World View: Meet the Rising Stars of Karachi’s Fraught Yet Fertile Creative Scene

From the Forever South electronic beats collective to author Shazaf Fatima Haider, discover five young voices rising above the chaos of Pakistan’s port city.

July 17, 2014

In the World View column, Ruth Saxelby zooms in on cities off the beaten track to highlight rising talent in the realms of music, art, film, literature and photography.

In chatting over email with the rising stars of Karachi's vibrant music, art and literature scenes for this feature, a theme very quickly emerged: it's a city like no other, blighted by violence yet full of kind and creative hearts. The densely-populated Pakistan port has over 23.5 million residents and is a center of commerce and industry, despite its ugly underbelly. "Karachi has one of the highest murder rates among the world’s major metropolises, and is overrun with local powerbrokers and militant groups playing out their turf battles," writes journalist Ahmer Naqvi in his excellent feature on Karachi's underground music scene. Rising above the noise are Karachi's Forever South music collective, which I first heard about in early 2013 via a young Pakistani writer that I was in touch with over Twitter. She recommended the intricate melodies of Forever South co-founder Dynoman and I was hooked from the first note. Haamid Rahim, the man behind the Dynoman moniker, put me in touch with illustrator Samya Arif—who does much of the collective's artwork—and young filmmaker Hamza Bangash, whose thrilling debut short, Badal, was picked up by Cannes this year (watch the trailer below).

In turn, it was Bangash who linked me with photographer Khaula Jamil, who took the above photo of her city and is involved in daily resistance to its international image: "I consider it my duty to show to the world the alternative narratives that exist in this city, which is regarded as the most violent place on earth," she writes. For the final of the five creatives I spoke to for this edition of World View, I have Naqvi to thank for the introduction to the author Shazaf Fatima Haider, who has been setting the Karachi literary scene alight with her arranged marriage satire, How It Happened. As ever, I am grateful to all the featured artists for this small window into Karachi's fertile creative scene that continues to flourish amidst the fallout of violence.

Meet the music collective bringing a different beat to the city

Left to right: Bilal Nasir Khan, their friend Zayd, Haamid Rahim.

In a scene dominated by multiple permutations of rock and pop, it's little wonder that a new generation of musicians in Karachi are intent on carving out a space outside of those long-established forms. "It's hard for me to specify what I do in the realm of music, but I love making beats," says Bilal Nasir Khan, co-founder of the Forever South (FXS) collective, locally known as FXS, which has grown swiftly since it began in 2012. "Those beats sometimes turn into different genres—I'm just constantly trying out new sounds to see what I love the most, but at this point, it's all too good to not be doing it." Both a network and a label, the FXS sound calls out to the global beats scene—from the freewheeling spirit of LA to the moody tones of London—while drawing on Pakistan's rich history of traditional music. Khan and fellow FXS founder Haamid Rahim, who record as Rudoh and Dynoman, respectively, both initially played in local bands on the underground scene before moving toward beats. "My dad would show me old rock tunes and I always had a strong affinity toward music," Rahim says. "I expressed interest in the guitar when I was around 14, and formed a band shortly after. I have been honing my musicianship ever since." Khan was in a band called Mole and spent time with the producer Dalt Wisney, and views the experience as a formative one: "It was us peeps just hanging around doing music and learning new things." He went on briefly to form an electronic collective called Karachi Detour Rampage. "I was making my first few tracks under the Dynoman handle at the time, so I sent him some to be on the collective, and that's how we got to talking," says Rahim. "The following year, we started FXS."

On working in Karachi: Haamid Rahim: Karachi is a city that repeatedly puts you through phases of good times and bad times. If you wish to learn a skill, or further a skill you think you already have, Karachi is a great place to be. There is not too much to do here in terms of entertainment, so learning about music, producing and practicing is very easy. Karachi has its quirks that show through in my work. I find inspiration in experiences I have had in the city, as it is very colorful and diverse. These experiences can be visiting an electronics market trying to find some music gear, or going to a fruit market to pick out the right mango. With the right attitude, Karachi is a great place to be, but if you have some high expectations while living here, your experience could be different.

