I discover why his parents have never heard him sing.
Meeting Mohammed Muneem
I meet Mohammed Muneem on the terrace of the 101India bungalow. It's a bad place for an interview: exposed and baking hot. As we shake hands, my sweaty fingers stick to his.
The view is unlike anything I've seen at home in Los Angeles, or at college in New Jersey. Women walk below us in brightly-coloured saris, dodging street dogs and ducking under strings of clothes hanging out to dry. I'm on Indian soil, but the man standing before me looks like he belongs in Brooklyn.
The beard is the first thing I notice. Jet black and slightly unruly, it creeps up along his sideburns into what might have once been a fade. Today, though, his hair is tousled without any discernible intent. But Muneem isn't here in Mumbai to stay groomed. He's been living at the 101India office for two days to put the finishing touches on his new music video, a collaboration with MC Kash called “Like A Sufi.” He hasn't slept in 52 hours.
For Muneem, front man for the Sufi ethnic rock band Alif, his upcoming single is merely the latest step in what has been a long and winding musical journey. From the mountains of Kashmir and an MBA program in Pune to collaborations with fellow Kashmiri artist Kash, he has emerged as a dynamic artist determined to empower his audiences with a message of self-love rooted in the language of his homeland.
India’s first Sufi-rap, performed by Sufi band Alif and hip-hop artist MC Kash
A Kashmiri Childhood
Growing up in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, Muneem’s childhood was marked by its proximity to conflict. His parents prioritized their children’s safety and education above all else, leaving little time for artistic endeavors. Nonetheless, he was drawn to poetry, and began to write his own Urdu verses. Muneem’s uncle, a local radio jockey, introduced him to the music of Queen and Michael Jackson through a program called Sunday Request.
“It was incredible to listen to that kind of sound,” he remembers, “because it was absolutely different from Bollywood—and Bollywood was all that we used to hear.” Every Sunday, Muneem would wait impatiently for the program to begin, then sit spellbound for its duration.
During the week, he sat and watched his mother do chores around the house. She hummed and sang as she folded the laundry or washed the dishes. Whatever she sang, Muneem recalls, would always be pitch-perfect. He would go quiet, listening and pretending not to notice, because whenever she caught him watching, the song would stop. “Maybe I got it from her,” he laughed.
That entranced little kid in him still exists—he waxes eloquent under the Mumbai sun about the power of music to connect and to inspire. As I wait patiently to ask another question, Muneem leaps from one subject to another: a soliloquy about Sufism, a tangent about Kashmir, and a long and drawn out analogy of how cats closing their eyes while they drink milk are like people shielding their eyes from beggars as they walk past.
When I listen to the recording of our interview for a second time, I realize that Muneem's gift doesn't lie in the words he says: it's how he says them. Every phrase, story, and a side glimmers with passion.
He's needed every ounce of it to sustain himself for the past nine years. Though he’s looking for work in Mumbai, he can’t currently afford the rent. When he’s not living in between Kashmir and Pune, he’s living out of (and sleeping in) his black Alto. Sometimes, Kash crashes with him.
The Musician's Life
But, just owning the Maruti represents a triumph in and of itself. Muneem didn’t have money to pay for transportation when he first began taking music lessons. He walked 4 hours each way, nearly the breadth of Pune, to save money to pay his teacher for the better part of a year. He remembers concerts and gigs when people walked away as he sang, leaving him playing to no one. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that many Mumbai landlords refuse to rent to a Kashmiri tenant. Political tensions intrude onto his personal life. “It’s really difficult to find a house being a Muslim man, being from Kashmir” Muneem explains. “It’s a little tricky.”
It certainly isn’t the steepest price he’s paid for his music. He shows me scars from an encounter with a disgruntled audience, unhappy with the message of his songs. The flesh is white, healed, but the marks on his hand and head are by no means small. “I was in ICU for three days because I performed a particular song that did not go well with a certain sect of people. So that gave me a perspective about how this music can reach to people,” Muneem says. The authorities didn’t bother to take his statement and, feeling unsafe in the neighborhood, he lived out of his car for two months while looking for another apartment.
Despite his clear interest in Kashmiri politics—over the course of our interview Muneem returns to the subject of his homeland time and time again—until recently his music didn’t reflect that particular passion. But his when he first heard Kash’s music, the 2010 track “Beneath the Sky,” which dealt directly with Kashmiri politics, it launched his career in a new direction. “I was doing music since 2005,” he said, “But I hadn’t shared my music with my Kashmir. So why couldn’t I do that?” He arranged to meet Kash and the two began to work together.
Muneem enthralled us with a live, acoustic rendition of his and MC Kash's new hit Sufi rap, Like A Sufi
It’s clear that Kash has inspired Muneem. His eyes light up when he talks about their musical collaboration. The two share a similar single-minded focus on their work—when Kash showed up to the 101India office to work on the video, he came in his pyjamas. They also marry a love for their homeland with an insistence on using Kashmiri lyrics. “What’s natural to me is my language. It’s very important—for me at least —to write in the language that you think. You have to feel it,” Muneem said.
“Like A Sufi” deals with a sense of loss. When several people that Kash and Muneem had taken for granted in their respective lives passed away, the two felt sorrow, but also guilt. The song aims to inspire people to connect with their loved ones in a mystic, Sufi sense. “We wanted to dedicate it to all the people we have lost in Kashmir,” Muneem said. “It’s a yearning thing, like when a lover says I’m coming to get you.”
He doesn’t say it, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that his shift to Kashmiri lyrics and Kashmir-centric music is in some ways an effort to reach out to his parents. His father is a career engineer. Neither his mother nor his father have ever heard him sing, and they never ask him about it his music. Still, he feels their support. “My parents made me be an engineer, made me take an MBA, so pursuing this…Of course it might be difficult for them,” he said. “But I cannot stop thanking them for—even if they do not listen to my music, they do not cut off terms with me. Just being there was a big support. Maybe silent, but they were there.”
Muneem often takes solace in the poetry of Rumi. Before he approved the track, he spent hours googling quotes from the Persian Sufi to include in the video. A neurotic perfectionist, he drove the director and his editors crazy by adding an extra line to the track at the last minute. While I am interviewing him, he constantly backtracks, searching for the perfect word to encapsulate his thoughts. The reason, he explained, was that he considered his music “his date with the world. When we share something with the world, we want it to be the best.”
Writing music, especially personal music, can be an intensely courageous act. Artists expose themselves to the world through their art and have to be prepared to accept the reaction, be it positive or negative. “It is humbling and beautiful to know that you can share something with the world that you built up from scratch,” Muneem said. He hopes it inspires people to follow their passions, no matter their age.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By William Gansa
Cover photo credit: Yash Bandi