A groundbreaking moment occurred for South Asian music earlier in 2023, when Diljit Dosanjh became the first Punjabi artist to perform at Coachella, one of the biggest music festivals in the world. His appearance captured global attention, and his collaboration post with Coachella amassed over 33 million views on Instagram.
Diljit is just one of several artists who are proving that supporting South Asian music is not a risk, but instead a major opportunity. To unlock the global potential of South Asian music, akin to the achievements of Latin and Spanish-language music, it is imperative to first understand its history and the intricacies of its ecosystem.
How Music From India Is Diversifying
Bollywood music has long been a prominent cultural touchstone from India with wide-reaching global popularity. It is primarily associated with the prolific film industry in Mumbai and consists of a fusion of various Indian musical styles, including classical, folk, qawwali, and ghazals, plus some Western influences. In recent years, Indian pop music has emerged as an important and potentially comparable genre to Bollywood in terms of its domestic and global success. Grounded in Indian musical elements, it also draws from broader influences, incorporating Western pop along with hip-hop, R&B, rock, and electronic sound. Consistently, tracks from both of these genres are dominating India's streaming charts.
Arijit Singh is one of the most popular Bollywood singers in recent history and his impressive metrics make that clear. Globally, he has the third most Spotify followers (84.9 million) the third highest monthly view count on YouTube (1.1 billion), and with a Chartmetric rank of 40, is the second most successful artist from all of Asia (behind only BTS).
Arijit’s success among the South Asian diaspora is evident from the fact that 16.8 million, or nearly half, of his 35.5 million monthly Spotify listeners are from outside of India. With 273.1k monthly listeners, the U.K. is his second-largest Spotify audience. Although the majority of his impressive 1.1 billion monthly YouTube views come from India, a combined 34 million of those views come from the U.S., U.K., and Canada. These countries have large South Asian diasporic populations – approximately five million each in the U.S. and the U.K. (though the latter is of the entire Asian diaspora) and 2.5 million in Canada – and seem to be strong contributors to Arijit’s global popularity.
The comparative strength (relative to Bollywood) of Indian pop is evidenced by artists such as Badshah and Diljit Dosanjh. Although they dabble in Bollywood, they started their careers outside of the industry and continue to prioritize releasing solo singles and albums. While Arijit is somewhat more successful, both of these artists are relatively comparable to other prominent Bollywood singers (such as Neha Kakkar), particularly concerning their popularity in countries with large diasporic populations.
In terms of streaming, Badshah and Diljit each have over 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Though India is where most of these streams come from for both artists, Canada and the U.K. fill out their top three. Instagram is where Indian Pop’s popularity becomes even more apparent: Diljit (15.2 million) and Badshah (12.3 million) have more followers than even Arijit (8.3 million). Combined, Diljit has 662k followers on the app from the U.S., U.K., and Canada – further evidence of the genre’s spread outside of India.
Artists Who Straddle Cultures
There is a growing number of artists who are effortlessly navigating the realms of both South Asian and Western cultures, captivating global audiences and music decision-makers. Born and/or raised in South Asia and then moving to the U.S., U.K., or Canada, their music is resonating in a way not seen before.
Interestingly, these artists remain deeply rooted in their South Asian heritage, with many predominantly singing in their native languages. Noteworthy members of this cohort include AP Dhillon, Sidhu Moose Wala, Ali Sethi, and Arooj Aftab. While some of these artists trail traditional Bollywood and Indian pop stars on streaming and social media metrics, they are quickly developing cult-like followings and garnering mainstream attention.
The late Punjabi rap artist Sidhu Moose Wala was leading the way in terms of global collaborations, working with artists such as British rapper Stefflon Don and Nigerian singer Burna Boy. Surpassing 283 million monthly video views on YouTube, with 11.7 million coming from his second home of Canada, 5.8 million from the U.S., and 4.7 million from the U.K., his legacy continues to resonate even after his untimely passing last year. The enduring influence of Sidhu Moose Wala was further exemplified during Burna Boy’s recent sold-out concert in London, where he paid tribute to the artist on stage.
Ali Sethi, a rising artist from Pakistan currently based in the U.S., was a standout sensation in 2022. His hit collaboration "Pasoori" with fellow Pakistani artist Shae Gill was Spotify’s most streamed song in Pakistan that year, which contributed to him being invited to perform at Coachella 2023.
These artists are also becoming familiar faces at Western award shows. In 2022, Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani woman to ever win a Grammy, taking home Best Global Music Performance. Notably, Arooj also broke free of the global category and received an additional nomination for Best New Artist alongside more mainstream artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Finneas, and Saweetie (among others). The artist saw this as a positive step from the Grammys in an interview where she addressed the “otherizing” of certain genres by the Recording Academy. The next year, she would become the first Pakistani artist to perform at the Grammys. Also in 2023, AP Dhillon became the first South Asian artist to perform at the Juno Awards in Canada.
South Asian Artists From The Global Diaspora
Born and raised not in South Asia but in the diaspora, these artists face challenges that prevent them from achieving success comparable to their global peers. Domestically, these include a lack of mainstream visibility and support, while internationally very few diaspora artists have achieved prominence in South Asia.
The current cohort of South Asian diaspora artists offers hope. Their music is in line with artists who are achieving success by straddling cultures – it incorporates Western influences (e.g. rap and drill) but predominantly leans into its South Asian foundations. For example, many artists are primarily singing in South Asian languages or sampling Bollywood classics.
First emerging in 2016, South London musician Ezu has been identified by Chartmetric as experiencing explosive growth. His most notable international achievement is his 2021 collaboration with prominent Bollywood singer Harshdeep Kaur on the track "Jannat," which has been streamed 12.6 million times on Spotify. While Ezu’s monthly streaming numbers on Spotify are encouraging (2.6 million overall, with 1.4 million from India and 68.5k from the U.K.), there is room for growth relative to the U.K. reach of Bollywood and Indian pop artists.
While an important tool for all artists, social media is proving critical for those from the diaspora. It is enabling them to overcome industry constraints by connecting directly to a thriving base of South Asian music consumers. Tesher, a musician from Canada, became a viral sensation after dropping remixes on TikTok and Instagram. He then leveraged this attention to create the globally successful song "Jalebi Baby" in 2020, featured in millions of TikTok posts. He also collaborated with Jason Derulo to release a remix version.
Encouragingly, Tesher’s social media success is translating into streaming numbers. He has 5.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify and, importantly, a comparable amount coming from the U.K. (96.2k) to top global South Asian artists. Furthermore, both the original "Jalebi Baby" and the remix with Jason Derulo have achieved over 145 million Spotify streams, showcasing that South Asian artists have organic reach and are not heavily reliant on Western collaborations, though such pairings are well received.
The evolution of South Asian music in recent years has revealed its immense global potential and opportunity. Bollywood and Indian pop superstars are reaching diaspora audiences globally while continuing to be extremely popular in India itself. Meanwhile, an emerging cohort of artists who straddle South Asia and Western nations are resonating across cultural boundaries. While diaspora artists continue to face unique challenges, there are new possibilities to stimulate the global success of South Asian artists, particularly by leveraging social media.
South Asian music is thriving more than ever, and its growing success is captivating the attention and imagination of listeners worldwide.
Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of Aug. 1, 2023.