Arooj Aftab: "It's Always Been Really Natural to Just Go Against the Grain and Not Give a Fuck"

With the new album 'Night Reign,' the artist wants "to keep people in suspense"

Photo: Shreya Dev Dube

BY Alisha MughalPublished May 30, 2024

Pakistani-American musician Arooj Aftab mirrors my soul when she tells me, with a laugh, that her favourite track off her fifth studio album, Night Reign, is "Aey Nahin."

"The first one, I like that a lot," she tells me over Zoom. She has her camera off, and so I only hear her cool voice spilling through my speakers. She takes her time as she speaks, steady and calm.

"Aey Nahin" is airy and rolling, and on it, Aftab's voice is as alive as smoke, rising and curling in on itself as her words speculate on why another hasn't arrived yet. It's a kind of circular, ultimately futile, wandering, a kind of pacing, familiar to anyone who's stayed up late into the night, wondering, imagination taking flight.

"I agree," she says when I tell her that I've always felt uneasy with daytime, finding solace at night because, cloaked in it, I feel justified in my loneliness. "I think the night is beautiful and it offers such a depth of emotions, or not emotions," she says. "It offers so much, it gives us such a range of things to do, and it makes you feel so many things. I think it's really the richest part of our existence, when it's evening — not to hate on the day. I like the daytime, too, but I think the night is special. It can be so many things. It can be frightening and it can be a restful time. It can be a chaotic party zone. It can be a time where you share."

There's a hazy and frenetic energy about Night Reign, a sweeping whimsy that rushes irreverently, like a wind-whipped and white-capped sea. It's conveyed with a deft hand on the album's cover: Aftab, clad in gauzy black, sits on a beach, at the exact point where foaming waves lap ashore. A black cape fans out behind her, and it's haloed by a dusty glimmer of white light. Aftab, her dark hair falling in rivulets down the side other face, sits pensively yet alert, looking off to the side; something is happening within her and about her, in this lively darkness. She invites us to look for something monumental and quiet; something to be seen, understood and felt, alone and with one another. This is Night Reign's hushed knowledge, and it's not so much a revolutionary revelation as it is a friendly reminder. On Night Reign, Aftab invites us to convene with her in the blanket of the night and rejoice, recuperate, confess, expand, commune and challenge.

Charging through the album is a desire to shatter expectations. Aftab herself is shattering expectations listeners have of her, all while she challenges our understanding of the nighttime. "Existing at night is a really special thing," she says. "Once you actually take a second and kind of intentionally hone in on it."

The tracks on Night Reign carry all of the night's circuitous and paradoxical treasures. Loosened and liquored by sleep's slackening inhibitions, the mind begins traversing psychic lands the ego knows better than to glance at in the starkness of sunlight. The night portends the confidence to confront, to flirt with the truth, fearlessness in relishing in feelings that are heavy and unsavoury and fleeting, but that are worthwhile because they are human.
"As an artist, my mind is never ceasing to create or to find things throughout every interaction," she says, swiftly pushing against the expectation my question — whether she is more creative at night — contained. For Aftab, creativity is "not constricted to the night," she says. But the stillness that the night contains is powerful. "The night is the time that I decompress stuff and collect my thoughts," she explains. "And so maybe whatever else is going on kind of comes together usually at night." Though creativity rushes within her artist's soul endlessly, outside of the confines of time, the act of creation is sheltered within the cavernous and whispery space of night.

"Night Reign began probably as soon as Vulture Prince came out," she says. The latter, Aftab's third studio album, was a revelation, taking the world by storm in 2021 as it introduced a wider array of Western audiences to the artist's filmy voice, and to Urdu's passion. The landmark track "Mohabbat" is a barbed letter to love itself: written by early 20th-century poet Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, the song is a ghazal often covered, but none have done it quite like Aftab, who weaves such roiling grief into the song's sentiment that love is turned into one of life's towering hurts. As she gauzily notes that a lifetime's worth of wounds and pains are equal to the singular wound of love, the music framing her words blooms and shimmers as it seems to also revel in love, thankful for the irony of the words "never again"; there is no life without love, Aftab's music understands. Barack Obama included the track on his summer playlist in 2021.

After releasing Vulture Prince, which drips with sadness and grief and is dedicated to her brother, who had passed away around the time of the album's recording, Aftab says, "I felt free." She continues, "I think I was trying to create a sound that didn't really have a blueprint before. And I think Vulture Prince was an album, for me, that was really steeped in tradition and my understanding of what that means, what heritage means, what home means, what Urdu poetry describes, and how to do all of those things. I had to do those things. And then once I did, I freed myself from it in a way, and I created something. I created a base for the thing that I wanted to build on."

