The singer-songwriter talks to Instep about transitioning from music to movies, his role as Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, embracing activism and why he is optimistic about the future of Pakistan.
Do you mind if I have chai and paratha while we talk?” asks Shehzad Roy, as he sits adjacent from me in his drawing room on a quiet Monday evening.
The singer-songwriter, who is still one of contemporary pop’s biggest names, has just returned from shooting a song for Twenty20 team Karachi Kings with Shahid Afridi. He is pressed for time but still manages to squeeze this interview into his demanding schedule.
Unlike many other stars, who appear and disappear from the news either solely on the basis of their work or due to sheer popularity online or some controversy, Shehzad has spent the past several days in the news speaking up for the beautiful little girl, the seven-year-old Zainab, who was brutally raped and murdered in Kasur in a bone-chilling, heartbreaking narrative that is far too common in Pakistan.
Shehzad is not the only star to raise his voice on the issue of sexual abuse and how it haunts children and affects lives. The story of Zainab gained national profile and Pakistan’s leading stars such as Mahira Khan, Sanam Saeed, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Ayesha Omar and Faysal Qureshi spoke up on the gnawing matter and the need for swift justice. Others too took to social media and continued the conversation with Frieha Altaf, Nadia Jamil and Maheen Khan courageously recounting their personal stories of going through sexual abuse and the trauma that follows.
In the aftermath, the rapist has been caught but a lot more is needed and this is where Shehzad Roy takes center-stage.
Humanitarian and activist, his last full-length studio record had a socio-political perspective that reflected on our descent into madness with songs like ‘Laga Reh’ and ‘Qismat Apnay Haath Mein’ becoming super hits.
He followed it up with documentaries Wasu or Mein and Chal Parha, with the former discussing patriotism, poverty and Pakistan’s checkered political history and the latter reflecting on the state of public education in the country.
With Zindagi Trust, Shehzad continues to work on public school reform and that’s putting it mildly. Appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) last October, his mission now includes, among other things, steering the youth away from drugs and working to create lasting changes for jailed children.
Articulate, down-to-earth and optimistic, the inertia of institutions will not keep Shehzad from his many humanitarian goals and this is where the story begins.
I ask Shehzad about celebrity involvement in social issues in light of the Zainab case and how effective he thinks it can be. “I think the involvement of society, stars, actors and singers is crucial because the issue spreads with speed as a result,” begins Shehzad. “However, without some prior scientific intervention or some work done on the issue, the risen voices will eventually drown.”
As Shehzad tells it, work on the issue of introducing curriculum (that creates awareness about sexual abuse at a young age) in schools was already underway. It had originally begun in 2009 when his organization Zindagi Trust implemented NGO Aahung’s LSBE (Life Skills Based Education) program into the curriculum at a government school.
“During that process, we faced many difficulties due to misconceptions. That program became successful and was approved by religious and academic figures. Teachers too learned and transferred it to the children. The content for ages 3 to 10 was already developed by Aahung and had been implemented at our school and 200 other schools. It started from our school and originally there were controversies but we fought the battle and won but people at the time didn’t know. In some small newspapers, there were stories that said we were working against religion and Pakistan. But that didn’t stop us.”
There are teething problems when a program is started, says Shehzad, adding: “We started talking to the government and our purpose was to replicate the program elsewhere. The process had begun when the case of Zainab happened. People raised their voices and we maintained that this program also needed to be implemented. We showed the research and impact analysis. Timing worked in our favour because the Sindh government implemented life skills education into the curriculum and I think it’s very progressive of them to do so because no other province has managed to do it.”
While trying to accomplish this goal, Shehzad met with members of the Sindh government and political figures such as Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and he states that the credit belongs to Sindh’s Chief Minister, Education Minister and Education Secretary.
“When I met with the leadership, I thought it was beautiful that from the offset they wondered why the LSBE program couldn’t be implemented 100 per cent. I’m sure there were voices of dissent within their own ranks but the leadership stayed on course and the CM took a decision along with the Education Minister and Education Secretary and the entire department and the credit belongs to them.
The purpose of the press conference (with Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari) was to make it clear that work on the issue had been done and it was being implemented. See, goodness is contagious and we thought that when other provinces and other leaders saw this being done, they too would be moved to do it just as quickly.”
The story of Shehzad’s activist side doesn’t end here though. While the success of implementing LSBE into the Sindh curriculum is worth applauding, as the singer notes, there are myriad issues that need to be discussed openly and worked upon for the greater good of society. This is where his appointment as Goodwill Ambassador for UNODC comes into focus.
“Many moons ago I had thought that there should be a rehabilitation centre/school for jailed children. But I wasn’t successful. When approached by UNODC, I became their ambassador for drug and crime, and we held a gig, not in some hotel, but inside a jail. I invited members of the judiciary, lawyers and civil society and managed to get six children released.
