Global Music Ambassadors: Changing Paradigms, Uniting People
An interview with Heather Schmid and Dr. Rafay Mehdi
Heather Schmid is an international recording artist, pop star, and member of the Grammy Academy whose work has reached millions through live performances, recordings, YouTube clips, and other media. Dr. Rafay Mehdi is an internationally-recognized MD who has taught medicine at Harvard University and been affiliated with Yale University and Boston University. Together, they have founded Goddess, Inc. and the Neuroscience Media Group, which create uplifting entertainment designed to elevate discourse, bridge cultures, and foster international cooperation, goodwill, and peace. Goddess, Inc. and the Neuroscience Media group practice actionable idealism: they match their values with practical strategies designed to realize their vision. Their latest project, a song entitled “Pelay hum Pakistani hey,” will combine the musical traditions of Pakistan’s many cultures to foster greater national unity.
Heather, how did you get started?
HS: I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, and I always wanted to sing and dance and act, so I started exploring the performing arts when I was very young. I always had a drive to push myself and take some risks to do more than be a typical performer. Even at a very young age, I found that I was enthralled with the human voice. How far, I wondered, could I really take it? I sang pop and I sang Broadway, but eventually I took up the challenge of opera. I went to BU on a scholarship for opera; that’s where Rafay and I met.
As I was going through opera school, however, I had this feeling that my singing wasn’t only going to be about that, about the performance itself. I couldn’t just do the same show over and over again, with no higher purpose. I valued the storytelling, the personal place your voice was coming from and what you could do to connect your story with the story of what you were singing. I wanted to make my instrument as powerful and as adept as it could be so I could do anything I wanted to.
With great perseverance, I thrived, I learned to perform in all genres, and after completing my first national tour, I went to Los Angeles to take up the opportunity to record my first album.
How did you get involved in Pakistan?
HS: While I was in Los Angeles in 2005 working on that first album, a terrible earthquake struck Pakistan. Rafay texted me and said, “There’s an earthquake in Pakistan, and I’m going.” And I thought, “Why shouldn’t I go too? Why couldn’t I serve too?” So I replied, “Oh my gosh, there’s an earthquake in Pakistan? Then I’m going.” Rafay was hesitant. “I’m a doctor,” he said, “and you’re a singer. What are you going to do in Pakistan?” I said, “I know that I can find a way to be of assistance.” I felt I had to go. Then I found my opportunity: a music festival benefitting earthquake relief. So we both went to do our part to help the people of Pakistan in that difficult time.
How did that trip go? What was your first experience in Pakistan like?
HS: When I made the decision to go, I had no idea of what to expect. Nevertheless, the show was amazing. We were welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm. What’s more, the opportunity I had to speak to the crowd after the show and to mingle with the people while I was there helped me realize that I had absolutely made the right decision. The whole experience helped form who I became as an artist; it has informed all of my work in the years since. And, incredibly, being in Pakistan and doing that work also really felt most like home, more than performing opera and or performing in Las Vegas.
What about Pakistan made you feel so at home?
HS: Contrary to the perceptions many might have in the US, I found Pakistanis to be intelligent, fun-loving, warm, and hospitable people—happy, compassionate, and family-oriented. Like Americans, they’re enthusiastic about sports, socials, and entertainment. It’s really important to me that Americans know this; I’ve even written about it on my blog.
What’s more, when I was in Pakistan, I realized how influential one voice could actually be. I discovered that what I said and what I did could really help people there, in Pakistan, to understand a bit about America and Americans. I found that I could connect people and in doing so, have a positive influence on a relationship that was—and still is—very politically charged. My experience there helped me realize a really important lesson: that whether we’re Americans, Pakistanis, or people of any other nation, we share a common humanity, common goals and dreams that ought to unite us as people regardless of our political differences.
How dangerous have you found your work in Pakistan? Have you felt insecure at times?