Having satisfied the need to reckon with where she is from, Aftab moves forward in the world and within herself with Night Reign. She says, "Night Reign is less traditional, not ancient, not renditions of things that were already written. It's closer to me. It's my voice. It's who I am. I'm letting myself in, and I'm letting the people who listen to my music in a little closer to me, and that feels really monumental to me." While Vulture Prince explores home as a historical place, Night Reign explores the home of the self and community, a kind of exploration allowed and nurtured by the night.

Aftab was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents, who returned with her to Lahore, Pakistan, when the artist was 10. She left Pakistan for Boston when she was 19 to attend Berklee College of Music, but not before she had essentially spearheaded the Pakistani indie music scene with her covers; her version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" reached a sort of virality online in the early 2000s. After earning her degree in music production and engineering, she worked in New York in music composition and film scoring, and was only able to leave her day job after Vulture Prince's success.

Her music is noted for its impossibly cool jazz bent, grounded in and honouring the genre's ethos of collaboration that thrives on intuitive understanding. For Aftab, collaboration is natural, something that, like the night, allows communion with and understanding of the self and others.

"It's another thing that is very quite directly reflective of life itself," she says frankly. "We are super alone and singular, but then at the same time, we haven't really done anything by ourselves. Nobody has accomplished jack-nothing on their own while also being quite singularly the leaders of our story. And that's exactly what collaboration is — it's building, it's trust, it's building community, it's building relationships. It's building a language of emotional articulation that is not just words. It's a really beautiful kind of thing, collaborating musically."

She celebrates collaboration as one of our greatest capabilities. "It's a really beautiful section of humanity that has a lot of value," she says. "And I personally love it a lot. And it's a really important function of my work because I am a composer who is a vocalist. So you won't find me sitting at a piano telling people what chords to play. And you won't also find me writing out a detailed score because we're not classical musicians. Her form of collaboration is inherently improvisational because of her background in jazz. "And so my process of making music is unique because of all those things."

When I ask her whether she translates her Urdu lyrics for her collaborators who don't know Urdu, she laughs. "It's funny, we have never done that," she says. "We transcend the lyrics. We have never really been like, 'What's the song about?' or whatever. We've just kind of been very musical about our approach. That's kind of my swag, anyway."

She says she doesn't feel the need for others to grasp the literal meanings of her words — that's not where her music's meaningfulness lies. "I think this music is really approachable," she says. In the way that her collaborators work intuitively with her words and voice, listeners, too, receive her music on an intuitive, human level. "[My music is] not so binary," she reflects. "It's actually so multifold. Lyrics are not the only way to convey the emotion of a song. The song should be complete in of itself. The song, the music, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the production, the mixing. Everybody should be telling the story. I don't want anybody just hanging out and being technical. I want everybody telling the story. So we've always been like that. I think maybe that's been our strong suit in music."

Aftab is joined on Night Reign by bassist Petros Klampanis, harpist and frequent collaborator Maeve Gilchrist, guitarist Gyan Riley, percussionist Jamey Haddad, multi-instrumentalist songwriter Cautious Clay, guitarist Kaki King, pianist James Francies, Vijay Iyer (whom she worked on 2023's trio album Love in Exile with, alongside Shahzad Ismaily), and spoken-word poet and musician Moor Mother.

When I ask her how she balances technique — her training and technical experience as a musician — with all the unruly intuitive truth, that innate raw and visceral feeling that makes her music a living thing, she says it's tough. "It's hard to balance the two," she says. "It's a constant dance, I think, between trust and truth — to be truthful about what I know and what my limits are, and then to trust other people to carry the stuff that I can't do or that I would like to not spend that much time uncoding. Just knowing, being truthful to myself about what my strongest points are and where I am getting overstretched, and then having the trust with my collaborators to be like, 'Okay, let's hash this out together.' So that's always the thing: it's truth and trust."

She continues, "I'm one of those women who doesn't fit the mould. It's so lame, corny to say that." Even in this corniness Aftab is assured: "I'm just kind of a disrupter in a way." And that Night Reign contains more of her than her earlier works means that she is exercising trust with her listeners — trusting them to be tender with her vulnerability, her wavering confessions and deliberations, her unabashed confidence and self-assuredness.  

"I don't follow the rules of music or whatever," she goes on. "I'm someone who creates new things, and it's maybe just irreverence. There's a swag in the music that is simply just being bold and being brave and being irreverent and taking risks, being courageous. There's courage in the music, which I think is lacking sometimes in music in general, because we're so afraid. And it comes from living in a deeply capitalist society [where] things need to sell. I don't know, it's super weird to try to articulate this thing, but to me, it's always been really natural to just go against the grain and not give a fuck."

