It is close to midnight in Karachi and a spell of rain is upon us at irregular intervals. Having navigated past nondescript murky streets to reach the studio where Pepsi Battle of the Bands is being recorded, one is greeted by several security checks before finding the path to the main-stage space where the judges and the bands are to be found.
Fawad Khan and Atif Aslam, two of the judges are presently helping Madlock, one of the bands scheduled to perform, in getting their sound right. The rest of the judges including the brilliant Meesha Shafi and the iconic Shahi Hasan, are also around and despite the late hour spirits are up and no one is in a rush to get out the door.
Meesha Shafi agrees to speak to me as the Madlock boys lean on Khan, Aslam and producer Faisal Rafi for some technical direction.
Sitting on a flight of steps and despite the constant movement of people around us, Shafi is forthcoming. Even as I pose questions that border on offensive, she remains calm and answers with a degree of poise. Some may find Shafi intimidating but others hold her in absolute reverence. The singer-songwriter, however, remains grounded and this his makes her so much more interesting than your regular stars who seem to have embraced the digital universe in an obnoxious, OTT fashion.
Our conversation begins with the question of corporatization of music. I ask Shafi what she makes of this dynamic given her current association with Pepsi Battle of the Bands and past association with other projects.
“If there is a vacuum, something’s going rush in and fill it,” she begins. “Because we have not managed to come up with some sort of an infrastructure that can support and facilitate the industry these brands have moved in. They have found this opportunity to link themselves to and in a way it has become a beneficial relationship. Obviously there are ups and down and whatever the brand’s agenda or corporate agenda might be, the support provided by these brands to music and artists is undeniable. Music is being made and produced and it is of a certain quality. It has to do with facilitation, production value, funding and it is inevitable. Also, we can’t market any music the way they can market it for us so the business of music has been adopted by certain brands. You can’t only criticize it because in a lot of ways it has been the saving grace for the industry as well.”
Shafi, no stranger to racking up huge hits, has featured on several prolific productions such as Coke Studio and Cornetto Pop Rock. Her voice can also be found on the soundtrack of films like Moor, Manto and the Reluctant Fundamentalist. These projects have allowed her to experiment with a number of genres and work with several different music producers. Most of what Shafi sings is gold but what about songs that frame her own personal narrative?
“My own narrative is something that I am still in the process of figuring out,” she says, “I don’t want to prematurely put out an album and I don’t allow pressure to get to me. I’m often asked ‘what about your own album?’ I got discovered before I knew where I wanted to go as an artist. Good or bad, whatever but in a way I became very famous before I started trying. For me the journey has been in reverse and now that I’ve been doing this for ten years I have come full circle where I’m starting to find myself as an artist.”
“I appreciate that journey (post-discovery) because it has given me an opportunity to try so many different things without having to worry about financing them or without having to worry about how they are received or how I would record, shoot and market them,” she adds. “I’ve been very lucky that way also. I like the fact that now when I do my own narrative or my own sound, I’m going to know what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. My experimentation has been under the helm of lots of senior producers who picked my voice. I was going with the. I hadn’t planned any of it. Now I’m starting to understand what I want to use my voice for and what kind of sound I want to create.”
The singer-songwriter admits that though she was thrust in the limelight almost overnight, she was not ready to pursue the artist within her until now. She writes songs all the time but has a habit of sitting on them.
“I keep them close, I get to know them. I didn’t know what I wanted to produce so I guess I needed to go through this process and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Though Shafi has no more than ten minutes to spare since the production has a schedule to keep and Madlock seems to have found the audio clarity they were desperate for, I have time to ask one more question and this time too she doesn’t hesitate or worst, deflect.
When asked about whether she thinks she is qualified to judge PBOTB, Shafi says calmly and with great clarity: “I wouldn’t be here if I thought otherwise. First, you have got to get your facts straight. I’ve recorded all around the world and I’ve performed around the world. I’ve worked with all the producers and session players; I’ve been a part of a band. I’ve done theatre musicals; I have done rock and Sufi music. I’ve done originals, solos.
“I think some of it is misogynistic also because a lot of it becomes about ‘oh she’s here? Why is she here? Is she here to look pretty? Is she here for the glamour?’ So the perception that they (Atif, Shahi, Fawad) are the judges while I am the style icon is simply not true because that’s not what got me here. But I don’t feel like I need to defend my achievements at all.”
Between this visit to the set and the present, Shafi has managed to silence critics in one fell swoop with her new single ‘Speaker Phaar’. Taking the stage at Pepsi Battle of the Bands finale, she unveiled a song that she wrote herself and one that is not only a showcase of her explosive capability but is also an elegy of hope. Whatever Meesha Shafi does next, we’re certain she will continue to push the envelope.