Junaid Jamshed: Voice of the Nation
Pakistanis reacted with horror at the death of 48 people in a plane crash on December 7, 2016. A Pakistan International Airlines flight – PK661 – was travelling from Chitral to Islamabad when it crashed near Havelian town. There were no survivors.
Rumours of a high-profile celebrity on board the ill-fated flight started doing the rounds, even before officials had revealed the names of the passengers. Junaid Jamshed – pop icon, preacher, businessman – died in the accident, along with 41 other passengers, five crew members and one ground engineer. Pakistanis all over the world mourned. The liberals lamented the loss of a musician who came up with a string of hit songs from the late 1980s till the early 2000s. The conservatives grieved over the death of an evangelist who made reciting of naats lively. Others remembered him for his eponymous fashion brand.
Catapulted into stardom with Dil Dil Pakistan, released on Independence Day in 1987, Jamshed was the lead singer of Vital Signs. It was a boy band whose music resonated with the youth of the time, starved for entertainment under General Ziaul Haq’s military regime.
Jamshed personified the polarised society that Pakistan is, but he also showed us that the split is within us, as much as without.
With its electropop beat and infectious lyrics, Dil Dil Pakistan was recorded in band member Rohail Hyatt’s bathroom — an unintended comment on the state of music under Zia. It would go on to become the (unofficial) “second national anthem of Pakistan”, played at graduation ceremonies, sports events, even political rallies, for years to come. Jamshed became so strongly associated with it that he could not refuse requests to sing it even after he had denounced music, many years later.
Many other hits and four albums later, Vital Signs split in 1998. Jamshed started his solo career, but could not achieve the same success he earlier had. Accustomed to constant adulation, he found it particularly hard to cope with the decline in his popularity.
In 1997, Jamshed was first approached by an entirely different band: a group of Muslim evangelists headed by a charismatic speaker, Tariq Jameel. They were scouring for celebrities that were bored or dissatisfied with their lives and willing to explore religion.
Jamshed took time to take up the mission. It was a period of great confusion for him. The conflict most obviously showed in his appearance: he would grow a beard, then shave it off, then grow it back. He left his fans equally bemused. Which side was he on?
In the early 2000s, Jameel advised him that perhaps God had closed the door of fame for him through music. “After today, you will never get fame through music.” Jamshed vowed never to sing anything except devotional songs.
Jamshed would not sing publicly, but he would keep regaling friends and associates in small private gatherings.
His new-found spirituality was not that of a hermit’s though. He was still a showman; he even hosted a television game show where gifts included Hajj and Umrah packages. He was just performing for a different audience now — and, arguably, it was not even a different audience, but instead a changed country. Post-9/11, the Pakistani middle class shifted decisively to religiosity and the ostentatious display of it.
And where there is public piety, there is always private gratification. Jamshed would not sing publicly, but he would keep regaling friends and associates in small private gatherings.
In 2002, he started a women’s clothing line. His fashion-designer avatar revived the business instincts he had employed in his youth to get corporate sponsors to bankroll his music.
His new venture also made commercial sense. A more religious Pakistan is also a more consumerist Pakistan. His brand insignia (J.) has expanded to fragrances and cosmetics. Jamshed also ventured into food products in recent years.
He has been accused of many things, from misogyny to blasphemy. Some zealots went to the extent of attacking him at an airport. He, however, never saw any discord among his various identities. Regardless of what he did, he did it well. He remained popular till the very end, and even after that — always in the limelight, both in life and death. Jamshed personified the polarised society that Pakistan is, but he also showed us that the split is within us, as much as without. His was the voice that spoke to us — from within as much as without.
It is this voice that we will miss the most; it does not matter if it sang songs to us or devotional hymns.
This was originally published in Herald's January 2017 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.