Arooj Aftab Quits Her Day Job

Blythe Thomas

Arooj Aftab Quits Her Day Job

Blythe Thomas

The Grammy Best New Artist nominee on her breakout Vulture Prince, bringing the ancient into the now, and forgoing guru-esque mystique in favor of "cursing and drinking whiskey and being a fucking idiot"

When I saw Arooj Aftab’s name flash across the Grammy nominations, sharing space with Olivia Rodrigo, Glass Animals, and Baby Keem under the Best New Artist category, I audibly hollered. Even if I still roll my eyes at the Grammy-definition of “new artist” (Aftab’s first album Bird Under Water came out in 2014, and her 2018 follow-up Siren Islands was similarly striking), that such heritage-drawn music has reached these levels of critical and cultural recognition — Aftab is the first Pakistani woman to be put up for an award by the Recording Academy — still feels significant to myself and other South Asian Americans.

Vulture Prince, the Brooklyn musician’s breakthrough from last year, pulls from the Urdu ghazal tradition of longing poetry about love and loss, but infuses that sound with elements of several distinct styles including jazz, folk, and even reggae. Aftab and the esteemed band she assembled — encompassing guitar, harp, violin, double bass, and flugelhorn, among other diverse instrumentation — deliver seven stirring inquisitions into unrequited affection and acceptance. The songs are steeped in mourning, but never bound down by that despair, imbuing Sufi verses that would otherwise translate as dirges with warmth and levity.

That music this uncompromising has made Aftab a rising entity has been an unlikely but welcome surprise, to no one more than Aftab herself. “I just made this personal record that I really loved, I didn’t think too much about it,” she explained to me during a conversation last month. “And then suddenly the album was getting everyone’s attention in such an organic and heartfelt way.” Aftab has some familiarity with becoming an accidental sensation, having gone “viral” in the early days of social media when a 2007 acoustic cover of “Hallelujah” spread across file-sharing sites in her parents’ hometown of Lahore, Pakistan.

That brief brush with fame in her late teens convinced Aftab that she might have a realistic future in music. She moved some 6,800 miles across the world to attend the Berklee College of Music, before settling in New York after graduation. Her decade-and-a-half career since then has included audio engineering gigs for news outlets like the Huffington Post and Vice, composing for the documentary Without Shepherds and the noir adventure game Backbone, and even a Latin Grammy for her background vocals on a hit by Puerto Rican rapper Residente. Yet not even a year ago could she have expected to reach the level she’s at now — signed to Universal Music Group and competing against Yo-Yo Ma and Angélique Kidjo for a Global Music Grammy.

“It happened so quickly and it hasn’t really stopped,” Aftab says. She recalls in amazement the last 12 months since the album’s release — Time calling “Mohabbat” one of the best songs of 2021, Elvis Costello raving about her in the Guardian, the extensive tour she has been able to book across this next year. “I’m really grateful for these massive shows, like Pitchfork, Coachella, Primavera, and my name isn’t even that small on these posters!” Aftab beams. For the first time, she has been afforded the opportunity to live entirely off of her music.

“When that happened I was definitely having paycheck insecurity, feeling like, Oh my god I need to get another job,” she says. “You do your day job because you’re supporting your art until the moment that your art can support you. And I was like, Has that happened? Is that happening? Isn’t that something you just say until you die?

Of the extensive acclaim Aftab has received, the most surprising for her was the inclusion of “Mohabbat” on Barack Obama’s annual summer playlist. “Who broke Obama’s heart?” Aftab wonders, before surmising: “Well, I guess all of America.”

Despite the gravity of the subject matter – one of the central lines in “Mohabbat” translates to “the sadness of this is equal to the sadness of all the world” – Vulture Prince covers a wide tonal spectrum. Aftab uses language like “nighttime, nostalgia, melancholic hope, intoxication, devotion” to describe the album, capturing those themes in striking songwriting interpolated from the likes of Urdu greats such as Hafeez Hoshiarpuri and Mirza Ghalib. More than crafting her own lyrics, Aftab is interested in recontextualizing words from the past. “I don’t feel the need to write something personal myself because there’s already just so much good poetry out there along these lines,” Aftab says. She will expand on this process with her next project, which will pull from the writings of another Urdu poet Mah Laqa Bai Chanda.

