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Momina Mustehsan: When Words Fail, I Express With Music

Getting up-close and personal with Pakistan's singing sensation

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By Anam Mansuri

Amidst prominent Pakistani female entertainers that achieved major influencer status in 2016, a red haired 24-year-old seemed to lead the way. The singing sensation whose melodious vocals almost over-shadowed those of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in Coke Studio’s new rendition of the classic, “Afreen,” was not only skilled but also gorgeous. Mustehsan quickly became Pakistan’s biggest crush. But for the singer, it hasn’t been all hearts and roses. This year, Mustehsan has openly spoken about her struggle to deal with the fame and limelight. She also angered many Pakistani women when she claimed that the honour killing victim Qandeel Baloch, was in fact not a role model.

Despite all of this, Mustehsan has become one of the most sought after brand ambassadors in the country. She recently featured in the UN Women BeatMe campaign that went viral within hours of its release. Here, we sit down with the internet’s most beloved singer and have a heart to heart.

We hear you picked up the violin in third grade! What instruments can you play; which one is your favourite and why?

I used to play the violin in Elementary School, but that was because the school I attended in New York made it mandatory for every student to pick up an instrument. I taught myself how to play the guitar when I was in grade 5, and my father got me a keyboard when I was in grade 8. I’m most fluent on the guitar, hence I’d like to think of that as my favourite.

m1What has been your relationship with music like since then? How has it evolved?

For me, music is probably one of the only mediums of expression in times when I cannot directly confront situations. I feel that I’m most expressive with music – not just words that make up the lyrics, but also the composition and arrangement. Every relationship in life evolves as you grow and mature – my relationship with music has been similar. From making stupid songs about rainbows and butterflies (I had titled it “the rAnDoM song”), to writing more mature things like Pi Jaun, and Mein Raasta on Coke Studio, I think I’m making some progress.

How are you dealing with fame? There have been many times you’ve commented in the media about not being super comfortable since you’ve been catapulted into the limelight after Coke Studio. What are the worst aspects of this recognition and what are the best?

Yes, I hadn’t AT ALL been comfortable with it. I did have some recognition before Coke Studio because of the few projects I had done in Pakistan and a song for a pretty successful Bollywood movie, but I had never faced the camera before. Probably the biggest reason for me being super uncomfortable post Coke Studio was because of the magnitude of the fame that hit me, that too like an overloaded truck that came out of nowhere. I absolutely did not expect my stint to be successful on this massive scale and for me to get this kind of instant recognition for it.

The best part is that it empowers you with a voice that you can use for bringing attention to things that need attention, because a massive audience is always on the lookout to track your every move and words you say. Worst aspect is losing your privacy – everything you do is everyone’s business and they feel entitled to having an opinion on even the slightest of things. Also, you cannot enjoy public spaces with freedom. I have nothing against meeting fans, in fact I love interacting with them, but there have been more than a few instances where I have been completely mobbed and chased.

You recently spoke about how you were and still are kind of uncomfortable with the way you’re judged about your looks. Talk to us about that.

I am not an actress or a model. I’m an engineer/mathematician, or literally just an average girl, who likes making music. I hardly know anything about fashion, and frankly, I don’t care much about my appearance. Thus, I would much rather like to be judged for what I’m trying to bring to the table, and not for something I’m not trying to showcase. There’s a lot more to someone than just a face.

Do you think it helped in a way? Your looks. There are so many amazing new singers on Coke Studio that maybe didn’t get as much attention as you did?

The reason why other amazing new artists on Coke Studio did not get the same attention as I did was probably because they weren’t featured on Afreen. To be honest, if I hadn’t been a part of that song, I wouldn’t have gotten such massive recognition either. This is because the song itself is a classic and a huge hit since decades. On top of that, it was rearranged beautifully by Faakhir and sung by a living legend. Anyone who would have been part of it would have gotten substantial recognition.

