Coke Studio Pakistan serves as a framework for and an example of Pakistan’s dynamic culture that expands beyond music and entertainment to Pakistan’s role in global crises and its perception abroad.
The Sound of a Growing Nation
These are the Tales of Yore, Where Love is Triumphant, and Oppression is Defeated. There are some who are oblivious, and others who have power.
This folk-centered song, “Tinak Dhin,” features some of Pakistan’s most iconic artists: Ali Hamza, Ali Sethi, and Waqar Ehsin. Sung in Punjabi and Urdu, the song features folk, rock, and indie musical styles combining each of the artist’s disciplines and creating a fun, upbeat song that reverberates with the “rhythm of life.” Part of Coke Studio Season 10, this song has been a fan favorite because of its message of resilience, much like the history of Pakistan which gained its independence in 1947. Coke Studio began as a television program featuring the most popular classical singers. Today, Coke Studio is an international music franchise which brings in new, emerging artists and classical singers to produce recorded music. From 2008 to 2022, Coke Studio has transformed the Pakistani music industry for listeners in Pakistan and abroad. From fear and flooding to fame, Pakistan’s cultural identity has shifted in the last seventy-five years since the partition of India and Pakistan to address the unique challenges the nation faces, which require it to combat Islamophobia, institutionalized bias, and cultural homogeneity. I begin by analyzing Coke Studio as a framework for and an example of Pakistan’s dynamic culture; then describe the influence that Islam, celebrities, climate, and Gen Z have in Pakistan’s culture and specifically, music; and lastly, connect entertainment to Pakistan’s role in global crises and its perception globally.
Coke Studio: Sound of the Nation
“Dil Dil Pakistan,” known by most Pakistanis as the “anthem of Pakistan,” was sung by renowned artist Rohail Hyatt of Vital Signs, who would later become the talent that drove Coke Studio to become a cultural institution for Pakistani identity. In “A Case Study on Corporate Peace: The Coca-Cola Company: Coke Studio Pakistan,” Karen Collier describes how the Coca-Cola company saw Pakistan as the ground of a strategic social investment that would provide a platform for Pakistani talent and pride to “inspire economic activity” and help “project a softer image of Pakistan.”1Hyatt, the local producer of Coke Studio Pakistan spent the next thirteen years releasing new seasons of diverse Pakistani talent on television in a way that would promote cultural unity among Pakistanis. From 2008 to 2022, Coke Studio remains the most successful music television series to ever air in Pakistan.2 Thousands of viewers from Pakistan and neighboring South Asian countries continue to tune in and enjoy the musical talent of Pakistan. Coca-Cola is not the only company to take interest in investing in Pakistan; Spotify launched in Pakistan in 2021 and has since partnered with Coke Studio Pakistan to “bring generations of Pakistani music to an even larger audience around the world.”3 Through this partnership, Spotify and Coke Studio Pakistan aimed to raise global awareness of the music and make it more accessible to the South Asian diaspora and fans from all around the world. Based on the release of season 14 on Spotify, the music has drawn in millions of listeners from the U.S., U.K., Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. For both Coca-Cola and Spotify, the aim was clear, to invest in Pakistani culture and promote it in the world. Collier writes that Pakistan needed a better image in the world to do better economically and negate the consequences of Islamophobia.
The Narrative of Islam in Pakistani Entertainment
What is meant to be yours will find you through any excuse. My heart, understand that there is nothing in your control, Tu Jhoom.
