For Momina Mustehsan, there is such a thing as a second chance at a first impression.
The Stony Brook 40 Under Forty honoree, who graduated with a dual major in biomedical engineering and applied mathematics, burst onto the music scene in her native Pakistan two years ago on the country’s popular Coke Studio program.
As one of several performances on the show, which pairs established and emerging artists for live studio-recorded performances, Mustehsan teamed with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to perform “Afreen Afreen,” which had been a hit for Khan’s uncle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The performance became the fastest Pakistani-origin video ever to reach 100 million views on YouTube, and has been viewed more than 212 million times as of November 2018.
Now, after taking a break from music to focus on activism — largely centered around her studies at Stony Brook and encouraging more girls and young women to pursue the sciences — Mustehsan is launching her music career in earnest. Her debut single, “Aaya Na Tu” — a duet with Indian singer Arjun Kanungo — was released on June 19, and has been viewed more than 46 million times since its release.
Even as she pushes ahead with her musical career, though — including three performances on the 11th season of Coke Studio Pakistan –– Mustehsan continues to make activism a major part of her life. In May, she opened up to fans about the universality of mental health challenges in a widely publicized post for her 1.7 million Instagram followers. Her Twitter bio — “BBC 100 Women 2017, SBU 40 Under 40, Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2018” — reflects her priorities, along with the place Stony Brook continues to hold in her heart.
Let’s start with your new song: where does this fit in with where you are right now as an artist?
This was actually my first single. I hadn’t put out singles before this; I had featured on Coke Studio, but none of it was a proper music video or a single.
I wanted to wait. My musical journey started in college, but then, I never wanted to turn it into a career, and after Coke Studio, there was a lot of focus on how I looked instead of the skill that I was trying to showcase on that show, which was singing. That made me really uncomfortable — I wanted to be known as a person first, and not just an entertainer. Up until now, I have been working really hard to be recognized as somebody who’s not just a musician, but as somebody who has an opinion, has a personality, has a brain and who is trying to make a difference, so that I’m taken seriously because of all the other things I do, even as an engineer. I deliver guest lectures at different schools, talking to them, sharing my research, even projects that I worked on at Stony Brook.
For people to take me seriously, I have to establish my credibility in other fields. I’m very grateful that the BBC recognized me, and more recently Forbes and Stony Brook as well.
Now, with that in place, I thought that it was a time when I could put out music, because I am a musician and I do love making music. I collaborated with Universal Music Group. They had been getting in touch with me for the past few years, and I would just keep telling them that I’m not ready. I really appreciate the fact that they understood where I was coming from, and then they came back again and said, “Do you want to do something now?”
They introduced me to Arjun, who’s Indian, and we worked on the song together, and then we all flew to Bangkok to shoot the music video for the song. I can’t really go to India, and he couldn’t really come to Pakistan, and there are a lot of people involved in the project.
How does that come together, anyway? An Indian singer and a Pakistani singer recording a duet seems kind of unlikely.
I’ve never looked at India as a different market or a different set of people, because I believe that we have so much in common. Urdu and Hindi are different, but essentially, they’re like Ukrainian and Russian; you understand it. We look similar, we eat almost the same food, we were the same country and we’re neighbors. There are political differences, but I think in terms of people-to-people sentiment, we just take each other as people.
Being an artist, you have to be very responsible and careful, knowing that you’re somebody who people listen to or look up to. You have to set the right example, so for me to collaborate with an Indian artist, I think that was my way of saying we’re the same people, and where there’s creativity, it can bridge any gap. Being a creative person, I think it is our job to bridge those gaps that have been created by political situations. Music transcends boundaries and borders, so that’s one way of promoting peace in the region: by collaborating with each other.
So you went to Thailand to shoot the video, and you play a character in the video. What was that like for you, as opposed to singing on camera with a band on Coke Studio?
The camera has always made me very awkward. I wanted to study, because you shouldn’t venture into any field without having the right equipment or skill set. I decided to go to film school first and learn a thing or two, because I do have to face the camera a lot.
When I went to shoot this music video, I was fortunate to have a great team that set the vibe right, made me feel comfortable and made it OK to make mistakes. When you know that everyone around is encouraging you and cheering you on, I think that really helps. All you need is a little push, and everything else falls into place.
