Bilal Khan may be smiling today, but his music career started out with a sad song.
Just a few years ago, as a struggling student at one of Pakistan’s most competitive universities, he turned to songwriting as a creative outlet.
“I was having problems relating to my friends, and none of the girls would talk to me,” the softspoken 26-year-old says over buzzing espresso machines in an Atlanta café. “I was confused and sad, and not really focused on my studies, so I’d come back to my room and pen it all down. It was easy to write songs then.”
Getting people to listen proved to be more difficult. “I kept telling people I played guitar and liked to sing,” Khan adds. “And they’d say, ‘Oh, I have a cousin who does the same. You should check him out.’ No one would take me seriously.”
That changed during his senior year, when his aforementioned sad song, “Bachana,” went viral on YouTube and caught the attention of the team behind Coke Studio, a popular TV series featuring live performances from top Pakistani artists.
When he first got the call from the show, he thought it was a prank. But it turned out to be the big break he was looking for.
“I’d watch Coke Studio, guitar in hand, dreaming of playing on the show with the band behind me,” he recalls. “Because it’s truly the biggest musical thing out of Pakistan in recent times.”
Soon after premiering in the summer of 2008, Coke Studio became a cultural institution in Pakistan. The program, which celebrates the country’s rich musical diversity by fusing eastern folk music and traditions with more modern, western influences, airs constantly across multiple media channels.
“If you put out a song on Coke Studio, it’s very hard for anybody to miss it,” Khan explains. “Your music is promoted to pretty much every house in Pakistan.”
He was invited initially to record one song, but during his first meeting with show producer Rohail Hyatt in Karachi, he picked up an acoustic guitar and auditioned three more.
“And he said, ‘We’ll do all four of them,’” Khan says. “That’s when I felt like everything I’d struggled for was worth it.”
Until that point, Khan had performed primarily as a solo act, playing tunes he’d written in his bedroom on an acoustic guitar. Hyatt took his sparse, unplugged compositions to the next level sonically – and, eventually, to an audience of millions.
Meeting the world-class Coke Studio band, which he had
watched on TV for years, was a surreal, confidence-boosting stamp of approval. “We
jammed for like eight hours, but it felt like 30 minutes,” he says.
**Note: If you cannot view the YouTube video, watch it here.
A Household Name
After his studio session, Khan returned home not knowing which – if any – of his tracks would make the show. “They keep everything secret,” he explains. About a week before the new season was set to kick off, he got a call saying one of his songs – “To Kia Hua” – would open the premiere episode. The first time he heard it was when he saw himself on TV.
On tour in Pakistan, 2012.
“To Kia Hua” ended up being the season’s most popular song based on YouTube views and mp3 downloads (Coke Studio posts all content online for free), and the producers invited him back the next year. Khan became a star overnight, amassing hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook and millions of views on YouTube. He signed with a record label in India, landed an endorsement deal with Levi’s and got a few acting gigs. For the next two years, he played sold-out concerts not only across Pakistan, but around the world.
“Every Sunday, my grandmother would call me saying she’d seen my picture in the newspaper,” Khan said. “It all happened really fast. Imagine going from your bedroom, to the studio, to pretty much every house in Pakistan… it’s a crazy feeling.”
Khan credits Coke Studio not only with launching his music career, but with reshaping popular culture in Pakistan and promoting a positive image of the country to the world.
“What Coke Studio has done is given us something to be proud of when we talk about Pakistan,” he said, adding that the show’s popularity extends far beyond his homeland. “It embraces our culture by taking what is essentially very Pakistani and bringing it out on a very large scale. It gives people hope in times when there is so much despair.”
The Next Verse
Khan took an unexpected detour in 2012 when he moved to the United States to attend the VCU Brandcenter advertising school in Richmond, Va. Many of his family, friends and fans were perplexed by his decision.
Recording at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta.
When asked why he’d temporarily leave behind a thriving music career, Khan exhales. “I get that question a lot, and I always give the same answer: for self-improvement,” he said. “One of my basic philosophies has been to always keep growing as a person through education and inspiration from new experiences, cultures and perspectives. I’ll never again get two years in my life when I can take time out.”
And Khan’s enjoying the change. “It’s great to be a student,” he said. “In a way, I’m living two lives – like Clark Kent and Superman.”
In a unique twist of fate, Khan ended up working for Coca-Cola again this summer. Not as a Coke Studio artist, but as a marketing intern at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. “Going from Pakistan, where Coca-Cola changed my life, to seeing how the company works on a global scale has been a phenomenal experience,” he said.
Khan has another year left in his program. He continues to write music and perform, and will soon release his second album. After that, well, his fans will just have to wait and see.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do,” he said. “I’m going to keep it a secret, Coke Studio style.”