However, it would be a lie if I completely deny that my looks had nothing to do with it. After all, humans all over the world first judge a book by its cover. However, with that being said, I wouldn’t want to completely discredit myself for my talent. There is a reason why I had been able to earn myself the recognition I  had in the music industry and have my first release to be nominated for ‘Song of the Year’ ; and landing a song in a very big Bollywood production – neither of those had shown my face. I got invited on to Coke Studio by several producers, which I can say with confidence was for my talent. And I would also like to believe that I earned that spot for Afreen (and for Coke Studio to make an exception by offering me a third track at the last minute).

m2What’s next in terms of your music? When are we going to see more original music and maybe an album. Also what is your own distinct musical style that you would like to pursue?

There’s a lot in store. I’ve always been making and writing music, but only for my own self, and not for commercial purposes. I’m currently working on a few projects, most of them are focused around social causes, but do have music incorporated in some way or the other. As for singles and albums, who knows I might come out with something soon.

How has social media changed your life?

Not just mine, social media has changed everyone’s lives. It has given every person with access to the internet the power to have an insight on your life, and hence a right to judge every move you make. In a lot of cases, it affects the person in question to the point where they become victim to depression. In my case, it used to really bother me and when I had started trending on twitter continuously for days at end, I would get anxiety and panic attacks and I wouldn’t want to look at my phone/laptop or even leave my room. Even if 90% of people say incredible things about you, the 10% who target you with hate speech do pinch you. But I have learned to look past all of it because you shouldn’t let “someone’s opinion of you become your reality”. Hence, I am soon launching a campaign against cyber bullying, because let’s face it – it’s become a real problem that needs to be addressed.

What is the most fun you’ve had with trolls on twitter?

I think when I responded to that guy’s comment about “maid girl”.

Tell us about this new UN women project?

The UN Women Pakistan project is a response to the proposed bill that allows a husband to “beat his wife lightly”. The campaign invites men to come and beat them, but at things they’re good at. What this goes to show is that “beating” shouldn’t only be synonymous to abuse, but “beating” can be taken as constructive competition and a man shouldn’t try to prove his superiority by violence. Women are open to men trying to compete with them in a positive way, instead of showing their power in the form of abuse. The campaign further shows that there are things though that men can never beat women them at, such as bringing new life into this world. The concluding message is that women are no less than men and are ready to have them compete with them, but if men try and resort to abuse, women will prove to them that nothing can break their resolve and as women, they are “UNbeatable”.

You have become hugely influential in a very short time. How do you intend to use your newly gained influence to create awareness about issues close to you? What are these issues?

I think the biggest issue in our country is the social narrative. I would try, in all my power, to help and contribute to bring about a change in it. I am soon launching a campaign against cyber bullying, and I’m working on educational initiatives in rural areas. Also, as you mentioned, I am aware that I have become very influential among the youth – hence I try my best to make sure I set the right example for people, especially girls, who look up to me in any way or form.

Who are your role models in life and why?

Both my parents are my role models. My father married my mother when she was still in Medical School, and he was her #1 cheerleader in pushing her to pursue her ambitions and he did all that was in his power to facilitate her at every step. My mother and my father, both being very busy professionals, never neglected their children and made sure to spend every moment at hand to spend with us. My father made sure he instilled more confidence in me than he did even in my brothers because he wanted to prepare me for the world I would have to face in my later years. I have never seen either of my parents raise their voices or be disrespectful to each other. In my household, my mother’s opinion matters as much as that of my father, thus teaching us gender equality and mutual respect. Both my parents are self-made, driven to service, and give back to the community at every chance they get.

Your thoughts on Trump winning the US election?

Now that there’s nothing anyone can do about it, we just need to wait and watch how the next 4 years unfold. But I would like to add, after hearing what the Mayor of NYC had to say, I would like to believe that one positive outcome of this election is that people are coming together to support and stand-up for each other and against hate crimes and discrimination.