Arooj Aftab is a Brooklyn-based Pakistani vocalist and music composer who is known for her music album ‘Vulture Prince’ consisting of songs featuring Urdu poetry alongside English lyrics.
Arooj Aftab was born on Monday 11 March 1985 (age 37 years; as of 2022), in Saudi Arabia. Born to Pakistani expat parents, Aftab grew up creating her own melodies at a very young age. In an interview, she said,
The earliest I can remember is when I was maybe 9 or 10, making up my own melodies and singing them around the house or for guests…I’ve been surrounded by a lot of music from a very young age, and I guess what’s interesting to me now is that I never thought it was unusual to be creating my own music all the while.”
At the age of 10, Aftab and her family returned to their hometown, Lahore, Pakistan, where she spent her teenagehood. During her teens, Aftab taught herself to play the guitar while developing her vocal skills. She first pursued formal music training when she secured a scholarship to an online course by Berklee School of Music, Boston, Massachusetts. At the age of 19, she moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee College of Music, where she earned a degree in music production and engineering and jazz composition.
Not much is known about her parents. Arooj Aftab has two brothers. Her brother, Gauher Aftab, is CEO at Foundation for Youth Employment Pakistan.
Her younger brother, Maher, died when she was working on the music album “Vulture Prince.” In an interview, she revealed that she dedicated the album to her brother. Mournfully, she said,
When I was dedicating the album to my younger brother, I didn’t realize that I’d have to talk about him over and over again.”
She was born into a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia.
Aftab began her musical journey in the late 1990s and early 2000s when she used the internet as a platform to release her music. She set in motion the Pakistani indie scene with her two viral renditions “Hallelujah” and “Mera Pyaar.” At that time, infrastructure for independent music was obscure in Pakistan and Western online platforms were inaccessible for Aftab. Her songs, which were initially shared through emails, later encouraged the young generation of artists to produce and release their music independently. When she left for Berklee, Aftab had garnered a loyal fanbase in Pakistan. In 2010, Aftab moved to New York, where she established her music career. She began editing and scoring films, meanwhile releasing her own music. Thereafter, she started composing music for the film ‘Bittu’ (2020), which went on to win the Student Academy Award (2020).
She also worked as an additional editor for the Emmy Award-winning documentary ‘Armed with Faith’ (2017), which earned her the News & Documentary Emmy Award (2018).
During her gigs at the American music channels MTV and Vice, where she supervised the music, sound, and video departments, she grew fond of Sufi music after listening to thumris by celebrated Indian singer Begum Akhtar. In April 2011, Aftab was included in the crowdsourced list “100 Composers Under 40,” launched by the American radio stations NPR (National Public Radio) and WQXR-FM’s Q2. In 2013, she worked as music director for the film ‘Without Shepherds’ by Cary McClelland. Thereafter, she composed music and sang for the album ‘The Julius Eastman Memory Depot’ in 2013 and Tale and Tone Records in 2017. Her debut music album, Bird Under Water (2014), was released independently. Critical acclaim of the album rose when David Honigmann, a journalist of the Financial Times, gave it four out of five stars in March 2015. In July 2018, the album’s song “Lullaby,” ranked at number 150 on the NPR’s list of “200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women.”
In the album, she interpreted the qawwali “Man Kunto Maula,” which was composed by the thirteenth-century Sufi polymath Hazrat Amir Khusro. She has voiced the title song “Insaaf” for the Indian film ‘Talvar’ (2015) and the song “Raske Bhare Tore Nain” for the Pakistani film ‘ Dobara Phir Se’ (2016).
At the beginning of 2017, she made acquaintance with Vijay Iyer, a pianist, composer, and MacArthur fellowship grant recipient, during the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York. Backstage, before their performances, Aftab and Iyer spontaneously created some music on the spot. Ever since the duo has been collaborating and has also recorded an album together. In 2017, Aftab was working at Conde Nast in its video production department. On 12 June 2018, her second album ‘Siren Islands’ was released under the label New Amsterdam Records.
Immensely appreciated by the audience, the ‘Siren Islands’ was included in NPR’s “Our Favorite Electronic & Dance Music of 2018” list. Album’s crowd-puller song “Island No. 2” was listed in the “25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2018” list of The New York Times. In 2020, she lent her voice to Residente’s Latin Grammy Award-winning song “Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe,” for which she bagged a Latin Grammy in the best rap/hip-hop category.
On April 23, 2021, Aftab’s third studio album, ‘Vulture Prince,’ was released under the label New Amsterdam Records.
The chartbuster song “Mohabbat” from her album ‘Vulture Prince,’ earned her the nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance. Her eponymous website features Vulture Prince’s merchandise like customised T-shirts and perfume by Dana El Masri.
In 2021, she signed with the American record label Verve Records. She has worked as a composer, sound designer, and implementer for the 2021 noir adventure indie video game ‘Backbone.’ In April 2022, she was nominated in the categories of ‘Best Global Music Performance’ for the song “Mohabbat” and ‘Best New Artist’ at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards held in Las Vegas. The Grammy nomination of an artist who sings in Urdu rose Aftab’s prominence in the New York music circuit. In 2022, for the Pakistani television programme ‘Coke Studio,’ she sang the song “Mehram,” along with Asfar Hussain.
- Singer(s) (American): Billie Eilish, Finneas, Billie Holiday, Mariah Carey
- Singer(s) (Indian): Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Begum Akhtar
- Singer (s) (Pakistani): Abida Parveen
- Song: “Family Ties” by American rappers Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar
- The trajectory of the release of the music album “Vulture Prince” was disrupted by two unexpected deaths, one of Aftab’s close friends, Annie Ali Khan, and another of her younger brother, Maher.
- For lyrics of the music album “Vulture Prince,” she referred to the works of renowned Sufi poets like Mirza Ghalib, Rumi, and Hafeez Hoshiarpuri.
- For inspiration, the Sufi singer turns to her friends in Pakistan who sought old bazaars searching for historical books from the Mughal empire featuring Urdu poetry. In an interview, she said,
I have friends in Pakistan who I ask them to keep an eye out for anything to do with the Mughal Empire. Music in the fifties, a lot of it ends up being in Urdu. I basically have minions [laughs]. Friends who are journalists or academics, who go to libraries in Pakistan.
- In 2015, she engaged in a conflict with the Pakistani music streaming service Patari, which is known as the largest music streaming service in Pakistan. Apparently, the singer accused the Patari of streaming songs and licensed music of various artists, including herself, online for free. Apparently, she claimed that such streaming mechanisms paid the royalties for streaming songs to the production labels. Hence, the label kept the larger proportion of it while artists received only one cent per song.
- The 44th president of the US, Barack Obama, selected the song “Mohabbat” from the music album Vulture Prince as one of his summer playlist favourites for 2021.
- In an interview, she revealed that she doesn’t drink cold drinks. While explaining the reason behind her quitting soda, she said,
I think I said that I don’t drink soda! Coca Cola as a company has done some very shady and terrible things to farmers in India and Pakistan in the past. So I don’t support them at all.”
- She is a non-vegetarian.