This Sufi-inspired song, “Tu Jhoom,” was the season premiere for Coke Studio Season 14, and represented a new sound for the classic music television production that was under new ownership. The opening track features two of the most iconic female singers of Pakistan, Naseebo Lal and Abida Parveen. Known for their raspy, raw, and powerful voices, the duo was brought together in an iconic celebration of Pakistani-Sufi identity in a song that uses different languages, religions, and traditions to beautifully showcase Pakistani cultural identity. With a focus on praising Allah and leaving behind worldly matters, “Tu Jhoom” is an iconic opener that bridges classic Sufi styles, poetic lyrics, and iconic singers with a new sound that appeals to Generation Z. This comes as a contrast to the portrayal of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the 2000s and 2010s. Since the violent extremist attacks on the World Trade Center in the United States of America on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent finding of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Pakistan’s global representation was seen negatively by western countries and surrounding nations. By 2011, Coke Studio was already becoming a major success and Coca-Cola continued its investment with hopes that it would negate this image of hate. When Hyatt stepped down as producer in 2021, the new producer for Coke Studio, Zulfiqar (Xulfi) Jabbar Khan took an inspiring new lead as one of Pakistan’s well-known artistic geniuses. In an interview with Gulf News, Xulfi stated that the “Sound of the Nation” was going to have a new vision in season 14, one that exemplified the “search for self in the twenty-first century.” Sufi songs like “Tu Jhoom” offered a sense of healing while still appealing to multiple audiences.4 The focus wasn’t just on combating Islamophobia but on creating an entirely new image of Pakistan that included the youth and diaspora. None of this could be done without paying homage to the cultural roots of Pakistani music, Sufism, and Qawwali.
Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam focused on the relinquishment of worldly objects and desires and focused more on spirituality. Qawwali is a form of Muslim devotional music that was most commonly practiced amongst Sufis but over time, has become a popular cultural art form in all of Pakistan. Prior to season 14, a lot of Coke Studio content featured Qawwali and Sufi songs that alluded to the Islamic heritage of Pakistan. In many ways, this was a major contrast to the stereotypical content in Bollywood which focused on portraying Muslims as terrorists rather than peaceful mystics. “Tu Jhoom” is one song from season 14 which bridges the classical Sufi heritage of Pakistan by presenting Islam in a peaceful way that surpasses the time of Bin Laden. However, some argue that this is a highly orientalist view of Islam because European writers preferred Sufism as a more pacifist interpretation of Islam compared to other practices of the religion with more strict rules. Newer seasons of Coke Studio serve to dismantle this perception of only Sufism as the more peaceful sect of Islam by including songs like “Tajdar E Haram” which focuses on the peaceful Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah or in “Tu Kuja Man Kuja” which describes one’s relationship with Allah and promotes love within Islam.5 Additionally, the use of Sufi inspiration contrasts Coke Studio Pakistan’s content with popular Indian musical content such as Bollywood songs which often seemed to overlap with or resemble it but had less religious and specifically Islamic connotations. Therefore, through the representations of faith as a peaceful and spiritual practice, Coke Studio Pakistan combats Islamophobia amongst its listeners, though it is not the only industry attempting to reduce Islamophobia and draw attention to Pakistan.
Celebrity Attention to Pakistan
They befriend you and then betray you, there is no sign of love there. Love is of stoics, saints, and their disciples.6
A viral Tweet from 2022 shows on one side of the image, a father holding his child in his arms amidst a scene of utter devastation. Broken homes, crumbled roofs, scattered belongings, and flooded streets all add to the expression of grief on the father’s face. The other side of the image shows a smiling celebrity, a man wearing traditional Balochi garb, holding a dambora (traditional stringed Baloch musical instrument), and singing in Coke Studio.7 The man in both images is Wahab Ali Bugti, a singer for Coke Studio and famous for his authentic Balochi sound in “Kana Yaari.” Balochistan was severely impacted by the floods in 2022 as record amounts of flooding destroyed infrastructure. Bugti lost everything to the floods, including his home. A father of eight, Bugti and his family were left without a home or place to go. Journalists who saw Bugti in these conditions posted images of him online.8 The Tweet by @Zeeabro comparing the two images of Wahab Bugti encourages Coke Studio, part of the Coca-Cola corporation to help him in his time of need because of the work he did for Coke Studio. Bugti’s entire family was saved due to his fame and the role he played in releasing “Balochi Pop.”
