‘The power to move the soul’



TWO stand-out musical moments of 2016 were stunning duets Afreen Afreen and Tera Woh Pyar on popular music series Coke Studio, both featuring rapidly rising star Momina Mustehsan. Collectively, the songs have clocked up more than 145 million views on YouTube and shown strikingly beautiful star Momina as one of the shining lights of Pakistani music.

The exciting newcomer has received acclaim from all over the world for her amazing vocal delivery and has since delivered more superb songs including standout turns on the latest season of Coke Studio.

The singer/songwriter has also shone in Bollywood and won admiration for speaking publicly about issues including depression and cyber bullying. Eastern Eye caught up with hot right now singer Momina to talk about her musical journey, inspirations, social issues, mental health, future hopes and more.

What first got you connected to music?

Music is something within each one of us and I believe everyone connects with it regardless of the language of the words of a song. Music is rhythm and all our hearts beat with a rhythm.

Who were your biggest musical influences when growing up?

I used to love listening to Avril Lavigne, Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin. And I think my first crush was Aaron Carter. (Laughs) Please don’t judge me because I judge myself for it now. But on a serious note, I used to always hear my parents sing or listen to Mehdi Hassan sahab and the likes.

What has been the highlight of your musical journey so far?

Coke Studio 9. The three songs that I did that season have well over 150 million views combined, and Coke Studio completed a total of 300 million before season 10. For me personally, that’s huge.

What has the whole Coke Studio experience been like?

It has been an experience of a lifetime to be honest. It’s been a crazy journey. I had decided to turn down season nine several times before finally finding the courage to go for it. When I first went to Coke Studio, I was very shy and not so confident about my music. Each and every person there helped and guided me and made me into the person that I am today. I owe it to them for taking me seriously, and being very well established musicians, they took my opinions into consideration at every step. That’s a huge deal. Season 9 also had a song that I wrote myself and composed with Noori and I also got to play a guitar solo.

You have delivered some stunning duets. Who has been your favourite singer to duet with?

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. I had always wanted to listen to him live, but somehow I never could.  Either I’d have exams or the show would be sold out. Getting to sing a duet with him allowed me to hear him sing live for the first time and it was awesome!

Did you expect your song with him, Afreen Afreen, to be such a monster hit?

I did not, at all. I thought it might get a little attention and then life would resume as normal. But of course, that’s not what happened. It was a little hard to deal with it initially since I wasn’t expecting to suddenly be in the limelight, but I eventually learned to deal with the good and bad that come with attention.

What was the experience of singing with newcomer Danyal Zafar on the latest series of Coke Studio and how does he compare to his famous elder brother Ali Zafar?

I got introduced to Danyal two years ago through his brother, and funnily enough, we were asked to sing together and that was our first interaction. That’s why having him debut with me was pretty awesome and a funny coincidence. He is a phenomenal musician. Even the originals he wrote several years ago reflect maturity and musical intricacy. Comparing him and his brother is not very fair. Yes, they look and have a similar tone, but Danyal’s music is totally different. Watch out for it.

Musically what can we expect next from you?

I will be working to put out some of my original things. Some that I wrote years ago and others that I’m in the process of writing.

Who would you love to collaborate with in the future?

The honest answer is Zayn Malik. Is he not the cutest? Yeah, that’s never happening, but a girl can dream, right?

You have been vocal about various social issues. Which is closest to your heart?

They’re all very close to me. Women’s empowerment; half the population of the world is female. They deserve to be given equal respect and opportunities. Cyber bullying is a vicious cycle. According to statistics, more than a third of youngsters experience it – does that mean there are only a quarter who are bullies? The people who get bullied online sometimes resort to bullying others to let their frustration out and it carries on. That cycle needs to be broken. Mental illnesses is another issue we need to talk about more openly. Dialogue helps create awareness and support.

You spoke about depression and cyber bullying. Why do you feel strongly about these issues?

Because I have been a victim of both, battled them and come out stronger. I know exactly how it feels. Being a public figure, there are those who look up to me in some way or the other. And it is my duty to be a positive influence on them and help them wherever and however I can, especially with my own experiences.

What more do you think needs to be done to create awareness about mental health? Dialogue. Why not talk about these things openly?

If we all share our experiences, maybe our voices reach to those who are currently suffering.  It might help them in more ways than we can think. It can erase the stigma around mental illnesses. It’s ok to feel unwell emotionally, because it can be fixed if you try hard enough. It’s part of being human.

What are your big passions away from music?

I’m an engineer and mathematician by profession. I love building and creating. I’m also an advocate of education, youth empowerment, sports and improving healthcare. I enjoy travelling and exploring new places. (Laughs) I like to claim I’m a good cook. And I’m awesome at procrastinating sometimes, among other things.

What music dominates your personal playlist?

Please don’t judge me, but I literally don’t have a playlist. I usually listen to whatever my friends listen to, or put on a random playlist on Soundcloud.

What would you change about the music industry in Pakistan?

I would want there to be more females. The women in this country are equally talented as the men. But women in this field are looked down on in our society. That shouldn’t be the case, because frankly, what’s wrong in making music?

If you could learn a new instrument what would it be?

 The cello. It has so much soul.

If you could ask any living or dead singer a question, who would you ask and what?

Nazia Hassan. I would ask her what it was like to be such an icon, being a female, in an era when hardly any woman could dare enter this field? How strong was the pressure and how did she deal with it?

What is the best advice you ever got?

My dad said to me that if you think that what you’re doing is right, stick to it. It doesn’t matter what others say, because they’re going to have a problem regardless.

What does performing live mean to you?

It means so much! I used to do gigs at my school and college all the time. I haven’t performed live ever since my music came into the spotlight, in the fear of being objectified since there was so much emphasis put on my looks after Afreen. It’s just a feeling. I hope I get over it because singing live is everything for a musician. Having people sing back to you the words you wrote in isolation, seeing them relate to your music. It’s incredible.

What are your hopes for Pakistani music?

I would want music channels to come back, just like they were in the early 2000s. Having top chart shows and interviews with live callers. That was the real thrill.

What inspires you today?

Everything. My own journey inspires me, because there was a point in my life when I didn’t love myself at all. I battled depression and anxiety and so much more. But here I am. Strong, happy, confident and empowered. I wish the same for everyone and I aspire to play whatever part I can to make that happen.

Why do you love music?

As clichéd as it sounds, it’s food for the soul. It has the power to move you emotionally