Arooj Aftab's 'Mohabbat' Gets Presidential Nod

The singer-songwriter's track was listed on former President Barack Obama's 2021 summer playlist. 

July 14, 2021

When Arooj Aftab B.M. ’10 woke up Saturday morning, she knew something big, something good, had happened, but she wasn’t sure what it was. 

“My phone was completely blowing up and I was just getting a lot of text messages, and my Instagram was looking crazy, like hundreds of new followers and being tagged everywhere, and I was like ‘What is going on?’” Aftab, a singer and composer, said from her Brooklyn home. 

Something like this had happened in May, when Pitchfork wrote about her, and again that month when Time magazine named her song “Mohabbat” as one of the seven best of 2021, and on Saturday, the song made another prominent list. President Barack Obama put it on his 38-track summer playlist. Its release has become an annual event, certifying the season’s coolest tunes.

“Mohabbat,” a meditative song about love and letting go, is the fifth of seven tracks on Aftab’s new album, Vulture Prince. The record is her third since graduating from Berklee in 2010 with a double major in jazz composition and music production and engineering

We caught up with Aftab after the playlist’s release to talk about that momentous morning, her music, and her Berklee years. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

Congratulations on making Obama’s playlist. What was your reaction when you heard the news?

Aftab: Just, you know, gratitude. It's quite a big cosign. The album has been out since March and it's just been doing so well, it's been being received so well. This felt like another kind of affirmation. I felt very grateful and very humbled by it.

[Obama] is iconic and getting that recognition from him really does mean a lot…. The fact that he put it on that list, with all those other different artists, made me feel really good about the fact that...if you make something good you will be rewarded for it, or merit can get you far. It kind of reassured me that good music will still be recognized and heard whether it's being super-represented or not.

I feel like that really broke that ceiling for me. It's similar when Time put out their favorite songs of this year and it's like Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, Cardi B, and me. It’s like, what is this list, how is that? So it’s nice. It feels really good. People are really loving this song. It’s speaking to people on a really wide and surprising level, which feels great. 

Obama’s list is not just a collection of his favorite songs, but a playlist. What do you think about it being in between Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” and Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know”?

I do think that they flow together. I think they did a good job with the placement of it. There was some musical intention there, even in the order, which feels like it's not just some random hype list. Knowing Obama's style, that’s kind of how he rolls. There's more to it than just what meets the eye. There's just this attention to detail when he puts out stuff about arts and culture.

It means a lot to me personally that he included me on there, because I think that often doesn't happen, because I'm a Pakistani American, brown, female artist, and in so many ways that kind of puts you aside from from the main story a lot of the time. I just feel like he's really cool to do that. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, maybe he just likes the song or whatever, but I think that there's a lot of meaning there in putting me on that list.

“Mohabbat” means “love” in Urdu. What is this song about?

The poetry was written in the 1920s by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, and it’s kind of like a jazz standard. A lot of different musicians have done iterations of this, let’s say, standard. 

The poetry itself is really beautiful and appeals to a lot of different circumstances. It says the world will continue to love you and you will have an endless amount of lovers, but I won't be one of them. It also says the sadness of not being able to love you is equivalent to all the sadness that exists in the world, so it's kind of dramatic and kind of soulful. It’s very sweet. It's not someone angry or annoyed. It's kind of like a passing on, a moving on, a closure song.

Why were you drawn to this poem?

Because of the way that it's written so simply and so beautifully so I really always found this poetry fitting into my life in different moments, so I've always really loved this poem.
There's recordings of me playing it live from like 2011, so like it's been in my repertoire for many years, and I've just kind of been slowly but surely figuring out how exactly I want it to be recorded.

You’ve said that part of what gave rise to the album this song is on, Vulture Prince, was the death of your brother (in 2018). 

His passing is now in everything that I do, in a subtle way, which is also good because that's kind of what you should be doing when something like this happens. You have to make it part of your day-to-day, as opposed to thinking of it as an isolated incident and trying to get over it. I think that the sentiment of his passing is in the entire album but, yeah, it’s also very much in this song.

Listen to "Mohabbat":

Did you write the music for this version of “Mohabbat”?

I’ve written the music. The music is all brand new. But it is a rendition, so there are some similarities to some of the older renditions, but other than that, it's all new.

You came to Berklee through Berkleemusic (now Berklee Online) as a self-taught guitarist. Do you play guitar on Vulture Prince

[At Berklee] I stopped playing guitar entirely because it was full of such great guitar players.

I mean, I was studying MP&E [music production and engineering] and jazz for the first time, and I felt like I had to prioritize singing and composing and doing MP&E, which is such a challenging degree. 

For me, it felt a lot better that I have this resource of incredible musicians, so let them play the thing and I'll sing and I'll write the music, and we'll collaborate.

I'll play instruments in the composing process, but then, after that, I'll leave it to the pros.

You are releasing a perfume with Vulture Prince. Tell me more about that. 

I started to see this perfumer, she's Canadian Egyptian [and] studied perfumery in one of the best schools in France, and [she] had this different sense of connecting experiences and places and time, and musicians and live music performances. I thought that was really fantastic, and I started to get the idea that there should be an olfactory accompaniment to the album.

Somehow it worked out and it smells really beautiful. It's on Bandcamp in the merch section.  

Among your list of inspirations for the perfume were ginger, plum, 1990s Lahore, oak trees, seasonal fruit, fire worship, empty space, the album Purple Rain. Do you feel like it smells like Vulture Prince sounds?

You know, definitely. When it was finally done and I had the sample, I took an evening off and I showered and got dressed and I sat in my living room. I put the vinyl on and I put the perfume on, and I was like, “Okay, yes, it's definitely happening, they go together.” I don't really know how else to deconstruct it, but it's like, yeah, this makes sense.

With the album out, what’s next for you?

I scored a video game [Backbone] which just came out. It's like you basically are playing a raccoon detective. And then the next thing is touring. Hopefully we can figure out a safe way to do this, because people are definitely starting to book, so we have some shows lined up.

I'm producing some music for a couple of different artists, and then I'm just going to be working on my next record. 

What is actually next is a trio record with Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily, which is really, really beautiful, and I can't wait for that to come out. For the jazz heads that will be really fun because it's kind of like a doom-jazz record. It's like dark, free, experimental jazz. To me, it feels like it just feels like an amalgamation of everything that I have studied and what I know. 

I just think that everything feels really great right now.

Watch a 2019 performance featuring Aftab, Iyer, and Ismaily:

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