With a promise to “transcend boundaries,” Coke Studio Season 14 released “Kana Yaari,” a Balochi pop song as the second release of the season, introducing a brand new genre to the show, Balochi-Pop, a Pakistani twist on the popular genre “K-Pop or Korean Pop.”9 The province of Balochistan is located in the southwest part of Pakistan and has the smallest population. An ethnic minority in many parts of the country, this genre is groundbreaking for Balochi artists and signifies a dynamic shift in Pakistan’s cultural landscape. Bugti’s contributions to Coke Studio were felt worldwide and fans from many ethnic backgrounds raised awareness of the floods on his behalf. Therefore, Bugti’s role as a celebrity, having been given the platform through Coke Studio, provides a local and global advantage for providing awareness of important topics and brought recognition to Coke Studio, even if was is due to unfortunate circumstances. Bugti’s contributions to Balochi pop and the viral images of his family encouraged fans to report the danger of the floods. Seeing the floods all over social media, some celebrities even flew to Pakistan to view the floods themselves.
Angelina Jolie, an American actress, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees visited Pakistan in 2022 to view the impact that climate catastrophe had on Pakistan. Pakistan has one of the fastest-growing populations however, water has become increasingly scarce due to climate change. In some instances, “water thieves” have to “steal” water to survive.10 Most people do not have running water in their homes and it is often unsafe to drink. Water is prioritized for the rich, who pay more money for it, or for industries that need it for profit. In response to the water crisis, local civilians began to “steal” water for industrial use to bring to their own homes which lacked any water. By stopping these civilian “water thieves,” corruption in the police force increased, and violence—particularly ethnic conflict—continues to grow as climate refugees and climate-based forced migration causes people to go to neighboring provinces with already struggling economies. Angelina Jolie, an American actress who is praised and admired globally, was formerly a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and visited Pakistan to speak with flood victims and see the severity of the crisis.
With one-third of Pakistan under water, Jolie is “visiting” aid sites to understand the scope of the issue and how to prevent future issues. While Jolie’s humanitarian work is admirable, Pakistan has had a difficult relationship with humanitarian and NGO work. Save the Children, a prominent humanitarian group, was thought to have been involved in a CIA-sponsored fake vaccination campaign that was used to take DNA samples from people and track down Bin Laden. This led to a subsequent ban on NGOs and a continuous crackdown out of fear that they will promote “anti-state agendas.11 When the floods devastated Pakistan in 2022, the lack of humanitarian aid organizations made it harder to send any aid to those who needed it and could have avoided many more deaths. The response has been to urge the government to lift the crackdown on foreign NGOs and ensure humanitarian aid. Therefore, while Jolie’s work is important, it shows that by using her status as a celebrity, she helps build trust and compassion both for and from the people of Pakistan which is not just done through humanitarian work.
Culture Industries and the Framework of Coke Studio Abroad
Set fire to your worries, to waiting and to hurries, If your love is poison, I’ll drink it in a flurry.12
Ms. Marvel made history as the first female, Pakistani-Muslim superhero in the Marvel Comics Universe, and the Disney+ show has progressively worked on accurately representing Pakistani heritage, contrary to the presumed homogeneity of culture in South Asia. The partition of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh has led to some similar cultural characteristics and identifiers between the nations, but each nation still has its own unique traditions and customs. The culture most well-known to the “West” and most commonly referred to is Indian culture. This creates a very harmful stereotype and tropes that all South Asian culture is the same. Not only has this show depicted accurately how dire the situations were for many who left India and Pakistan during the 1947 partition, but it also shows the unique aspects of Pakistani culture such as the role of Jinns and Islam. The show also features Pakistani tracks from Coke Studio Season 14 like “Pasoori” and “Peechay Hutt.” Both of these songs are more modern and pop-focused but with a focus on certain aspects of cultural sounds such as the instruments or the lyrics. However, the one critique against the show is the decision in casting.