I still maintain that children should be rehabilitated and while we debate on children who are imprisoned under some charge, we should at least release the children who are on bail. Our law states that a children’s prison should be like a school, which is why it is called Youth’s Offenders and not juvenile jail. But while the name is changed, it is not what it should be.”
The course of his work has led him to meeting many extraordinary children, each with his own story. “I met this one kid who was in jail for smoking charas. He told me that kids in elite areas like Clifton and Defence smoke just the same but no one is arresting them. I was quiet and so was the superintendent.
I asked another kid, who was singing with me in the concert, about what he had done that landed him in jail and he’d say ‘doublemurder’ as one word with such speed that I didn’t understand him. I asked the superintendent about his crime and he said to me ‘double murder’. I asked the boy again and he told me how he lives in Lyari and was sleeping when the police came over and said ‘doublemurder’ and took him away. All the while they continued to say ‘doublemurder’. He told me that he eventually learned that it meant two murders but that he hadn’t done either. What I’m trying to say that for him it was funny how it happened. I don’t know if he did it or not but I don’t think children should be in prison or if they are, then it should be a school that actually rehabilitates them.”
This and more remains his focus as ambassador. Later this year Shehzad will be promoting a campaign and as part of it, he will be heading to schools and colleges with the mission to endorse the idea that kids should stay away from drugs.
“I don’t want to be a symbolic ambassador. Saying don’t do drugs to kids alone won’t keep them from doing drugs,” he says. “As I told the UN, kids need to be incentivized somehow. We are in the process of designing that with UNODC. It’s difficult to come up with something that along with a campaign is a call-to-action. It is complicated and it should be discussed as is.”
Music, movies, the superstar
Though his humanitarian work will continue and often takes up most of his time, Shehzad Roy, the singer and entertainer, will continue to forge his own path, beginning with his entrance into the world of cinema, which is concretized by the fact that he has two scripts before him – one penned by Anwar Maqsood and another penned by Faisal Qureshi – with whom he has collaborated in the past.
“I’m acting in a movie,” confirms Shehzad, “We have two scripts with us right now. More than acting, the ambition is to make a film but yes, I am also acting. I won’t be the director of course but I will have a role in the process of the film.”
Adding on the subject further, Shehzad says that while his last record, released nearly a decade ago, was a massive success, he didn’t follow it up with another studio album because his heart was not in it. More to the point, he made two documentaries (Wasu Aur Mein, Chal Parha) with the latter leading to a change in the law of corporal punishment.
“In the last three years, I have been busy with a lot of things including my work with Zindagi Trust, with two schools now under us such as SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School and Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government School. I was exploring film as a medium and playing with my son, Sikandar, who is now 3 and a half years old.”
Having kept an eye on the changing dynamics within the music industry, Shehzad reveals that his next record will come with a film.
“After PSL, things will concretize with the film. But as far as acting is concerned, I will only do it if I think I can. That is why I’m a part of the process of the film. The role(s) are such that either they are in complete contrast to me or close to me, nothing is in between. It is more difficult to do a role that’s somewhere in the middle.”
Not only will he embrace cinema but Shehzad believes that music will take center-stage once again, in the absence of music companies and music channels, through film in the coming days, months and years ahead. “It hasn’t happened yet but it will. There is a platform now, through which music will release.”
Associated with Pakistan Super League, something that will continue in the upcoming third edition, Shehzad states: “I am the ambassador for HBL and because it’s HBL-PSL, I’m technically already a part of it. Because I live in Karachi, when Karachi Kings asked me to do a song, it was a natural alliance. And so, I’ve done two songs, one for HBL and one for Karachi Kings. And I’m performing at the opening.”
Writing songs for such projects, confesses Shehzad, is very difficult because it has to have broad appeal.
“In the Karachi Kings song, Afridi is singing with me. What we’ve tried is to keep the anthem feel higher. Shahid is an old friend and the lyrics reflect his temperament. The humourous element is present as well.”
Never say never
Having fought and won some battles and lost others, Shehzad says that if anything, he has learnt with time to employ logic over emotion.
“You have to remember that all this including dialogue is progression and it is taking you forward. You have to figure out whether what you’re doing is taking humanity forward or not. If you know your cause is for the greater good, you have to fight not with emotion but with logic and intelligence. You try to convince people, not just on social media but by showing them a model that this is what we’re doing.”
Given his long association with social issues and across-the-board following, Shehzad could have a future in Pakistani politics but it’s an idea he dismisses instantly. “I’ve had the best opportunities to enter the fray but I have abstained because I can never defend bullshit of any leader. What if one day my leader says something good and I say great and the next day he says something indefensible, I can’t defend him. I will continue to support political parties based on issues.”
Not entering politics, however, is not a sign that Shehzad Roy doesn’t have hope for the future of this country. He remains optimistic in the age of perpetual cynicism.
“I am very positive about Pakistan. There is uneven growth in Pakistan. However, because of progressive people so much can and has happened. Take Jibran Nasir, a young man with such promise. In my opinion, he is a leader and as long as there are such representatives of Pakistan, we know that we are progressing.”