Bilal Nasir Khan: Maaaaan, that’s a complicated question for a very complicated city. It's difficult to understand or even explain. It has its days of amazing times and days of absolute boredom and unproductivity. People’s lives move very slowly in Karachi, which is why everyone there is so mellow, but then again, it has its fair share of violence lurking around. Living here, we’re constantly riding these two waves at some point or another—for every two bad trips you might go through, there’s one good trip to make up for it. I think the key aspect is that you’re close to your friends and family, and from time to time, that sorta makes up for all the shitty bits. Karachi is inspiration in many ways. It's a city full of struggle, and when a nation struggles, it brings people together, and that aspect of the city is wonderful. Everyone is very warm-hearted, kind, and ever-willing to help. That kind of positive energy lightens your mood in a way that I have not experienced anywhere else. And let's not forget about the absolutely gorgeous skies and beaches :).

On a career defining moment: Khan: There have been two defining moments. The first was when I met Nawksh and Dalt Wisney years ago; that was when I started making music. Then, later on, the most significant step was definitely going to SAE Institute in London. I did audio engineering for two years and hopped around in clubs all over London, listening to some of London’s finest. I had the best time of my life doing that. It was the best learning experience I could’ve asked for.

Rahim: Last year in September, it was really cool because the Berlin-based outfit Gebrüder Teichmann and Gerriet Schultz came for a visit to Karachi and happened to be there at the same time I was hosting a show with FXS. They played in our show, which was an amazing surprise for our audience. A few days later, I got invited by them to perform a set at Worldtronics 2013 in Berlin, which was also an amazing experience.

On what's next for them: Rahim: I am currently finishing up an EP titled Travels to Janaicah: Cheebay's Imagination. It is the first part in a series of albums I wish to release. I am really excited because I have been working on this concept album for over a year. I released a single from the album that you can check out here Khan: At the moment, I’m working on a remix for one of Dynoman’s new EP. Other than that, I’ve been working on [my own] EP for a year now, should be done in a few months. Rahim: As for Forever South, we just released FXS: Volume 2, and are planning the release dates for our upcoming EP releases.

A taste for escape runs through the work of this rising illustrator

"Each album cover I make has a bit of my soul in it," says illustrator and Forever South's resident arts guru Samya Arif. "I thoroughly enjoy the entire process of dissecting music for art—it's surreal." There's a fantastical element to Arif's work, forms and lines that recall the psychedelic rock posters of the '60s and '70s yet relocated in a space-age setting. It was being surrounded by "really gifted and passionate musician friends" that pulled her into that world. Lahore producer Talha Asim Wynne, who records as Toll Crane and has just been selected for RBMA Tokyo, asked her to provide some illustrations for his debut release. "It was well received, and suddenly quite a few of my friends were interested in getting their album art done," says Arif. The artist says she has been "painting and drawing pretty much since I could hold a pencil." Her parents encouraged her early artistic streak: "We lived in Spain at the time, and they believed growing up in Picasso's birth city had certain influences on me." When the family moved back to Karachi, she would go on to attend the city's Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, studying Communication Design and Photography. She graduated in 2010, and now works at the school as an assistant professor in Graphic Design and Typography, alongside her extensive freelance work—for which the new music spewing forth from the FXS crew continues to feed her imagination: "I'm obviously greatly inspired to be making art for it," she says. "It's amazing that the scene has finally broadened here, even if it's a small indie niche."

On working in Karachi: It's no secret that Karachi is a crazy and volatile city to live in, and at times it can get real shitty, but if you've grown up here it's also impossible not to fall in love with its grittiness and unpredictable mood-swings. You grow to find your niche and acquire solace in its stunning sunsets and quiet beach spots. In a way, not having many outlets within the city also gives you ample time to focus on your passions, but I do wish things would get chiller and people would become more tolerant and open-minded. Perhaps that's why I'm more inclined toward surrealism, fantasy and sci-fi—it's a means of escape to a world I'm allowed to shape.

Samya Arif's album cover for Karachi act Alien Panda Jury.

On a career-defining moment: I think it's more of an on-going process, at least in my case. I remember as a teenager, I had a very definitive idea of where I had to be or what I had to achieve by the time I was 28, and I'm nowhere near to most of those expectations. But I'm beginning to realize that's alright; as different paths come along my way and as long as I'm genuinely passionate and moved enough to create something artistic most days, then good things will follow naturally. I'm also generally a very sensitive person, so each day or week things occurring in my environment are affecting and changing me and my work.

