Who is Arooj Aftab? Pakistani singer scores a Grammy nomination for best new artist

'Mohabbat', from the artist's third album, made it to the former US president Barack Obama's playlist earlier this year

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab's song 'Mohabbat' has made it to Barack Obama's summer playlist.
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Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab, whose Sufi-infused jazz sounds made it to former US president Barack Obama's summer playlist earlier this year, has been nominated in the best new artist category for the 2022 Grammy Awards.

The highest honours in the music industry will be handed out at a ceremony in Los Angeles on January 31.

Aftab, who was born in Lahore, will be up against teen phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo, 18, who burst onto the US charts in January when her single Drivers License went viral. Rodrigo is also one of the most-nominated artists, with a total of seven nods including album for the year for her debut Sour.

Other best new artist nominees include country music singer Jimmie Allen, rapper Baby Keem, singer Finneas (who's also the brother of singer Billie Eilish), British band Glass Animals, Korean-American rock group Japanese Breakfast, Australian breakout star The Kid Laroi, British singer Arlo Parks and rapper Saweetie.

Aftab’s song Mohabbat, which means love, was one of the few non-English songs on Obama's list, a tradition he 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. "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 late younger brother, Maher, 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."

This article was first published on July 11, 2021

Updated: April 04, 2022, 10:12 AM