London-born singer Kamaljeet Singh Jhooti was a hit in the U.K. but not the U.S. before he signed with Cash Money Records, home to chart-topping rapper Lil Wayne. You might know him now as Jay Sean, the singer behind the current hit single “Down.” Sean recently became the first South Asian male artist to top the Billboard singles charts when his song “Down” went to No. 1.
“You know, every day I wake up thinking this can’t really be happening, when am I going to wake up from this dream?” the 26-year-old Sean said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. He also has a second single, “Do You Remember,” that has entered the top ten.
Sean is now shooting a video in Los Angeles with Lil Wayne, Kevin Rudolph and Birdman (a team called the Cash Money Heroes) for a single titled “I Made It.” “This is just the beginning for me,” says Sean. He says he has a number of collaborations planned for this year.
Though Sean’s worldwide popularity is soaring right now, his South Asian fans are not at all surprised by the news. They’ve been following his music since 2003, when Sean dropped out of medical school and decided to pursue music. His first album, “Me Against Myself,” included the hit tracks “Nachna Tere Naal” and “Stolen,” making Sean an instant success in the world of South Asian music. His melding of Punjabi bhangra beats with his soulful R&B melodies won him many fans, most of whom were, like him, of South Asian descent growing up in the US or the UK. Eventually, the album also became a hit in India.
After flitting from record label to record label for a few years, he finally landed on Cash Money Records, a New Orleans-based hip-hop label which also puts out Lil Wayne. Cash Money released Sean’s album “All or Nothing” in 2009. Those who had been following his videos from early in his career saw a change in the way Sean was marketing himself. Gone was the Punjabi boy from England, whose videos were shot on London street corners with fly Indian girls shaking their hips to his bhangra beats. Here was a buffer, stronger, more MTV-ready performer. As Sean crooned the lyrics to “Down” into his microphone, the world started to ask who he was. Was he British? Was he Indian? Was he Latino? Nobody could quite tell, and none of it seemed to matter as Sean and Lil Wayne (who raps on “Down”) started to take over the charts with their single.
What does Jay have to say about his name change, a switch he made early in his music career? “You know,” he said, “I bet Snoop Doggy Dogg isn’t the name on his passport either!” On a more serious note, he added “It’s not normal, what we do. As artists, we stand up in stadiums and command the attention of thousands of people. That’s not easy, and sometimes we need to create a persona to go with that. Sometimes we have to become someone who is larger than life. That’s why Beyoncé’s not really Beyoncé anymore, she’s Sasha Fierce.”
Sean has said that one of his ideal collaborations would be with hip-hop power couple Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z. Sean has repeatedly said that he models himself after hip hop, soul and R&B singers like Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, Jay-Z and others. “I have to say this again and again, because it’s the most important thing to me,” Sean says. “I am a pop and R&B singer. I’m not necessarily an Indian singer or musician. I sing in English, and the music I do blends hip hop, pop, R&B, and soul.”
This is not to say, however, that Sean has forgotten where he came from. “I’m so proud of my heritage, and I know who my fans are,” Sean says. “Much like Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin who might have started with a hardcore Latin fan-base, I’ll always remember what my foundation was. The minute you forget who your fan-base is, that’s the minute everything falls out from under you.”
When asked if there was any chance if he might go back to producing singles with bhangra beats, Sean said he was “open to anything.” He then cited a recent concert in Miami where a local artist who had a huge Puerto Rican fan base asked him to co-write a track. “If I could collaborate with him, that would mean getting my name out to that many more people who maybe hadn’t heard of me before.”