On what's next for her: Currently, I'm finishing an album cover for the wonderful Mekaal Hasan Band, which is set to release in India and Pakistan sometime late July. I'm also working on opening an illustration agency with a very talented friend, hopefully in the span of two or three months, which will be the first of its kind in Pakistan. Other than that, I've been working on a collage collection, which I'm planning to exhibit sometime this year with 400 used lighters, with which I have yet to figure out what to do.

Film as a force for change is the motto of this young, Cannes-backed filmmaker

"I love telling stories that challenge people’s preconceptions," says 23-year-old filmmaker Hamza Bangash. "Subvert what they believe to be true by showing the reality of the situation. For example, one of my favorite themes [is] modern-day feminism in Karachi." His debut short is called Badal—watch the trailer below, featuring a score by FXS's Haamid Rahim—a coming-of-age story about three high school girls in Karachi who decide to experiment with drugs before they graduate and go their separate ways. "The idea came from my co-writer and I being tired of the representation of Pakistani women in mainstream media," explains Bangash. "You’ve either got your Malala’s or your Benazir’s, but there’s no visual [representation] of a girl who is neither a hero nor a victim—simply a young woman who makes her own choices and and is responsible for her own actions." His interest in feminism stems from his family of strong women: "I've always been interested in how they balance Islamic beliefs and fiercely feminist teachings," he says. "It's great for me to see those co-existing in the same sphere." Since wrapping last winter, Badal has been picked up by Cannes, Kingston Canadian Film Festival and Palm Springs International ShortFest, and will be released internationally in September. Bangash got into film via a job in a theater: "I kind of hated that once curtains closed, the performance was done—no one would ever get to watch it again. That’s when I started gravitating towards film." He interned at a local production house and quickly "realized that the only way to be a filmmaker is to make your own movies." He's spent the last four years studying in Kingston, Ontario but, having recently graduated, will return to Karachi just in time for the premiere of Badal this fall. "Film can be a force for change," believes Bangash. "It has the ability to bring people together in an international sense that other art forms often struggle to do."

On working in Karachi: Karachi’s hot. It’s like living in a frying pan that’s always trying to spit burning hot oil on you. There’s a lot of tension between political parties, ethnicities, and classes. I mean, when I was a kid living in Canada, school would get cancelled because of a snow day—in Karachi our "snow days" became ethnic fighting and political protests that usually ended in violence. It inspires me because despite it all, you have individuals who are trying to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. I think it’s the perseverance of the people of Karachi that inspires me—the ability to go on with your day despite the constant threat of violence.

On a career-defining moment: Getting an email from a young filmmaker a month ago, with her asking to intern for me. It was bizarre and flattering at the same time.

On what's next for him: I’m currently working on a few projects: editing a short film that I made this last winter about date-rape culture, and getting ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign for my first feature-length documentary on Karachi. The documentary will follow artists, entrepreneurs, atheletes, chefs—the cultural heart of the city—and show how living through violence affects their work. I’m hoping to launch it in early July. As for Badal, I’m releasing it in September. The film has been really good to me, and I can’t wait to share it with my audience.

The Humans of Karachi photographer documents the small moments that tell a bigger picture

"Photographs essentially become visual documentation and a shared memory," says photographer Khaula Jamil. "This concept is what Avishai Margalit, in his book, Ethics of Memory, would call becoming a 'moral witness,' a person who witnesses evil and suffering—and I shall add goodness and happiness to it as well. We all become ethically responsible as photographers to create this shared memory." While Jamil was born in Karachi, her family moved to Qatar when she was a baby, and she spent the following eight years in the United Arab Emirates before moving back to Pakistan in 1990. "I was suddenly thrust into a country recovering from a ten-year-long political dictatorship, into a school with kids from my own country." Thanks to her father's obsession with home video, she was more interested in film as a child, but got into photography as a young adult. It was while she was a student at Parsons in New York studying for an MFA in Photography that she came to "understand how the world perceived my city." Inspired by Brandon Stanton's portrait blog Humans of New York, Jamil set up Humans of Karachi (HOK) when she returned to Pakistan in 2012, photographing hundreds of local people and documenting their stories on Facebook. While HOK is a labor of love, in her professional life she continues to challenge preconceptions about daily life in Karachi and its people with her work as a documentary photographer in the development sector and her small jewelry business, K for Karachi, which incorporates her photos of the city in handmade silver jewelry. "Ever since I got back from New York, I was eager to translate some of the creative ways I had seen photography being used in the US here in Pakistan," she says of the latter. "That is one of the charms of living in a city like Karachi: we are on the brink of innovation, and so many things that exist out there have the potential of flourishing here, with a local touch of course. That is what I enjoy doing the most: translating things I have seen during my travels into something authentic that is true for here."