"Bolo Na" is a stunner for the way in which it does not give a fuck — it's confrontational with its confidence, a kind of way we tend to get under the slackening effect of sleep. Joined by Moor Mother, the track has a sexy, secure, smouldering swagger. "Tell me, is there love between us," she sings in Urdu. Say it, the track seems to challenge. And Moor Mother's poetry comes in, not so much as an interlocutor but as a friend who stands on Aftab's side, to offer a searing but resounding no in reply to Aftab's demand. "Who taught you to love," Moor Mother says, and her voice is like a dagger sharper than ice. The song is a challenge to confess and admit a lack of love, but it's not hopeless, because both Aftab and Moor Mother want a feeling deeper than indifference costumed as love. "Big business vices sold to the unreal, heart price tag," Moor Mother says of a system that sells love — but, of course, any such thing that needs to be sold has no value.

"Raat Ki Rani," the album's first single, whose stunning music video was shot by Tessa Thompson, is driving and glassy as it speaks to the treasuring of something sweet, assuredly making a home in a fleeting love, despite knowledge of its ephemeralness. Aftab's voice is filtered through a slight Auto-Tune on the track, and rather than sounding mechanical, it sounds like a force of nature, like a voice heard through water.

When I ask her what informed the decision to use Auto-Tune for the track, which leads to its curiously earthy effect, she surprises me again with her answer. "Night Reign — I wanted [it] to be edgier and I wanted [it] to evoke more of a joy and a celebration of life rather than a place to park your sadness," she begins her answer that is, along the way, an answer to my own sappiness in waxing poetic about the Auto-Tune.

"A lot of people meditate and feel calm and feel sad and process their sadness with my music, and I've heard that a lot. I've also heard a lot of people give birth to the music," she says. "I'm just like, that's all well and fine, but what else is there now? Can we be fun and can we reflect any amount of coolness that exists in our lives? While still staying true to the deeper part of it."

Aftab loves Kid Cudi, T-Pain, James Blake, Imogen Heap, "and fucking, I don't know, Kanye — old Kanye — and Snoop and stuff. I've always been really blown away by how there are certain artists in the industry — even Cher when she put out 'Believe' — there are people who used effects on vocals in a way that kind of changed the game."

For Aftab, the Auto-Tune on "Raat Ki Rani" is an intentional jolt: "To be like, yeah, we're just going to put an edge to this thing just a little, just a tiny bit, [to nudge] the listener into another world, one that they would not associate with me, because people associate very, very solid, pristine, soothing, perfect vocals when it comes to me. And so when I put Auto-Tune on that, I've kind of just turned it on its head. I want to keep people in suspense. I want to keep them on their toes. I don't want them to get too comfortable."

When Aftab won a Grammy Award in 2022, in the category of Best Global Music Performance for "Mohabbat," I rejoiced, telling my sister and my parents with immense pride. It was the first time a Pakistani person received such recognition from the Recording Academy. For Aftab, this "first" carries with it pressure and opportunity in equal measure.

"I feel like people like me who are from a place like Pakistan, we need as many positive representatives as we can get," she says. "We are inherently a very deeply cultural and romantic bunch of people who have been really misrepresented and really misunderstood. And so when something like that happens, you can't deny it. I will be the Pakistani who won a Grammy, and that's fine, but I'm also me. I'm also just a complex individual who wants to express themselves as an artist without labels and without having to be the cultural representation of the thing. We have people like Malala for that or whatever, and even she gets a hard time. So I don't know. It's both things. It's complicated."

Aftab's complexity is carried in Night Reign perfectly. Track after track, Aftab upturns every expectation we might have of her and of the record, indeed of where the night might take us. "Whiskey" glitters like the summer night sky as it nestles into that moment during a night out with a lover when their head gets heavy and rests on your shoulder "because you drink too much whiskey when you're with me," a night so jubilant that it doesn't matter how we'll get home. It teeters on the brink of a sea of love, celebrating the sweetness of being drunk and in love. And then a track like "Na Gul," complex as an epic, appears — taking the words of 18th-century Urdu musician Mah Laqa Bai Chanda and putting them in conversation with a 16th-century queen, allowing there to emerge burning confessions of love. It's traditional and delicate in the way people expect Aftab to be delicate, but it's also so intricate, sweeping, challenging and imaginative in a way we might forget music can be.

More than holding up a mirror, Aftab holds up a tradition of challenging lyricism and music-making — holds up our history of making art and reminds us that such beauty is still attainable, worth making and revelling in.

"Music is a really spiritual practice," she says. "I think I steal this line from Jon Batiste because he said that, when he won his shitload of Grammys one time a couple of years ago, and he said that, I was like, yeah, that's what it is. Exactly. Yeah, it's a friend. It's always been my friend when no one was my friend."

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