What the headline says — here are 10 up-and-coming musical artists that have South Asian roots, for you to tune in to right now.
Perhaps the most self-indulgent list of mine to date, but it is astounding that people have been missing out on some of these stellar acts! Now I promise this isn’t just a “Spot The Desi” game (and it’s not limited to India or the subcontinent!), these up-and-coming musicians have been consistently churning out solid singles, sound projects and gorgeous visuals — so even if you don’t particularly care about their heritage (but come on!), they’re well worth checking out.
10 up-and-coming musical artists with South Asian roots
You may be familiar with Raveena Aurora, a Punjabi-American musician with an air-light voice and the prettiest music videos. The now-27-year-old burst onto the scene with her Shanti EP in 2017, a blend of R&B and jazz, and hasn’t stopped since — following it up with her debut album Lucid (2019) and another EP, Moonstone (2020). Raveena specialises in vulnerable lyrics (“Stronger” is about personal healing; “Time Flies” is about an abortion) and a jazz-like tonal quality and pleasing falsetto.
Her latest project sees her moving towards a more upbeat, pop-fusion sound with more nods to her Indian and Sikh heritage. Take the video for “Rush” (above) as an example, which doesn’t take the admittedly easy route of simply recreating a Bollywood item number. Instead, it stays true to Raveena’s look and pastel palette while still paying homage to her roots. The rest of the album also delivers, with a splattering of South Asian instruments and even some lyrics in Hindi. Personally, I’ve been waiting for this.
Listen to: Asha’s Awakening (2022) — the multilingual sophomore album from Raveena, a concept project that follows Asha, a space princess from Ancient Punjab who travels through space and time.
Digging around to find information about dhruv can be a little tricky. According to The Straits Times, he was born in London to Indian parents, was raised in Singapore and moved to the United States for university. The 22-year-old first independently released the sleeper hit “double take” in 2019 but didn’t give the soft R&B track a music video until late 2021 — it gained solid traction over the two years in between, in part due to a rise in popularity on TikTok.
After dropping a few soothing singles here and there, dhruv finally released his first project in January this year. Titled rapunzel, the long-anticipated EP was recorded between 2019 and 2021, “mostly in his bedroom”, as he stated in an Instagram post. The eight-track album covers his childhood, falling in love (on standout track “moonlight“), relationships and coming of age. And the accompanying visuals look like memories. You’ll just have to listen to understand.
Listen to: rapunzel (2022) — the all-lowercase debut EP from dhruv, with eight dreamy tracks about childhood, coming of age, and relationships.
Born in South London to a Bangladeshi mother from Dhaka and an Irish father from Dublin, Joy Crookes has a voice you wouldn’t believe: husky and jazzy, with all the makings of modern soul. She released her debut single at 17 in 2016, and followed it up with a string of EPs in the next three years, making slow but steady gains on the charts and some notable achievements — including a Glastonbury Festival appearance, being shortlisted for the Rising Star Award at the 2020 Brit Awards and placing fourth in the Sound of 2020 (the annual BBC poll of 170 music critics who predict breakthrough acts).
All of this led up to a monumental project: her debut album Skin. Crookes has always paid tribute to her South London roots, particularly the British Bengali-populated Elephant and Castle, and Brixton, and Skin elevates that — with vulnerable lyrics and gorgeous visuals with clever references (in “19th Floor“, she wears a dupatta in one scene and Irish step dances in another; in “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” (above), she wears a white saree traditionally worn by widows, on a motorbike). Her music really speaks for itself — go have a listen now!
Listen to: Skin (2021) — the modern soul-jazz debut studio album from Joy Crookes, an “autobiographical body of work” inspired by her heritage, identity and experiences of young adulthood and heartbreak.
In “peppermint”, Tommy Genesis raps “No flex ’cause I’m underground and mainstream” and she means it — having released alternative and experimental hip hop tracks since 2013, just always at the “outskirts of mainstream rap”. Born in Vancouver to a Tamil father and Swedish mother, Genesis Yasmine Mohanraj studied film and sculpture at art school before turning to music. One of her first fashion features was an appearance in Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 campaign under her stage name Tommy Genesis (if you’re getting lost, Genesis is her real first name, and the second part of her stage name); since then, she’s made a few notable appearances at fashion weeks.
Tommy’s music is weird, like art-meets-fashion-meets-music — hyper-sexual and covering everything from sexual identity to violence, gore and power; she calls the genre ‘fetish rap’. Now almost a decade into the music industry, she’s still making experimental sonar projects, with a few fun collaborations with also-Tamil rapper MIA and also-half-South Asian artist Charli XCX under her belt. Not bad for an underground artist.
Listen to: goldilocks x (2021) — the sophomore “rawer” studio album from Tommy Genesis with a little less sexual bravado, a little more reflection on past traumas, and plenty of hyper pop and alt-hip-hop beats.
I found ASHWARYA by accident on a YouTube spiral, and at the perfect time — just a few months before she released her debut EP. Born in India and based in Melbourne (where she grew up), ASHWARYA signed with Noize Recordings in 2020 and released two singles in the same year — “PSYCHO HOLE” and, my entry single, “BIRYANI”.
“BIRYANI” opens with lyrics in Hindi before a switch to English and then back to Hindi (drawing you in immediately!) and features some Bhangra drumming. But the pop track’s standout trait, one found in her debut single and a few follow-ups, is an abrupt tempo change — in “BIRYANI”, the song slows down for a disorienting chorus with eerie Eilish-like whispering vocals. It’s so fun. And the music video, a DIY clip filmed in Melbourne is so cool, and even (dare I say it?) very Gen-Z?