The framework that Coke Studio established is that Pakistani heritage comes from its ethnic, tribal, and religious backgrounds. If Coke Studio is used as a framework for comparison to exemplify how Pakistani representation and cultural identity are formed, then the entirely Pakistani cast and singers should be an integral part of the representation. Both of the main characters, Kamala Khan’s parents are played by Indian actors, Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur.13 Because Indian actors are predominantly represented in Bollywood as well as in South Asian content already, many felt this was an avoidable mistake. The show, which is intended to represent Pakistanis, should have done a better job of casting an all-Pakistani cast as it did with the incredible selection of Kamala Khan’s actress, Iman Vellani. Similar to the framework for Coke Studio’s success, giving Pakistanis the chance to act in these roles would have given them a platform for success overall. Therefore, Ms. Marvel represents a well-rounded perception of Pakistani culture for the diaspora, however, if a similar framework to Coke Studio’s was followed, it would more holistically represent Pakistan and not perpetuate the assumption that South Asian culture is homogenous, as it is often globally assumed to be.
A Global Gen Z and the Framework of Coke Studio
We have no one to call our own, we are stricken with grief. We come and cry for justice at your door.14
In a viral TikTok with over a million views, the video pans over a group of men on the dancefloor of a wedding, the song “Kala Chasma” plays as one of the men proceeds to fake a fall to the floor only to jump back up perfectly in tune to the song. They proceed to dance to popular Pakistani songs like “Kana Yaari” and the video becomes a global success, creating a popular trend. All over TikTok, people watch Quick Style, a Norwegian dance group founded by two Pakistani brothers, their Thai-Norwegian friend, and their diverse group of friends, who become international stars. After being noticed by Coke Studio, Quick Style was invited to perform at Coke Studio Live, a concert in Dubai featuring the hit artists of Coke Studio and promoting Pakistani culture.15 Based on their TikTok fame, Quick Style brings a new, Gen Z-approved perspective to Coke Studio and was invited back to Pakistan to collaborate with Coke Studio. Together, they created a version of “Kana Yaari” with their dances and brought even more popularity to the song. In one sentimental moment on Instagram, Quick Style is seen sitting around Wahab Bugti as he sings “Kana Yaari” and plays the dambora. This sentimental video which was posted to their social media accounts and reposted by many Pakistani accounts represents Coke Studio’s goal to connect nostalgic classical music with a new generation of content and entertainment. Moreover, Quick Style’s rise to fame and collaboration with Coke Studio exemplifies how Coke Studio is adapting to modern popular culture and expanding its framework to adapt to the changing scope of entertainment by appealing to both Generation Z and nostalgia.
Pakistan’s Global Presence from Culture to Climate
Mine is a lowly station, and yours exalted beyond imagination. You are reality, I merely perception.16
Coke Studio’s global success does not just impact the possibilities for local artists to gain global recognition, it also creates an image of Pakistan’s cultural identity. When the Coca-Cola company chose to invest in Pakistan, it was to ensure there was some economic opportunity and a chance to build a better image of the nation. Through the media publicity and awareness brought upon by the floods, social media, and celebrities, Pakistan has taken a very active role at COP27, the United Nations Climate Change conference which occurred in Egypt this year for the 27th meeting. Pakistan’s climate minister, Sherry Rahman pointed out the tragedies and need for reparations from countries with larger economies to help the nation.17Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent towards carbon emissions yet has faced some of the most damaging repercussions of climate change. At COP27, Pakistani officials and representatives have insisted on a resolution that would encourage or require high carbon-emitting countries to provide funds for the countries facing the repercussions. The result of these requests was decided in COP27 with a deal to help developing countries rebuild infrastructure. However, China is still considered a developing country and emits a lot of the CO2 impacting Pakistan but is not included in these discussions.18 Nonetheless, this unified front and global representation of Pakistan benefits the entire nation’s identity and demands for climate justice.