Initially, I was a little concerned about playing the character, but I worked with the team, and we had a lot of back-and-forth. We worked on the storyboard and changed a few things, because I’m pretty conservative in the way that I dress and what I’m doing on screen.
There’s a part where I’m crying, and those are real tears. There were no artificial tears. The director explained the situation to me, and he said, “You’re leaving the person you really loved. How are you going to feel?” I said, “OK, I’m ready. Give me five minutes.”
I tried to depict my real emotion, because with anything I do, especially when it comes to creative expression, I like being really honest with it. I really like trying to relate to it and actually being in that situation, because when it comes to music, you are trying to reach out to people’s emotions. You can’t touch other people’s emotions until and unless you are feeling the same thing. They won’t be able to feel it unless you’re feeling it, so you have to actually be that character, be in that moment and mean whatever you’re depicting. That’s what I tried to do.
You talk about it being a single, and we’re in a place with music right now where singles don’t have to be attached to a larger album, because a lot of times, that’s not how people are listening to music anyway.
Social media is a blessing and also a challenge. With music, you need to give audiences enough time to digest your work, because there’s so much readily available to them, and all they need to do is scroll away. For you to put out an album that comprises at least six or seven songs, I think that’s a waste of your creative expression. A lot of times, people might overlook your other work, because you’re giving them way too much at one time. That’s why I think people are coming out more with singles than albums.
Also, before, people were consuming music in a way that was physical. You had tapes and CDs and all of that stuff. Now, you don’t have that. You download individual tracks. Back in the day, it made more sense to give people more of you, because they’re not going to buy a record with just one song on it. You had to give them a larger collection to listen to. Now, it’s smarter to release singles.
You mentioned taking a break from music between Coke Studio and releasing this song, and some of that goes back to what your Twitter bio had been: “Engineer. Mathematician. Social Activist. Musician.” What exactly had you been working on between Coke Studio and this?
Between Coke Studio and this, my engineering work has kind of taken a backseat for now, because I’m so involved with other projects related to social activism. I think that is the thing that is needed the most in Pakistan right now. You don’t have many young people who are in the public eye or have an impactful platform. Knowing that, I think you have to prioritize your time. I feel that right now, what’s needed the most in that region is somebody who can shed light on topics of importance.
In terms of my engineering, I use that a lot in my motivational speaking, because even in the U.S., even at Stony Brook, you don’t have nearly as many women in engineering as men, and in Pakistan, the situation is much worse. People need an example, a precedent, to be able to say, “this person has done this or that.”
I’m working on a program called “iCity” for girls in Pakistan, with the government. What we’re doing is setting up these institutes all over Pakistan to equip girls with programming and coding skills. These women, who might not be allowed to leave their houses otherwise, are given the skill set so that they can stay in their houses if they can’t get out, but still want to be contributing members of society. The internet has made the world such a small place, and you can be in the comfort of your house and achieve anything. The sky is not the limit.
I go and I talk to these girls, because I’ve also studied programming, and we have these interactive sessions and they speak about why they love what they love, what they want to do, and it’s an inclusive thing. We tell all these girls that they don’t need to be defined by any labels. They can be programmers, and they can also be great musicians and they can also be great cooks if they want to be. They can be great homemakers; they can be whatever they want to be. They don’t need to be restricted by any label at all, and they don’t need to be restricted to one field.
In general, I speak about empowering women, health care, education and mental health. I like using my own examples to raise awareness about mental health, because everyone goes through something at some point in their lives, and I feel that social media has made it harder for people. Anyone going through anything goes on social media and sees people living a perfect life, even though nobody is living a perfect life. Nobody wants to highlight the imperfections.
You did highlight them, though, back in May in a post on Instagram. To be able to share that…
It was hard. It was really, really hard, but I felt like it was my responsibility and my duty to share that. A lot of people think that being famous is the solution to everything, or the number of likes or followers you get makes things better. But it means nothing at the end of the day, when you yourself are not okay, when you wake up in the morning and you feel like nothing in your life is in your control. Millions of followers don’t help you with that at all. What helps you is yourself, and I try to talk about it, that the change lies within yourself. You might look at my stuff and think, “What a life,” but even though I have things that you might want, you may have things that I might want. This is how life is, this is how humans are and it’s completely OK.
