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Get Schooled By Arooj Aftab

The Pakistani-American singer continues charting new musical territory – and providing listeners a compass
Arooj Aftab
Arooj Aftab (Credit: Shreya Dev Dube)

It’s hard to describe Arooj Aftab’s music in a way that captures its uniquely protean beauty. The singer and composer, who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Pakistan, went to school in Boston, and has lived in New York for the past decade-plus, makes music that doesn’t sound like anything else – in part because it sounds like a little bit of everything.

Aftab’s music moves fluidly between worlds – both in terms of sound, featuring singing in Urdu and English and drawing on Eastern and Western musical traditions, and the cultural space it occupies. She’s part of the New York jazz and post-classical music community but also in the indie scene. And with her 2021 album Vulture Prince, she broke decisively into the mainstream. She was the first Pakistani artist to win a Grammy and was included on former President Barack Obama’s summer playlists.

Night Reign, the follow-up to Vulture Prince, is a stunning work that sets reimagined jazz standards alongside 18th century Urdu poetry and situates them credibly within the same universe. Elvis Costello plays Wurlitzer on one song, actress Tessa Thompson directed a music video for another, and Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley recorded a promo for the album. But underneath all the influences and collaborators is Aftab herself, a singular presence with a singular vision executed flawlessly.

The only person who can describe her music and do it justice is Aftab. We spoke with Aftab about her new album Night Reign, demonstrating deep thought about her work and plenty of dry wit as she discussed the Grammys, AutoTune, and teaching people how to listen to her music. Educate yourself.

Arooj Aftab Night Reign

SPIN: You’ve pushed back on being considered a “world music” artist and you won the Best Global Music Performance Grammy. How do you feel about that?

Arooj Aftab: There are a lot of (Grammy) categories, and they’re there to have your peers vote, and the people who know the particular genre the best decide which should win. There’s a legitimate strategy behind the way it’s laid out. Music is just not that simple in that way.

World music is considered something that is very rooted in tradition, and it is less contemporary, less modern, and more classical. And I’m not. Just because I’m brown and it’s in a different language doesn’t mean it’s qawwalis like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

You’ve talked about how people always say that your work is “meditative,” which has a racialized component and is a surface level reading of your work.

A lot of work goes into teaching people how to understand your music and view it in all its grand glory and depth. These conversations didn’t exist before – no one was talking about contemporary South Asian music. I don’t even want to call it South Asian music, because it’s a natural blend of different styles that are uniquely my own. Vulture Prince created a cultural moment, but that comes with having to spend time and energy teaching people, “Yeah, you can meditate, but there’s prejudice in that and it’s a little bit basic.” Urging, teaching, and speaking are so much part of the job of being the first one to make a thing.

Because of Vulture Prince’s success, did you feel extra pressure when you were working on Night Reign?

Vulture Prince was something that I was chasing. Not everybody listens to music in such compartmentalized ways. The world has become cross-cultural and not segregated in the way that it used to be. And so where is the music that shows that? There’s been a gap in the music conversation and in the actual music.

I had been thinking about that, conceptualizing it, and trying to execute it. But Vulture Prince was a big breakthrough. That was the goal of my life up until then. And it set me free. Now that I’ve had three years of talking to the press and training them in this new form of music, I’m free to expand on it. It’s just fun. And so the pressure of the follow-up album being good or not isn’t so relevant.

What inspires you about the nighttime?

We know already as a universal fact that musicians love the night. The night is our friend. For me, there is a night or two where things come together and creativity blossoms. The night provides this canopy where you don’t have to be so direct. You can gracefully move from one place to another, from person to person. It’s not so exposed. That’s so beautiful. Also, as a woman in any fucking place, at night we’re scared. The night is not just all fun or healing. It’s a scary place where things are not that visible. Once I landed on the album theme being not about me or someone else who I have feelings towards – like, Vulture Prince was about my brother and my friend who passed away. As soon as it became clear that it should be the night, it set me free.

On “Raat Ki Rani,” you use AutoTune. I saw someone on Twitter dug up some old tweets where you were talking shit about AutoTune.