On working in Karachi: Karachi is not the easiest place to live in terms of security, but it is a city I am terribly inspired by. I see so much character and so much beauty in this place that may not be apparent to many people looking in from the outside. It is a city one simply cannot understand till they have lived here. It has several faults, and that gives me the drive and motivation to DO something about it, not just quit on it. All my projects are deeply ingrained in various aspects of this city and its culture, and I consider it my duty to show to the world the alternative narratives that exist in this city, which is regarded as the most violent place on earth.

On a career-defining moment: There have been more than one. In 2009, I had a coffee table book launched. It's quite encouraging to be 25 years old and see your book up in aisles at the book shop. For me, Raw Life acted as a validation of one of my first efforts to show a human side of Pakistan and its creative industry that many people were unaware of. Then, from the moment I saw Humans of New York and the various cities localizing it (Humans of Paris/Humans of Tehran/ Humans of Tel Aviv), I just knew that Humans of Karachi needed to be something done by me. I was already on a similar path, so it make perfect sense to adopt this project. I was very lucky that at the time I was working at The Citizens Archive of Pakistan—a non-profit that promotes such cultural projects—and they gave me their full support.

On what's next for her: In addition to some more visual stories, at the moment I am working on the HOK and K for Karachi websites, an HOK book and also an HOK documentary in collaboration with some people, [including filmmaker Hamza Bangash]. I am hoping it will all be considerably done and some of it ready to be shared by the end of the year.

Satire is a powerful tool in the hands of this star of the Karachi literary scene

"Satire is key to Pakistani culture," says author Shazaf Fatima Haider. "Whenever you have a society that's heading toward a direction that people are uncomfortable with, you have writers and playwrights and musicians resorting to satire to make people think about the choices they're making. Recently, there has been a string of popular songs spreading like wildfire across social media talking about political corruption, the YouTube ban, patriarchal culture and so on. They're bitingly funny—and they're making the younger generation think, which is a key aspect of change." An English teacher by trade, Haider began her debut novel How It Happened (Penguin India, 2013)—a satire about arranged marriages—after she grew tired of the "weekly hullabaloo" that followed when a girl came of age. "A friend was called by a prospective [husband] and asked whether she had an American passport because this would allow him to improve his quality of life," she says. "That he was using her so brazenly, and that he felt it was expected that he should do so, appalled me. That’s the incident that motivated the first chapter." A a child, Haider grew up in the green and beautiful foothills of the Margalla Hills in Islamabad, where she lived with her family in a Naval Housing Scheme because her father was a naval officer. "My house had these old, old trees which I named and climbed and generally lost myself in," she recalls. When her father retired they moved back to the family home in Karachi: "I remember being traumatized by the big city and its ways for a long time—and I missed my trees," she says. "But I now realize that I can't live anywhere else."

On working in Karachi: Karachi can be a nightmare and a dream. There are pockets where fabulous things are happening, but the larger city has a terrible law and order situation that constantly preys at the back of everyone’s minds. I mean, we have conversations where we don’t talk about "if" we get mugged but "when," and what is the best strategy to not get hurt, etc. It’s a kind of crazy. But the people, the ordinary folk, are wonderful, hospitable and empathetic despite the turbulence. There is evil, yes, but lots of good. That gives me hope.

On a career-defining moment: That’s a tough one—I think when people began to read my book, respond to it and quote it back to me. I realized that writing starts off as a selfish pursuit, but when the novel is finished, the writer has to let it go, because then the story belongs to the readers to do with it as they will. I think that’s very humbling and liberating at the same time.

On what's next for her: I’m editing my second novel, and I hope it won’t be too long before I can share it with my readers. I won't go into detail, but it concerns Jinns and black magic. That is all ye know and all ye need to know.

From The Collection:

World View
World View: Meet the Rising Stars of Karachi’s Fraught Yet Fertile Creative Scene