A lot of my friends reached out and told me that they didn’t think it was a good idea for me to make myself so vulnerable, but I told them that I can’t claim to be somebody who’s a social activist or wants to make a difference and not be vulnerable. It doesn’t make sense. Either you’re all in or you’re all out. Be dedicated to whatever cause you’ve picked, be it social work or music or anything else.
Any of my music projects, I put a lot of time and effort into it, even at times when I don’t really have to. A lot of times in the music industry, the way that it works is that someone says, “Here’s a track. Sing it, and we’ll take care of everything else.” That doesn’t satisfy me. I like being part of the whole process, so that I know that it is a part of me that I’m putting out. With any project in life — an engineering project, a doctor performing surgery on a patient — you have to really be dedicated to your craft.
We talked a bit about your old Twitter bio; let’s look at the new one: “BBC 100 Women 2017, SBU 40 Under 40, Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2018.” To see Stony Brook’s 40 Under Forty in between these honors from the BBC and Forbes, I imagine that says a lot about what Stony Brook means to you.
Stony Brook means everything to me. I have things up in my home from my dorm at Stony Brook, because that was really the only time I was in one place for long. That’s essentially where I grew up. All of my professors and my experiences at Stony Brook shaped the person I am today. Stony Brook helped me find my voice.
I actually started off as a biology major. When I looked at all the things that Stony Brook had to offer, that’s when I stumbled on biomedical engineering, and it’s a major that not a lot of schools offered at that point. Also, the diversified education curriculum played such a key role in who I am today. Because of that, I had to take classes in philosophy, economics, theater, Hindu mythology, European history, all of these things, and I think it made me a more well-rounded person, more aware of my surroundings and more of a global citizen. In all of my travels, I think my Stony Brook education really helped me, because it gave me a snapshot of the world, and the diverse student body at Stony Brook made me more sensitive to other cultures and exposed me to how different people approach different things in life. Because I got to live with people of so many different ethnicities, I learned a great deal, and it made me more sensitive, respectful and appreciative of other cultures. Stony Brook wasn’t just an educational experience; it was an experience that shaped me into the person I am today, academically, socially and every other way.
When you look back on that experience, what are some of your favorite memories from Stony Brook?
There was a research proposal I had to write for a microfluidics class for [director of the undergraduate program in biomedical engineering] Molly Frame. I really admired her and learned a lot from her. She wanted us to write a grant for proposed research in microfluidics. I thought about it, and I worked with my other professor for bioimaging, and I thought about designing this study of cancer metastasis using green fluorescent proteins and quantum dots, to study if a primary tumor does essentially form a second tumor, and if it does, how long does it take. How do cancer cells travel through the lymph channel, and what else is there in the fluid profile? It challenged me to think about all these things.
I presented this research proposal at a medical school in Pakistan. I shared it with the students so that if they wanted to further the research, they could take my paper and I would give them the funding to go ahead with it.
I also loved the study abroad I went on in Italy. When I got there, I didn’t know anyone from the program. I met all of them there, and I became such good friends with them. We actually hung out last week in Brooklyn.
Stony Brook also taught me how to manage my own time. I learned how to do laundry at Stony Brook. I learned how to be an adult. When you start college, you’re a kid, and I had always been a protected kid, and then suddenly I was at Stony Brook, and I think it gave me the perfect in environment to have freedom but still be protected.
I also founded the Pakistani Student Association, and I would make sure that PSA took part in all of the multicultural nights on campus, so that we could shed light on how Pakistan is, so that people on campus could have a better understanding of the country and what is similar between Pakistan and the U.S. I love cooking, so I would bring in a lot of Pakistani food and Pakistani snacks, and I also gave a presentation on Pakistan as a country. I quizzed people about what they thought. They were surprised to learn that the official language is English, and that we have more women in government than the U.S. and that we’ve twice elected a female head of state.
The perception of Pakistan is that we’re a country that does not believe in female empowerment. That is not true. We do believe in female empowerment, and we do value our women, but it’s just that with every society, it’s a journey. Empowering women is global need, not just restricted to one country. Nobody has it all figured out, and it’s OK to not have it all figured out. It’s generations that come after one another that shape the cultural narratives.