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From Prairies to Bollywood: Record deal shows power of TikTok to get diverse artists noticed

Last year, a 25-year-old rapper, producer and musician from Canada checked the YouTube page of one of his remixes. In the comments section, someone had written: “Like if you came from TikTok.”

Surprised and confused, Hitesh Sharma headed over to the social media app. He discovered one of his remixes had been used in 500,000 users’ videos. 

“I hadn’t promoted it. It had just spontaneously happened,” said Sharma, who goes by the stage name Tesher. 

Sharma’s remix of Old Town Road by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, with Ramta Jogi from the Bollywood film Taal, had gone viral. 

That led people to discover his catalogue, including Young Shahrukh, a song inspired by Shah Rukh Khan, the Indian actor known as the King of Bollywood. Sharma had written, rapped and produced the song alone on a whim in his Toronto apartment.

“People were using it to make makeup tutorials, dance videos … they were showing off their outfits. They were making gaming montages — you name it. It was all over the platform,” said Sharma. 

Soon, Young Shahrukh had about one million views on YouTube, SoundCloud and Spotify. 

That’s when Sony Music India came calling. It released Young Shahrukh on the label. It was Sharma’s first big record and claimed the #1 spot on the BBC Asian Music Chart. 

As of this March, Young Shahrukh has had over 20 million views across YouTube.

Sharma is part of a wave of up-and-coming South Asian-Canadian musicians that aren’t just inspired by Bollywood, but a mixture of musical styles brought on by their upbringing, their location and Western influences. He’s also one of several musicians to get widespread attention and success from TikTok, as the app is helping artists from diverse cultural and musical backgrounds break into the mainstream.

WATCH | Musician Tesher explains how he made his hit Young Shahrukh:

Hitesh Sharma, who goes by the stage name Tesher, loves blending songs and influences from his South Asian heritage with hip hop beats. 2:17

Early beginnings  

Sharma’s love for remixes that toy with Bollywood began at an early age. 

In Regina, where he was raised and is currently living during the pandemic, he began performing for crowds as young as 12 years old. Sharma’s father, a videographer, would record weddings, birthdays and parties for members of the city’s South Asian community, and would recommend his son to do the DJing. 

“That kind of got me even more into that zone of trying to find a way that I can not only appease the Indian crowd, but also mix in the music that I’m hearing and appeal to people that have been like me, that have grown up here with the music that is popular in the Western world.”

Hitesh Sharma grew up in a musical home, which he says shaped who he is today. (Submitted by Hitesh Sharma)

Sharma grew up listening to everything from Bollywood and Punjabi Bhangra music to Kanye West and Jay-Z to country music by artists like Eric Church, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton.

“And all those influences came together to kind of inform the kind of music that I make.”

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The music of Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best score in 2009, mixed electronic beats and South Asian music and is seen as a milestone for getting Western exposure for Indian music. ((Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight) )

World music on the Western stage

For a long time, the term “world music’ was used to label nearly everything that didn’t come from a British or North American musical tradition.

“But now things have started to change,” said Sharma.

“Because now, in 2021, we’ve heard so much, it’s time to start borrowing from other cultures and other influences, and I think it’s just natural. That’s the way the music evolves.” 

Sathish Bala, the CEO and founder of DesiFest, an annual South Asian music festival in Toronto, points to a major cultural milestone being the 2009 film Slumdog Millionaire.

“When it came out, it had a very interesting soundtrack that nobody was used to: the blend of EDM and hip hop beats into South Asian music.” 

sathish bala
Sathish Bala is the CEO and founder of DesiFest, Canada’s largest South Asian outdoor music festival. (Sathish Bala/Facebook)

“We started to see these little moments of vision into what our culture is looking at as inspiration,” said Bala. “But there’s no blueprint. The South Asian independent artist scene in North America is … very young.” 

Now entering its fifteenth year, DesiFest has grown by leaps and bounds alongside Canada’s roster of South Asian musicians.

“It was only in the last 10 years where we started to see the rise of the independent artists, people that were creating content that wasn’t for the [Bollywood] movies,” Bala said. 

Going viral

TikTok is also playing a part in getting South Asian musicians exposure.

“The algorithm definitely is a little bit of a mystery, but anybody can go viral on that platform right now, and so that’s definitely an advantage. Everybody is also looking at that screen,” Sharma said. 

Platforms like YouTube and Instagram are filled with accounts with massive followings and brand partnerships. This can make it difficult for lesser known artists to compete, said Sharma.

But TikTok is still relatively new. 

“I think the advantage of TikTok is it’s kind of the wild, wild west right now. There’s less barriers to entry,” said Sharma.

Like Sharma, South Asian-Canadian musician Jonita Gandhi’s professional music career started online.

Gandhi, who now lives in Bombay, India, began making YouTube cover songs in collaboration with American composer Aakash Gandhi when she was 17 years old. The videos quickly went viral. 

“I think at the time it was kind of novel for me to be doing that because there weren’t that many South Asians who were kind of putting content out on YouTube,” Gandhi said.

“It kind of served as like a demo reel.”

Gandhi grew up in the greater Toronto area and lived there until her success on the platform got the attention of Bollywood. She then moved to India and began a career as a playback singer, a performer whose singing is pre-recorded for use in Bollywood films. 

Since then, Gandhi has worked with the likes of A.R. Rahman, the Oscar and Grammy award-winning composer and musician, perhaps best known in North America for his score for Slumdog Millionaire

“Because I grew up in Canada, I feel like I have a unique perspective and many different musical influences that I’m now trying to combine in my music and represent someone who’s not just Indian but also an Indo-Canadian,” said Gandhi. 

Jonita Gandhi, who now lives in Mumbai, India, began making YouTube cover songs in collaboration with American composer Aakash Gandhi when she was 17 years old. The videos quickly went viral.  (Submitted by Akanksha Namdeo)

Recently she was at a party where friends were gushing about Tesher — and that he’s Canadian.

“And I was like, ‘Yeah! I’m so happy! Represent!’ I feel like we’re taking over.”

Going mainstream

A year after his initial success with Young Shahrukh, Sharma is hard at work on what’s to come next — something he’s not willing to divulge right now. 

He is confident that Indian languages and South Asian musical influences will break into Western popular music charts. 

“Spanish music goes big because they have the co-sign of artists like Cardi B and Justin Bieber. They come on and they lend their voice to it and they help embolden it,” Sharma said.

“I’m not saying that we need a non-South Asian artist to help embolden South Asian music to make it go mainstream, but I think we’re just waiting…. And I know for a fact we’re going to hit that point where our music is played in tandem with an Ed Sheeran record or a Drake record.”

As of March 2021, Tesher’s song Young Shahrukh has had over 20 million views across YouTube.  (Tesher/Facebook)

Like Sharma, Gandhi thinks “ethnic Indian music” has mainstream music potential.

“There are so many more artists now who are of Indian descent or who come from Indian musical backgrounds, who are crossing over or collaborating with people from different genres…. And I think that’s always been a goal of mine, to erase those lines, because it’s all just music.”

Gandhi sings in more than 10 Indian languages. She doesn’t speak all the languages, but feels that including them in her lyrics connects her to a wide range of audiences. She dreams of having a song in Punjabi or Hindi gain traction in the mainstream.

“The world is becoming so small, in a good way…. I’m just waiting for it. I feel like it’s going to happen.”

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