Zeb Bangash aims to create awareness through her latest track 'Saaf Hawa', an ode to clean air

Sadiq Saleem speaks to the Coke Studio singer about her new project

Published: Fri 6 Jan 2023, 5:31 PM

It is always inspiring to see celebrities coming forward and playing their part in matters that impact the larger environment. Their contribution has lasting influence given their huge fan following and at many times such altruistic steps create a wider impact than envisioned.

One of the most effective ways of creating awareness is through music. From What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong to Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, music has been used as a great tool for climate activism. As South Asia has been declared the epicenter of the global air pollution crisis, Zeb Bangash has come up with a track called Saaf Hawa which is a heartfelt ode to clean air.

The Brooklyn-based-Pakistani singer and songwriter who has many accolades and popular songs to her credit including Chal Diye and Paimona from Coke Studio and Hone Do Batiyaan from the Bollywood film Fitoor, has come up with a track called Saaf Hawa in collaboration with the award-winning music director Shantanu Moitra, who has composed and produced the track.

City Times caught up with Zeb Bangash on her latest ode and how the social media platform supports the artists and the causes irrespective of the demography they represent.

In today’s age when good music has become such a rarity, do listeners really consider songs beyond their entertainment value?

Good songs are always being made. Songs can be used for really powerful messaging, and they can also be entertaining and extremely popular. People follow artists - like 30-40 years ago - not just for the music but also for what the artist represents. Sometimes artists may bring traditional learnings in their songs and music and that could also be a social consciousness, about taking a stand for a dying tradition. All kinds of music is available everywhere because of social media. This really is the age of freedom of expression and choice.

Can you share a song which according to you is most revolutionary one or has motivated you a lot?

There have been so many. There’s an interesting story about two songs though- in school I loved Gill Scott Heron’s The revolution will not be televised, and in college I loved a feminist perspective on the same song by the poet Sarah Jones called Your Revolution... There were several others. Shafqat Amanat Ali’s Yeh Hausla Kaise Ruke written by Mir Ali Hussain and recently a poem I co-composed and sang myself called Shaheen-o-Mahi by Allama Iqbal. The words were really uplifting. Also the Bengali classic Ekla Chalo Re by Tagore.

Do you think that the South Asian artist community is speaking or doing enough to create awareness about the major risks that lie ahead of us?

I wonder how they can speak about it- artists make art, that’s what they’re doing. Some artists speak well or express themselves in other ways and that’s fine but to put the onus of creating awareness on artists doesn’t seem right to me. The real onus lies on the distributors, sponsors and curators of art and music. They can support artists that are making socially conscious work and help it reach wider audiences to create awareness.

Also, in my humble opinion the artists community has always been very sensitive to the environment around them and steps and movements have been created by them. These efforts haven’t been wholly supported and global issues remain local. That’s why the Saaf Hawa project was interesting and unique.

Speaking of Saaf Hawa, can you share how the beautiful collaboration came about?

A few years ago, I had performed in New York at the UN’s International Eid event. I was approached by Shazia Rafi after the performance who was also aware of my Brooklyn-based band Sandaraa. She presented her idea of making a song on clean air and it was so inspiring that I jumped on board instantly. Over the years this issue became very close to me also. Unfortunately I have seen my city Lahore getting polluted every year and the situation at the moment is nothing less than disastrous. The song had to be a South Asian collaboration because we represent 40 plus of the top 50 most polluted cities in terms of air on the planet. Just when we were ready to reach out and get the song going, Covid happened. It wasn’t till last year that Shantanu Moitra, a huge environmental activist, and lover of nature came on board, and after finishing his project Ganga early this year composed the beautiful poem on Saaf Hawa written by Mir Hussain Ali. We also got the opportunity to get the brilliant Layth Siddiq to feature on the track.

You have collaborated with Indian artists in the past. Do you see that the current bans are restricting the markets and reach of the artist? How do you balance the national and personal interest when it comes to collaboration?

That’s an excellent question. Thanks to social media the reach is not impacted by bans; our fan bases across the borders continue to increase. As for identity, after working internationally for over a decade, I’ve realized that what you represent changes with the context; sometimes I am seen as a Pakistani, sometimes a South Asian, sometimes a Muslim, sometimes a woman and sometimes a Pukhtoon and much more. I am all these things and I represent them all but as an artist these labels don’t limit you. They don’t exist when you create work or when audiences listen to your work and it touches them. I’m proud and happy to be who I am and lucky that I have the privilege of working beyond borders drawn on the map.

Last, they say heartbreak makes you a better singer. Is that true? Or is that a myth.

Absolutely true for me. Always. Heartbreak, sadness, loss, failure, all of it! One is closest to one’s true feelings when one is in pain - that makes for songs and singing with feel and great expression. The best part is you also get healed in the process, its cathartic. I think that’s one reason I can’t ever think of giving music up.

Sadiq Saleem is a UAE based entertainment writer. He can be contacted on his Instagram @Sadiqidas.

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