Earlier this year, Brooklyn-based musician Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani artist to win a Grammy when she picked up the Best Global Music Performance award for “Mohabbat” from her 2021 album, “Vulture Prince.” She was also nominated in the Best New Artist category.
“The fact that they nominated me as best new artist felt like a moment,” says Aftab on a recent phone call. “Yes, I am part of the bigger, and global, picture of music. That was a huge compliment and that was also huge for the music industry to just recognize.”
Much of Aftab’s work is sung in Urdu, which makes the Best New Artist nomination even more notable as the popularity of songs sung in languages other than English grows in the U.S. “The popularity of people like Rosalía and Bad Bunny and J Balvin and all the K-pop groups, it’s really changed the energy a little bit,” says Aftab, crediting Gen Z’s open-mindedness as part of this shift towards global music. “They’re doing away with these older limitations, really,” says Aftab. “They don’t want to be limited. They don’t even like genres. They’re listening to everything and it’s great.”
Aftab, who headlines the finale of The Broad’s 2022 Summer Happenings series on September 24, bridges jazz, folk and electronic sounds in her work, creating a sound that disregards genres and trends. Along her journey, she’s amassed high-profile fans, including former president Barack Obama. On “Vulture Prince,” Aftab expertly moves from the harp-driven ethereal opener “Baghon Main” to the dubbed-out soul of “Last Night.” A number of the lyrics on the album are pulled from pre-existing poems, including pieces that are more than a century old, that Aftab had known before incorporating them into her work.
Arooj Aftab (Photo by Daniel Hilsinger / Courtesy of Arooj Aftab)
“Especially if it’s not your poetry, I think that it’s important to sit with the verses for a while so that it actually starts to feel like it’s your voice,” says Aftab. “I think that’s really important when you are singing the words and, also, when you are composing new music around it. “
On “Vulture Prince,” Aftab produced all of the songs, in addition to composing them. “I was world-building and I let all of my musical neuroses free and I had a really good time,” says Aftab. “As an artist grows over time, they become more and more confident and this was my producer hat flex, to really create a beautiful, sonic space with all the instruments.”
Born in Saudi Arabia to parents from Pakistan, Aftab has what she calls a “kind of nomadic” background and surmises that might have gone on to impact the music that she makes. It’s, she says, a “no roots, no rules kind of vibe.”
“I don’t feel like I have to follow any particular thing or pay homage to any particular one thing,” Aftab adds. “The lines are blurry for me, which is great. It gives me a lot of freedom musically. It must come from that, that feeling of not really belonging to one particular place and belonging to many different places.”
She picked up guitar as a high school student and quickly learned to play cover songs. “People were like, you have a guitar, do you play ‘Wonderwall’”? She recalls, referring to the 1990s Oasis hit. “So I was like, I guess so.”
In college — Aftab attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music — she pursued recording and audio engineering in an intense program. “I did want to study acoustic guitar, continue to study it, but I thought it would be easier to manage my schedule if I took voice,” she says.
All of these experiences would coalesce in Aftab’s style as a recording artist. “I think that musicians have this thing from the jump where they want to reinvent things, they want to do their version of things,” she says. “Even if you’re doing a cover, it has a specific originality to it.”
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Meanwhile, studying jazz gave Aftab the vocabulary needed to bring her ideas to fruition. “It really helped me put my musical thoughts onto a grid,” she says. “It gave me a musical language that I needed to communicate what I was hearing musically.”
In addition to her own work, Aftab also provided music for the noir video game Backbone, the soundtrack for which was released last year, a project that she describes as a “bucket list” experience. “I would love to do more of that. I love those types of video games and it was really fun for me,” she says.
“You can lean into other genres and other styles without feeling stress about it,” says of composing music for video games. “You’re writing for someone else, or for a scene in particular…it’s a frightening and beautiful challenge.”
Arooj Aftab plays “Now We’re Here” at The Broad on September 24. The event will also feature Felukah, Haig Papazian’s Space Time Tuning Machine, Arshia Fatima Haq, Miho Hatori’s Salon Mondialité and Yoko Inoue.