I have been trying to drown out the voices hailing Junaid Jamshed as a martyr who died in the due deliverance of God’s message to the people. Had he died alone in a solo accident, the voices calling for his martyrdom might have been a tad less grating. But that martyrdom is not on offer for the 47 other people who crashed and burnt in collective innocence alongside him, makes the mass public mourning for his soul ever more hollow.
The issue of martyrdom aside, Junaid’s death hits almost everyone experiencing the headiness of youth in Pakistan during the 1980s and early 1990s. Bursting onto the pop/rock stage in the newest way Pakistanis had seen, his bank Vital Signs quickly picked up a mass following; hundreds of thousands of culturally starved Pakistanis rising out the 11-year long ashes of Zia-ul-Haq’s martial reign. Before them we had seen Nazia and Zoheb, the Benjamin Sisters, an Alamgir, each of them giving a new voice and personality to pop music but presenting it in the style of national television: young singers, microphone in hand, earnestly singing into the screen as they swayed ever so respectfully from side to side.
The Vital Signs birthed a kind of raw stage energy youth in Pakistan may have seen in more private spaces or on college campuses but they hadn’t had the mainstream authenticity, which included being signed on by labels, being given the royal EMI treatment and getting young-focused brands like Pepsi salivating for their attachment so they too could reach that much coveted youth audience — no small numbers in a small country with over a 100 million people (at the time) most of them young.
The Vital Signs collectively included some of Junaid’s generation’s most impressive musical talents, spawning rival bands and such later successes as Junoon, and eventually with guitarist Rohail Hyatt being the force behind the ultra-successful and much more successful branded content studio under the auspices of Coke.
The Vital Signs were also a kind of equalizer — they brought out the collective passion in Pakistanis merging the vast seas that otherwise existed across class. And the rebellion, the urge to perform publicly like that, came from none other than the establishment, from the home of a Rawalpindi-based Pakistan Air Force general. I was one of their fans, though not quite a groupie. I listened to their music and felt a connection, like many of my peers, with not just the music but the expression of it in all those youthful ways — ripped jeans, life on the wild side (even if all does seem rather tame today).
My interest in Junaid grew as he morphed, changing from the frontman of the most popular group ever to becoming one of the country’s most well-known Islamic preachers, a televangelist whose popularity from his rock days lent him a new and loyal following in a Pakistan where people were becoming increasingly radicalised. Having a much loved national hero as the brand ambassador of the Tableeghi Jamaat was a win-win for those who masterminding the growth of born-again religiosity across Pakistan.
I had heard that Junaid, who was good friends and collaborators with Shoaib Mansoor (the force behind successful Pakistani films Khuda Kay Liye and Bol), had been the inspiration for the main character of the film Khuda Kay Liye, in which a young pop singer throws away a singing career in exchange for a life of worship. Junaid had been asked to play the main lead. He had agreed and he had shaved his beard to play the role. But some of his enforcers were not pleased, and despite his best efforts, he had step down from playing himself in the lead role. I connected with Junaid for a story I was developing for Caravan, a profile for which I spent many hours with Junaid and many of his friends and collaborators.
Few people had anything negative to say about Junaid. An overwhelming number of my interviewees — Junaid’s friends and colleagues — had only good things to say about him. He was known to go out of his way for his friends; he had a hard time saying no to people; he tended to overstretch himself. Ultimately when you needed a friend he’d be there. But there was criticism too: one close friend also felt that Junaid had had a choice. The Tableeghi Jamaat had reached out to anyone with popular appeal in an effort to do what missionaries do best: land up in places of conflict and find the right ambassadors to preach their message. In a society like Pakistan struggling with the issue of fundamental identity: how to deal with the conflict of being modern while following what some said the scriptures said you should do. A cynical view of the Junaid story was this: with sales falling with every new album release after he went solo, he needed new direction, a new way to stand out and be loved by Pakistan’s adoring public.
Junaid chose the Tableeghi Jamaat but I don’t think he quite knew what that choice meant. He made public choices that demonstrated his confusion. He shaved his beard. He grew his beard. He shaved his beard. He grew his beard. He condemned singing but he loved to sing (with and without instruments).
Certainly the conflict in him was apparent to me through my reporting. The critic who had expressed reservations about the reasons for Junaid’s choice sometimes made sense to me. For instance, when following him on the set of the Ramzaan-themed jeopardy-style contest, Alif Laam Meem, he introduced me to the producers backstage as his biographer. We were both in the room and he knew fully well that I was not his biographer but in that moment he had felt the need to say that.
He had also asked me to come to his house at the crack of dawn, close to 6 am presumably to demonstrate his morning religiosity. When I showed up at the appointed hour, I not only woke up his chowkidar, I also roused a very darkened house. My early morning mission had awakened me to the challenge he had set himself up against.
I kept in touch with Junaid after the piece was published. Some of Junaid’s friends felt that I had been too critical of him but Junaid himself didn’t seem to care, his reaction to that story strengthening the thesis about his need to be in the public arena.
In 2014 a blasphemy case was filed against Junaid for some remarks he had allegedly made against one of the Prophet’s wives. Under serious pressure Junaid quickly apologized via a video statement, offering his ignorance as an excuse. I asked him how things were. “Topsy Turvi,” he wrote. I suggested his combination of dangerous toys, friends, religious ideology and bigoted partners was a mixture likely to produce “topsy turvy.” “Absolutely,” he wrote back, “What our society is made up of.”
“Confused people, including yourself?” I countered.
“I am not confused,” he wrote. “I am misunderstood.”