Who is Arooj Aftab? Pakistani singer scores nod in Barack Obama's summer playlist

'Mohabbat', from the artist's third album, has made it to the former US president's top picks for the season

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s Sufi-infused jazz sounds have caught the attention of Barack Obama.

The former US president on Saturday revealed his summer playlist, and, as with previous picks, it is as eclectic as they come.

The 38 songs featured run the gamut, from singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 1976 single Coyote to rapper J Cole’s 2016 hit Neighbours, and the more recent Find a Way by Grammy-winning singer HER as well as Leave the Door Open by Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak and Silk Sonic.

Aftab’s song Mohabbat, which means love, is one of the few non-English songs on the list, a tradition Obama has been sharing for a few years, even while he was in the White House.

“With so many folks getting together with family and friends, there's a lot to celebrate this summer,” the former president tweeted on Saturday. "Here’s a playlist of songs I've been listening to lately – it's a mix of old and new, household names and emerging artists, and a whole lot in between.”

Who is Arooj Aftab?

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Aftab, 36, moved to the US in 2005 to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Now living in Brooklyn, she independently released her first album, Bird Under Water, in 2015 and found critical acclaim.

Describing her sound, a fusion of jazz and Sufi music sung to Urdu lyrics, as "neo-Sufi", she followed up that success with her second album, Siren Islands, in 2018. The New York Times included the album in its list of 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2018, with writer Seth Colter Walls calling it "easily one of my favourite releases from the first half of this year”.

Mohabbat, from Obama’s summer playlist, is from Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, released in April. Dedicated to her younger brother, Maher, who died earlier this year, the album has been praised for its intensity and minimalism.

Music website Pitchfork described it as a “heartbreaking, exquisite document of the journey from grief to acceptance”.

Calling Mohabbat the album’s “centrepiece”, Aftab “transforms it into a slow-burn exploration of the pain of separation", writes the magazine.

“Aftab sings, her voice afloat in grief so expansive that it seems to encompass the world, and whatever realms lie beyond.”

Speaking to NPR, Aftab called her latest album "very relevant" for the current times.

“The way things have been unfolding, it's just madness. It's crazy, and it almost sometimes feels like it's too much. And I think that's really the direction I threw myself in when we pivoted on Vulture Prince — and how it's come out now and the time that it's coming out,” she said.

“I think there's a way for artists to say something with their work that is not always very direct. It's not always like social activism, but it is, you know, in its subtlety and its grace. It can just be there very unimposingly. And I think, Vulture Prince, by design, I intended for it to have a lot of those elements in it.”

Aftab acknowledged Obama's recognition on Saturday, posting: "Well this has been wonderful to wake up to! Thank you @barackobama."

Updated: July 11th 2021, 9:26 AM