

So how did your plans for that album have to adapt?

Luckily, we finished all of our tracking just as the lockdown started. I don't know how that happened, but it was just that everything that we had to do in person was done. Well, except for me and the mix engineer sitting together and starting the mix process. And so lockdown was actually really helpful, because there wasn't any noise and there wasn't excess and distraction. And I was able to really dive deep and focus on the mixing and just kind of do that, that year.

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Arooj Aftab won a Grammy ahead of her Coachella performance. Scott Dudelson/Getty

Is that a facet of the process that you like?

Yes. I had the privilege of having a day job in audio work. And so I was lucky to not have lost my income during that time. I feel for everybody who just lost thousands and thousands of dollars in gigs and their livelihood. But that didn't happen to me. I mean... I was doing freelance audio engineering, right at the start of the pandemic, and it was a really, really tough time to get work and hold onto work because everybody was unclear about what was gonna happen.

You are credited in a lot of ways with sort of leading the DIY music scene in Pakistan, and I wonder if that's a title that you wear with pride. Do you feel like you're sort of standing on the shoulders of other people too?

I wear that title with pride. I think that is what happened unintentionally, and maybe it was a big role or a small role. I'm just glad that whatever I did was noteworthy enough for other people to follow. And then the industry there just kind of expanded.

How have you seen it change since your early days? Is it easier for someone coming up now?

It's amazing. Yeah, they're super thriving. They have all these incredible indie artists and just like lots of crossover genre music, and they're just doing it amazingly.

I imagine that having one of your tracks make Barack Obama's summer 2021 music list was pretty crazy.

Yeah, I think he did a solid one there. Really must have liked it. That, too, made a big difference, because we are here, this is where I live. This is where I make music. I'm part of this industry.

And I think that's amazing. Even friends of mine in finance and stuff were like, "You got nominated for a Grammy, and that inspired me. Look at what Arooj is doing, I'm going to start my own company."

This is great. Life is too short to pretend you like what you're doing.

What was the last song you had stuck in your head?

I mean, the one that was just playing in the tent... MIKA! He was playing that "Relax, Take It Easy" song, and our trailer's right next to that stage. It's a classic.

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