Arooj Aftab Creates Music As if it Were a Living Thing

The Grammy-nominated artist leans into intuition, experimentation, and improvisation to make music that isn’t meant to be a quick hit, but something deeper.

Aamina Khan

April 1, 2022

Arooj Aftab Creates Music As if it Were a Living Thing
Arooj Aftab (Blythe Thomas, courtesy of the artist)

When Arooj Aftab performs, her audience might be tempted to listen to only her voice. But what you should be listening for is all of it. For the singer and composer, every piece of sound you hear contributes to the story she’s trying to tell. And this year, she’s nominated for two Grammys: Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance, for her single “Mohabbat.”

Aftab sings primarily in Urdu in a new, but distinctly South Asian semi-classical sound — one she once named “neo-Sufi” in 2014 after her first album. But her music has changed a lot since then, and she also doesn’t believe in labels. Aftab would even call some of it pop music. “Mohabbat,” her lead single in her third studio album Vulture Prince, for example, features soft guitar, a harp, and even a brass instrument as Aftab sings. “If we get rid of some of this genre stuff, we will inevitably push listeners into a space where they feel freer, and we will show them that we believe in them,” she told me. “We keep making them feel like they’re stupid.”

The Berklee grad, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and now lives in Brooklyn, is a master of her craft, not because she’s learned how to control every element of a composition, but because she’s learned how to guide the creation of music as if it were a living thing. In music school, she studied jazz, a genre known and celebrated for its improvisation. She now brings these very principles to her music. For this reason, she said, she doesn’t like to “waste music” — the magic of experimenting goes away when you overdo it. Instead, what audiences walk away with when they listen to an Aftab masterpiece is something far more profound and unexpected.