In many ways, Aftab work is similar to that of an oral historian, preserving and performing traditions for audiences who might never encounter them on their own. While playing Vulture Prince highlight “Inayaat” at my parents’ house, my mom stopped in surprise to confirm that I was listening to ghazals, before being further shocked to realize she was hearing the words of Ghalib, who she grew up admiring during her childhood in Punjab. When I later shared with her “Udhero Na” — a previously-unreleased song Aftab is adding to the deluxe edition of Vulture Prince out in June — she was pleasantly struck by Anoushka Shankar’s wandering sitar, not unlike the ragas we hear together during kirtan at the gurdwara (i.e. the musical recitation of scripture at the Sikh temple). In this way, Aftab is bridging not only geographies in her fusion, but also generations.

“Your mom is recognizing some words, but then you’re recognizing the musical structure of it and that’s appealing to you,” she says. “And both of you are able to occupy the same space in that moment when it’s on. To me that’s extremely magical.”

While Aftab appreciates this type of cross-cultural exchange as a positive byproduct of her work, she affirms that it is not the primary goal. Instead, she is aiming to “bring the ancient into the now,” showing the continued vitality of her source material — “ghazal is very pop” she remarks, a claim backed up by its continued popularity in the Middle East and South Asia — by putting it in conversation with the sounds she came to love as a multi-continental millennial, specifically those that are “moody, broody, and romantic.” She draws a comparison between what she’s doing and Rosalía, a previous Best New Artist nominee whose “Di Mi Nombre” Aftab just covered for the Spotify Singles series.

As with Rosalia, you could spend full days pulling on the threads of Aftab’s tightly woven songs to trace back to their reference points and adjacent histories. Aftab herself has done so, admiring how the Catalan star uses pop culture references and hip-hop cadences to introduce listeners to musical touchstones with a smaller global footprint. But also like Rosalia, Aftab resists being limited within a lineage, believing her music to be forming a new tradition all its own.

She cites additional contemporaries with a like-minded approach, such as the multidimensional neo-soul star Meshell Ndegeocello and fellow Berklee alum Esperanza Spaling — individuals who can pivot between styles and extremes while always sounding in their pocket. “These are all people who create very personal music and don’t really fit into any heritage or any place or any time period,” Aftab admires. “That’s the kind of artist I want to be.”

On the topic of subverting conventions, she similarly pushes back on concerns over how her more plaintive music will translate to festival audiences like the one at Coachella later this month. “We don’t have to be bouncing around in a leotard and have fireworks coming out of I don’t know where,” Aftab says. “Slow jams can be sexy and they can be loud and they can be bangers. And we’ve known this for a long time! I’m glad that there’s a return of that sentiment happening amongst concertgoers and listeners, who are like, Yeeeeeeah!!! Break my heart again!!

At the same time, anyone who sees Aftab live knows that her shows are far from solemn affairs. “I have noticed that there are people who might have created this sort of ‘Sufi angel’ image of me in their minds,” Aftab laughs. “Someone who is going to be very meditative and very guru-esque. And then instead I’m just cursing and drinking whiskey and being a fucking idiot.”

And yet despite her self-effacing jokes and disarming stage banter, it’s almost impossible to not be awed to mysticism by the caliber of her performance. Seeing her recently at San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival, accompanied by Maeve Gilchrist’s harp and Gyan Riley’s guitar, I was enraptured in the spirits Aftab’s voice conjured — those of artistic idols whose reach still wraps around the edges of this epoch, and of personal loved ones both living and passed to whom she dedicated Vulture Prince. She is in communion with a continuum, her music operating at the scale of histories but as intimate as an individual lifetime. You can only imagine how future disciples will themselves keep her contributions to that continuum breathing in the centuries to come.

Vulture Prince (Deluxe Edition) is out 6/24 on Verve.

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