Like complete strangers, we’ll meet again. This hope has let the light remain.19
Coke Studio Pakistan serves as a framework for and an example of Pakistan’s dynamic culture that expands beyond music and entertainment to Pakistan’s role in global crises and its perception abroad. By combating Islamophobia, institutionalized bias, and cultural homogeneity, the nation is building its own cultural identity and adapting to the changing preferences for entertainment. Coke Studio Pakistan unifies people across many borders, languages, and religions which cannot be overlooked. Additionally, it presents a unique example of Pakistani and Sufi heritage being promoted in a way that differs from Bollywood or Indian culture which is often assumed to be dominant and, in doing so, combats Islamophobia. Due to its popularity and fame, the response to the floods in Pakistan was seen all over social media and fueled by celebrities, which proved necessary for political action. Lastly, Coke Studio Pakistan’s influence can be used as a framework for shows like Ms. Marvel to adequately represent all Pakistanis even when there is only a little to improve. It is also important to acknowledge doubt and that, nonetheless, crime, corruption, and hostility remain a threat to the cultural success of the nation, but Pakistani people, both abroad and at home, are working to deter these setbacks, crafting a cultural identity that resembles what the nation fought for seventy-five years ago.
- Karen A. Collier, “A Case Study on Corporate Peace: The Coca-Cola Company: Coke Studio Pakistan,” Business, Peace and Sustainable Development 2014, no. 2 (2014): 75–94., https://doi.org/10.9774/gleaf.8757.2014.ja.00006.
- Anir Banghosh, “Why Coke Studio Is so Popular?” International Journal of Research (IJR), 6 July 2020, https://internationaljournalofresearch.com/2020/07/06/why-coke-studio-is-so-popular/.
- “Spotify Pakistan Partnered with ‘Coke Studio’ This Season to Amplify Artists in the Region and Beyond.” Spotify, 23 Mar. 2022.
- Mehr Tarar, “Pakistan’s Xulfi for Coke Studio Season 14: Curating Timeless Music,” Gulf News, June 13, 2022, https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/pakistans-xulfi-for-coke-studio-season-14-curating-timeless-music-1.1655007560088.
- Aliza Amin, “Selling Sufism: Qawwali and Coke Studio in Pakistan,” Jamhoor, Jamhoor, July 4 2022, https://www.jamhoor.org/read/2019/12/23/selling-sufism-qawwali-and-coke-studio-in-pakistan.
- “Kana Yaari,” Eva B, Kaifi Khalil, and Wahab Bugti, Season 14.
- ZaRa, “The Famous Balochi Singer #WahabBugti Has Also Been Affected by Recent Flood in #Balochistan. Coke Studio Has Made Million of Rupees from His Song “#Kanayaari’ and Now It Has Been Crucial Responsibility of Coke Studio to Come up to Assist Him during His Worst Days. @Cokestudio.” Twitter, 21 Aug. 2022.
- Abid Hussain, “Coke Studio Pakistan Singer Left Homeless after Floods.” Climate News | Al Jazeera, August 30, 2022.
- Saffar Abbas Jaidi, “Coke Studio Creates Its Own Genre of Balochi-Pop with Kana Yaari.” Bol News, Jan. 23, 2022.
- “How Climate Change Is Affecting Pakistan and Triggering Conflicts.” YouTube, Feb. 16, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY_voyuDOEE, Accessed Dec. 15, 2022.
- Haroon Janjua, “Why Is the Pakistani Government Cracking down on Ngos?” Dw.com, Deutsche Welle, Feb. 11, 2021.
- “Pasoori,” Ali Sethi and Shae Gill, Season 14.
- Zuha Siddiqui, “Many Pakistanis Dig the Cultural Nods on ‘Ms. Marvel’ but Are Mixed on Casting.”NPR, June 29, 2022.
- “Tajdar E Haram,” Atif Aslam, Season 10.
- “Quick Style Performs at Coke Studio Live Concert,” Daily Times, Oct. 17, 2022.
- “Tu Kuja Man Kuja,” Shiraz Uppal and Rafaqat Ali Khan, Season 9.
- Lynne O’Donnell, “Pakistan Leads Charge for Climate Justice at cop27.” Foreign Policy, Nov. 9, 2022.
- Fadel, Leila, et al. “Monday, November 21st, 2022 UpFirst.” UpFirst, Nov. 21, 2022.
- “Phir Milenge,” Coke Studio Season 14, Faisal Kapadia and Young Stunners.