Pakistan’s Balochistan presents a new rap king!

Pakistan's Balochistan presents a new rap king!

Pakistan’s newest rap sensation lives in a small town called Sibbi. A few hours after his debut, #TheSibbiSong, went viral on social media, I received a voice note from him: “There was a time when people would mock me about my singing. Today, those same people will be praising me.”

Life had come full circle for Abid Brohi. That text was a singular moment of defiant pride, in a stream of otherwise humble and thankful words from him, but it encapsulated the importance of both, Brohi’s own journey and that of Patari, the Pakistani audio streaming platform which I work for.

Before he willed himself into the internet’s consciousness, Brohi had a number of jobs: he had worked at a cloth store, sold snacks, worked as a manual labourer. Sibbi, his home in Balochistan, was also the site of a huge annual fair. When the fair came around, Brohi worked at the official residence of a local bureaucrat, where the musicians invited to perform at the fair were given accommodation. Often, the artists found themselves playing audience to Brohi’s rap songs instead.

Despite being promised meetings and opportunities in the music industry, Abid received no help from these pop stars, whom he posed with for his Facebook photographs. It wasn’t until a chance meeting with filmmaker Raza Shah that Brohi’s fate changed. Upon his return to Lahore, Shah contacted Khalid Bajwa, the CEO of Patari.

This was around the time we had begun a project called #PatariTabeer, an attempt to tune local audiences into local Pakistani sounds. A decade of terrorism, shrinking public spaces, a media tilting towards entertainment instead of news, an influx of global culture via the internet and the lack of any formalised industry, had each taken a huge toll on Pakistani music.

A generation of young Pakistanis had grown up never having listened to the music of the preceding generations, or to what Pakistani musicians were producing now. To change this, we realised that Patari needed to be more than a streaming platform – it needed to help musicians make music.

This was easier said than done. The entertainment industry in Pakistan is almost exclusively the preserve of urban, upper-middle class Pakistanis. An ordinary Pakistani, particularly one from outside the major metros of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, has little chance of making it big.

But simultaneously, social media constantly threw up Pakistan’s mobile video stars, in short bursts of glory. Through searches like like “Hidden Talents of Pakistan”, we discovered countless videos of working class Pakistanis, singing with the most beautiful voices.

We only found Brohi online once we had already begun recording, but it was clear that he was determined to be discovered. He didn’t read or write, but he had made a friend set up several Facebook pages for him, including one where he made short skits on video (he wasn’t limiting himself to rap music). One could immediately sense an authenticity in him, he had a certain swagger and originality that caught the eye.

Brohi had become enchanted by the videos of Punjabi rapper Bohemia and began copying his mannerisms and vocal delivery in his rap videos. He composed verses combining various dialects in clever wordplay, which he then memorised. Much of what emerged was the product of various singing styles and local folk music, to which Brohi had added contemporary embellishments.

Our project #PatariTabeer had begun with Nazar Gill, a man who worked as a sanitary worker in my apartment building and approached me, asking if he could sing me a song that he had written, and Fawzia Naqvi, a Pakistani living in New York. A Patari fan, Naqvi had generously offered to fund us for an unspecified project. Inspired by her impetus and the chance meeting with Nazar, we decided to identify other aspiring musicians and pair them up with renowned, contemporary producers for our project.

Ultimately, the line-up of talent we found included a rap group from one of Karachi’s oldest, most vibrant and most violent areas, a young boy from Sukkur (a video of whose singing had already gone viral on the internet once), a singer from Peshawar who had been trained by her father, and two nomadic singers from the Sindh, who are amongst the last of a dying breed of musicians native to the area.

But Pakistan was still not quite ready for someone like Brohi. His song was in a Sindhi dialect, spoken by a small minority of the country. He wasn’t accompanied by the expected, traditional musical forms and he was rapping, not singing – rap music is still nascent in Pakistan. Above all, Brohi didn’t look or act like someone mainstream Pakistan would associate, with a small town like Sibbi – he was too unconventionally cool.

We wanted to avoid being exploitative and to ensure some sustainability for the young artists we put on our platforms, unlike the fickle fame of social media. In what felt like a warning sign, just then, Pakistan witnessed the phenomenon of the chai-wala: a young man named Arshad Khan who became the subject of mass internet hysteria for a few days, over his good looks. Soon after the Instagram post featuring him went viral, Khan was roped in for a modeling assignment, a music video and then a film, until news broke that his conservative family was aghast at his new life. Khan withdrew from the spotlight and receded into anonymity once more. We wanted to avoid making the same mistakes. We wanted to showcase the backgrounds of the musicians that were part of #PatariTabeer, not condemn them because of it.

Finally, Brohi found the right chemistry for his music, with the EDM duo Somewhatsuper. They had achieved a massive breakout hit with their award-nominated single Bandook and had several other, smaller hits. Rather than looking for generic folk sounds to add to their music, they were focused on making Brohi’s voice the star.

Within hours of the song’s release on January 14, it was clear that Brohi was sensational. From celebrities to the local news, everyone was entranced by him. Some of this fascination was patronising – surprise that someone from the working class could be talented. But a lot of it was sheer joy at the pure authenticity and charisma that Brohi has.

There is no way to tell where Brohi’s fame shall lead him, or what his success will mean for Patari. At the moment, it is hard to imagine what a happy ending in the Pakistani music industry looks like, there is uncertainty even for the greatest songs. But then again, no one had imagined Brohi the way he had seen himself, inside his own head all those years ago. Slowly, but surely, Abid Brohi has got us all dreaming with him.

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