Where exactly is Priya Ragu from? It’s hard to pinpoint. She’s Tamil by ethnicity, Swiss by nationality and is now based in the UK. Raised in Switzerland after her parents fled the civil war in Sri Lanka, Ragu grew up around music, the tabla (twin drums) and Kollywood (the Tamil film industry). She rose to prominence in 2020 with her debut single “Good Love 2.0”, but personally, her standout tracks are the songs that followed.
Take “Chicken Lemon Rice” or “Kamali” (above), where Ragu infuses her R&B tracks sung in English with French (in “Chicken Lemon Rice), Tamil (in “Kamali”), tabla drumming and Indian beats. In particular, “Kamali” is inspired by the short film of the same name, about a seven-year-old girl skater in Mahabalipuram, India. Ragu and her brother wrote the song together (they collaborate on most of her music) and in the video we see Ragu speaking directly to the schoolgirl in Tamil, telling her to take the lead and she’ll follow — they’ll “build temples for our mothers/because they’re the goddesses who raised us on their shoulders”.
Listen to: damnshestamil (2021) — the vibrant debut mixtape from rapper-artist Priya Ragu with plenty of alt-R&B tracks, South Indian-influenced sounds and, of course, Tamil.
Now for some of us (read: Hongkongers), TikTok is a distant dream, a thing of the past we’ve just had to move on from. But if you remember scrolling through your screen for hours, you might remember this sound (“I’m a pretty boy, I’m stunning”). It’s a line lifted from “Stunnin’” by Canadian-American artist Curtis Waters — who, you might know, is Nepali.
Waters’ stage name is a homage to two of his favourite artists — Ian Curtis and Frank Ocean. And his music has that slight Odd Future-like energy to it: a chaotic, all-over-the-place sound, shouty vocals, confusing visuals, and almost-jarring lyrics. Diagnosed as bipolar during his first year at college, his music tends to explore being a “brown immigrant with mental health issues”, as he told The Guardian.
Waters refused to sign with a label so you’ll have to keep an eye on him, as he rolls out singles and drops projects.
Listen to: “Manic Man” (2022) — the most recent single from Curtis Waters, a song he wrote about his life-long struggle with bipolar disorder.
Canadian artist Tesher’s breakout hit originally started off as a remix of Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” interpolated with “Jalebi Bai” from the Hindi movie Double Dhamaal. One particular part of the sound (where Tesher raps over “Jalebi Bai”) took off on TikTok, complete with a baby dance routine that I, too, learnt. Tesher took note, binned the remix and came back with a whole new song without Bieber — “Jalebi Baby”.
Indian sounds have made their way into everything from Korean pop to Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, with frequent appearances in hip hop (Timbaland loves Bollywood) — so it’s a lot of fun to see a whole song complete with clever in-joke lyrics in English and Punjabi that actually make sense. And the appearance from Jason Derulo doesn’t hurt either.
Listen to: “Jalebi Baby”, of course, but give his loving tribute to the King Khan of Bollywood, “Young Shahrukh“, a stream too.
We’re getting into the “I only know one song from this person but I’m keeping an eye on them” part of this list. What I do know, is “Ladke” (“boys” in Hindi-Urdu) is a banger, a bop!! Sung in Hindi-Urdu and English, it’s a collaboration between India-born Houston-based Shreea Kaul and LA-based REHMA (of Pakistani heritage), with a music video directed by Priya Minhas (who also shot the stunning Vevo LIFT “Streets” viral live performance featuring Doja Cat in a pool of milk).
Shreea Kaul actually previously went by Shreya, which initially led me to a lot of dead-end searches due to the very-popular Indian playback singer Shreya Ghoshal. I understand the name change — and I’m looking forward to more!
Listen to: “Ladke“, “Gluttony” and whatever’s next from bilingual Shreea Kaul. Make sure to check out REHMA too.
Perhaps the oldest on this list, Anik Khan has been making music for years, but it was a lyric from his song “Regardless” that really caught my attention: “Baby, f*ck a dowry/If there’s a price on your head, that’s a bounty”. Khan is Dhaka-born and Queens-raised, moving to the United States at the age of four and living there since, as an undocumented citizen.
It’s something he explores in his music (the also Priya Minhas-directed video for “Regardless” opens with a recreation of a real-life arrest) — touching on a broken immigration system, criminal justice, and Bengali and wider South Asian cultural norms. Khan’s more recent releases, double EPs Denied and Approved, explore immigration issues and the pandemic.
A few special mentions, aka. “more established” musical artists with South Asian roots:
- M.I.A. — Icon living. The first Eelam Tamil rapper you knew of.
- Sameer Gadhia (Young the Giant‘s lead vocalist) — The first brown boy in the (pretty white) indie musicscape, maybe?
- Norah Jones — I’ve heard there was a time in the 2000s when Norah Jones was inescapable. She is, of course, the daughter of the late Bengali Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar.
- Charli XCX — You didn’t know her mother’s Gujurati? Now you do.
- Jay Sean — The “first brown boy to get it poppin”. He’s also everywhere, at every other Sindhi wedding and somehow friendly with every South Asian influencer in existence. I don’t know how he does it.
- Zayn Malik — Gigi Hadid’s baby daddy. Okay, fine, and former member of pop sensation One Direction.
- Chilli (TLC) — Rozonda Thomas’ father is Bengali and Arab, a fact any Bengali will love to remind you of.
- Swet Shop Boys — It’s hard to argue this is an underrated group when one half of the duo is award-winning British actor Riz Ahmed. (For another “Spot the Desi”, please don’t miss former Nickelodeon kid Avan Jogia in the MV linked)