Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab won her first Grammy on Sunday, taking the award for Best Global Music Performance for her song Mohabbat and becoming the first Pakistani woman to win one of the coveted gilded gramophones.
She beat the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Wizkid and Burna Boy to take the prize, in a category Aftab described as “insane”.
“I think I’m going to faint,” the 36-year-old said when accepting the award. “Wow thank you so much. I feel like this category in and of itself has been so insane. Burna Boy, Wizkid, Femi Kuti, Angelique Kidjo — should this be called Best World Music Performance? I feel like it should be called ‘yacht party category'.
“Thank you so much to everyone who helped me make this record,” she continued. “All my incredible collaborators, for following me and making this music I made about everything that broke me and put me back together. Thank you for listening to it and making it yours.”
Who is Arooj Aftab?
Born in Pakistan's second largest city Lahore, Aftab 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, which former US president Barack Obama included in his 2021 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," she said.
"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.
“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.”