When AutoTune came out, it was introduced to the music industry as a corrective device. And so of course, as a 23-year-old vocalist, I was like, “Fuck AutoTune!” But since then it’s evolved so much with artists like James Blake and Imogen Heap and Cher and T-Pain and Snoop and Kanye and Kid Cudi. They have innovated how vocals can be presented while still remaining soulful and non-destructive of the actual essence of the voice.

There was a feeling on Night Reign about not being so formal or sad or precious, and I think “Raat Ki Rani” is really playful. It’s sultry and inviting. And when I put AutoTune on that, it fit the mood of the song and nudged audiences into feeling a little lighthearted.

Tessa Thompson directed the “Raat Ki Rani” video. You also worked with her dad [Chocolate Genius] on the album. How did you connect?

I’ve been a fan of her work for a really long time. And then we became friends over the course of the last few years. Tessa was in London, and I had a show, and she came to that, and we hung out after. We realized that we really like each other, and there’s a genuineness that is rare in our industries. I had thought of her while I was writing the album. I was like, “Hey, I think you should be in the music video because you’ve been a muse for some of this music,” and then it was her idea to direct it instead. That’s an honor.

I watched the video with Penn Badgley. How did that happen?

I was performing for the Tibet House Benefit, and Penn heard me perform. After the show, he and his wife Domino [Kirke] came up to me and said, “Hey, we want to hang out.” I built a friendship with them. I just asked him, “Will you come play chess with me? Because I want to make a piece of content talking about the record, but it’s gonna be lame and boring if it’s just me. I want someone who is more famous to be in it.” [Laughs] And we have this dry back-and-forth humor.

I think because your music is “serious music,” people think of you as a very serious person. People think artists are exactly like what their music sounds like.

I’m still conditioning people to move away from their surface level prejudice of what they think this is and who they think the followers are and the collaborators are. So many responses were like, “Wow, what a crossover! Penn Badgley likes Arooj Aftab’s music?” Welcome to the new world. Where people are not boxing everybody in in this way, and these crossovers are very natural and very New York, and this is just what the music does to people.

From Penn to Tessa to Obama to Elvis Costello, people are gravitating towards this music. Even in the way that I choose who to invite to collaborate with me, these are subtle ways in which I’m teaching everybody to chill out and be cool and just let music take you where it needs to go and not worry about my ethnicity or your own ethnicity. And that’s something to celebrate.

You have this core group of musicians that you’ve worked with: Maeve Gilchrist, Petros Klampanis, and Gyan Riley. Could you talk about your relationship?

They are the homies. Maeve and I have known each other forever. I’m always so grateful and in awe of the fact that these guys help me realize my vision. That is never going to be something that I take for granted.

Because the music is so new that it doesn’t have a blueprint, it has been important to choose people who have it in them to do it. This hasn’t been the type of music where you just walk in with lead sheets and they sit down and play. It’s been a very collaborative music, a music that has asked the listeners, the press, and the musicians involved to not have prejudice, to be creative inside of their own idioms, to be strong and confident enough to do that.

People like Gyan and Maeve, they’re not just good at their instruments, they’re good at channeling their personalities into their instruments. And their diversity. Gyan and his dad [Terry Riley] have traveled the world, they’ve played everywhere. Those are the types of people that I need to be playing with me.

Does it feel different singing in different languages? You use English more on an everyday basis, but the majority of your music is in Urdu. 

I’m pretty purely bilingual. But I like Urdu because it is a minimalist language in the way that I use it, where it’s phrases and sentences that are more metaphoric. The name of the flower is not jasmine, it’s “queen of the night.” The Urdu language is not so wordy, because the words already have so much meaning. 

One phrase that you’ve used to describe your music is “hopeful disdain.” What does that mean to you?

The state of the world is awful and upsetting, and there’s a lot of melancholy there, but it’s also beautiful. The emphasis is that there’s still hope. There are these glimmers of sunshine in all the music. The world-building never gets really dark. It’s always still hopeful while acknowledging how fucked up things are.