This year’s list of 10 best new artist Grammy nominees reads like a who’s-who of the past year in culture. There’s Olivia Rodrigo, Saweetie, Finneas, The Kid Laroi — musicians with unavoidable hit singles — alongside indie darling Japanese Breakfast, country singer Jimmie Allen, and Kendrick Lamar’s real-life cousin Baby Keem. And then there’s Arooj Aftab, an impressive composer and singer whose neo-Sufi jazz songs are unlikely to play on mainstream radio. Her inclusion is history-making: she’s the first female Pakistani Grammy nominee.
Many viewers tuning into the live awards ceremony on Sunday will be discovering Aftab for the first time. While the pop award categories are crowned during the live ceremony, top artists in other genres (such as sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who features on Aftab’s recent album) are typically relegated to accepting their honors during an off-screen ceremony.
The nod is the culmination of many years working to establish her voice in the industry. “It doesn’t mean that you just started making music yesterday,” says Aftab of the “best new” category. “The process of musicianship is very long and hard. There are a lot of factors involved in getting to a point where you create a body of work that is recognized widely by listeners.”
Aftab released her acclaimed third album, “Vulture Prince,” last spring. The majority of the album is sung in Urdu, and she incorporates elements of ancient ghazal, a form of devotional poetry, into a dreamy soundscape informed by jazz, folk and reggae. The album explores heartbreak, longing, and loss; Aftab describes the thematic link throughout the collection as “a disdain for the world and the way that it behaves,” she says. “But also hope.”
The album kicks off with the nostalgic “Baghon Main,” a precursor to the heavier songs to follow.
“The second song is about a love triangle and friendship. The third one is about how the world keeps disappointing you. Then there’s ‘Last Night,’ which is a reggae vibe to a Rumi [poem],” she says. “And then it goes to ‘Mohabbat,’ which is almost the pop song on the record. It takes you on a very long journey, where it starts off fun, very happy and then it takes a dark turn in the middle. And then leaves you thinking about what you’re doing with your life.”
“Mohabbat” notably made former President Barack Obama’s 2021 summer playlist, in the company of tracks by Jay-Z, Joni Mitchell and George Harrison.
Heading into Grammys weekend, Aftab released a reworking of “Baghon” and a cover of 2019 best new artist nominee Rosalía’s “Di Mi Nombre.” Aftab selected the singer from a comprehensive list of nominees dating to 1959, when the first awards were handed out. “Going down the years, it’s like, all of these people became great iconic musicians. And then there’s 2021, and there’s my name there. I was like, whoa, holy s–t.”
Aftab chose to cover Rosalía because of the Arab-Flamenco connection. “The south of Spain has 800 years of our history, and Flamenco comes from so much of that nomadic movement and culture from back in the day. It has all these Arabic roots,” she says.
The 37-year-old singer grew up in Pakistan, in a household where music was constantly played and appreciated. As a teenager, she found herself drawn to creating music herself. “I wanted to make my own music instead of just being an avid listener. And I don’t know what that is,” she says. “Every musician’s story is the same in that regard. You just feel the need to do it; it’s a calling.”
“You’re exposed to music from a young age, and then you have the confidence that you want to take it on yourself,” she adds. “And then you’re a teenager, and you’re angsty and having your heart broken and making bad decisions, and so you’re playing guitar and covering ‘Wonder Wall.’”
She counts Eva Cassidy, Jeff Buckley, Billie Holliday, Crosby, Stills & Nash as early influences — as well as the Spice Girls and Ace of Base, which was her first cassette tape. Aftab moved to the U.S. in the mid-2000s to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and has since been based in New York.
The Grammy awards ceremony, slated for January and postponed to April 3, is taking place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Heading into Sunday, Aftab notes a mix of anxiety coupled with an eagerness. “I’m excited to bring it,” she says. “And just be there, and wear that with pride.”
Later in April, she’ll head to Indio to perform at Coachella — a gig she booked last summer. Asked whether she’s noticed the impact of her nomination, Aftab notes that it’s not an easy equation to pick apart.
“People aren’t coming up and saying, ‘I want to work with you because you’re a nominee.’ It’s not so literal, but there’s definitely more interest. There’s been a slight shift in people’s seriousness around me,” she says. “But it’s also unclear whether the legitimacy is coming from the beauty of the record, or all of it,” she adds. “Things are rolling out in an order that hasn’t been planned. But I mean, people love a nominee, right?”