HS: There’s no doubt that it can be difficult sometimes; occasionally when we fly in, we encounter small protests going on or see some small-scale unrest. Overall, though, what’s been incredible is how completely safe I’ve felt, and been, walking the streets of Pakistan, speaking with people from all walks of life, and simply being among this society. When I walk the streets of Lahore or Karachi, I don’t need any bodyguards or protection. That’s one of the beautiful things I want people to understand: Pakistan is just like any other place. Yes, there are places that can be unsafe, places that you perhaps shouldn’t walk through alone at night, but that’s true of everywhere, even in Boston or New York. The extremists who many Americans associate with Pakistan are just a very small number of people on the fringe of Pakistani society.
Describe a memorable moment from your time in Pakistan.
HS: I have one story that really encapsulates my experiences there, and that speaks to your question about safety. One night after a concert I went backstage for a meet-and-greet with the people in the audience. I wanted an opportunity to speak with, and learn from, the people who came out to see me perform. A young man—maybe fifteen or sixteen years old—came up to me and said, “I wanted to take you out.” And because it was the evening, and I had been thinking about getting dinner, I said, “Ah, that’s great!” and I started naming places we could go to eat. Rafay was giving me a strange look, though, and I stopped what I had been saying and asked the young man what he meant. He opened his jacket to reveal a semiautomatic weapon of some kind. “I was going to take you out,” he said, “to kill you.” I was terrified for a moment. But the young man continued: “Then I heard you sing, and I heard what you had to say about how we people could live together. I realized that you weren’t who I thought you would be. You inspired me.” That’s the most vivid, real example of what I hope I’ve been able to do in Pakistan, and what I hope to continue to do: to breakdown stereotypes about Americans, to build bridges between our peoples, and to transform how we see one another.
Tell us about your current project there.
HS: We’re currently working on a project to unite the people of Pakistan through song. Pakistan is divided into many ethnic groups (including Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Mohajirs, and Balochis, among others), and there’s also tension between members of different classes. Many people in Pakistan see themselves as members of these smaller groups, rather than seeing themselves as Pakistanis first. We want to change that paradigm, to bring all the people together. To do that, we’ve created a song, “Pelay hum Pakistani hey”—“First I am a Pakistani”—that melds each group’s distinctive musical cultures and languages into one beautiful piece. We hope to release the song on Pakistan’s Independence Day later this year.
Dr. Mehdi, what is Neuroscience Media Group?
RM: Neuroscience Media Group focuses on the mindset and the mental blueprint of the people within a geographical location. We aspire to apply the latest research and technology in the brain sciences to develop the clearest picture of what specific people respond to. The purpose of that is to create products, services, entertainment, and even policies based on the scientific study of what people actually want. After all, all those things are made for the consumption of the people. If we know through neuroscience what the people really want, we could tailor these to their actual desires.
Could you elaborate?
RM: Of course. Consider an example. When the United States prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, the government told the public that it expected to be received with flowers in the streets. Instead, of course, the United States was received with shoes and gunfire. If the Neuroscience Media Group had been in Iraq beforehand, we might have known how the United States would be received and had the opportunity to make a more informed policy decision. Next time the United States steps into a geographical location, Neuroscience Media Group will be there to provide another set of eyes and ears to empower policymakers to issue informed judgments. On this project, “Pelay hum Pakistani hey,” Neuroscience Media Group is there to ensure that the song we create really does speak to every Pakistani.
What do you hope to achieve?
HS: We want a united world, a peaceful world. We want to bridge East and West, and we want to start in Pakistan. By changing the way Pakistanis see each other, and the way Americans and Pakistanis see one another, we can transform the paradigm that defines one of the world’s most troubled relationships. Music, goodwill—just being there, on the ground, sharing who we are with one another—we believe these can be far more powerful than traditional, political diplomacy. And what Rafay’s research has shown is that the science backs this up. So what’s our goal? Building that bridge between East and West. And how do we hope to get there? By winning hearts and minds—that’s the best way to establish unity and peace. What we hope, above all, is that our music can bring people together.