(September 23, 2021) Who can forget the peppy Dance With You from the early 2000s? A then 22-year-old Jay Sean exploded on the music scene with a chartbuster that was set to change the course of his life. The song made him an overnight star, and as they say, the rest is history. From signing a £1 million deal with Virgin Records to becoming the poster boy of UK’s Asian underground music scene, the artiste truly put Indian music and hip-hop on the global map.
The 40-year-old was among the first few artistes who opened the doors of South Asian music to the world. But the journey to the top hasn’t been one of sunshine and rainbows. He had to fight stereotypes to make his way into the world of international music. Here’s the story of the Global Indian who dropped out of medical college to pursue his dream of making music.
Love for music translated into career
Born as Kamaljit Singh Jhooti in London to Indian immigrant parents in a Punjabi Sikh family, Sean was raised in the Asian community of South Hall. Music was something that resonated with Sean so much as a child that at the age of 11, he formed a hip-hop duo Compulsive Disorder with his cousin. A young Sean attended Latymer Upper School in the morning, and wrote songs in the evening. “I remember watching Yo! MTV Raps from a young age. And that put me into writing, because I just wanted to write raps. I used to go and find instrumentals when I was around 13, and I would write my own rhymes and record my own mixtapes. Me and my crew were making mixtapes, writing original lyrics over other people’s beats, and that’s what really got me into writing,” he told SongWriter Universe in an interview.
Coming from a Punjabi family, music wasn’t considered a traditional occupation and his parents encouraged him to focus on his studies. Someone who excelled in academics, Sean won himself a scholarship at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry to train as a doctor only to drop out in 2003 to pursue a career in singing. To kick start his career in music, he chose Jay Sean as his stage name. “Jay comes from my last name Jhooti and my grandmother used to call me shaan which is where Sean comes from,” he told ExpressIndia.
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Poster boy of UK’s Asian underground scene
Sean was creating music for a long time, but things took a beautiful turn when one of his tracks One Minute fell into the hands of producer Rishi Rich. This gave birth to the Rishi Rich project in 2003 that had Sean, Juggy D and Rich as its prime members. The trio exploded on the UK’s Asian Underground scene with Dance With You, a chartbuster that made it to Top 20 hit. Such was the mania around the song that even Virgin Records couldn’t miss the chance of signing a £1 million with this rising star. Under Relentless Records, Sean belted out his first solo outing Eyes On You. The peppy beats and Sean’s velvety voice cast its spell on music lovers, and the song in no time became a Top 10 hit.
Global hip-hop icon
For the next one year, each of his singles made the right noise in the music circle, promoting him as a promising singer. 2004 brought with it the opportunity to release his debut album and Sean jumped the bandwagon with Me Against Myself which ended up selling 100,000 copies in the UK alone. Being hailed as the Asian sensation, Sean’s experimental and creative fusion of contemporary R&B and Indian music hit the right chord with music lovers across the globe. While Sean was popularizing Indian R&B fusion sounds in Asian underground and pop music, things with Virgin Records started to sour due to creative differences over with his second album.
The fallout sparked a resurgence for the artiste who spent time reflecting on the experience and channeled it into writing songs. After a hiatus of almost two years, Sean returned with a bang with his second album My Own Way, a joint venture deal between his own label Jayded and 2Point9 Records. The album debuted at number six in the UK with its hit song Ride It smashing records, and he soon found himself nominated at MOBO Award for Best UK Male and Best R&B/Soul among music heavyweights like Chris Brown, Estelle and Ne-Yo, which spoke volumes about him gaining popularity as a household sensation.
Champion of diversity
In 2008, Sean scripted history when he bagged a deal with Cash Money Records, which is a part of Universal Republic Records, becoming the first South Asian singer to achieve the feat. The accomplishment opened an opportunity for the world to witness South Asian culture from close quarters. The deal got Sean his first collaboration with Lil Wayne, and the single became an instant hit zooming its way up the Billboard. This made him the first Asian British artiste to top the Hot 100 since Freddie Mercury of Queen in 1980.
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“Me getting to this point provides me the opportunity to show people what our culture is all about. Our community is just as or even more so musically inclined and now is our time to show the world that we are just like everybody else. The fact that my grandfather and my father had to hide their identity to assimilate into culture was unjust. They did not think that such barriers could be broken in their lifetime. I take it very seriously that I have one shot to make it – not just for myself, but my community,” he told Darpan Magazine in an interview.
After winning three awards including Best Male, Best Urban Act and Best Album at the 2009 UK Asian Music Awards, Sean performed with Akon at the Grammy same year. Such was the craze around this British Asian sensation that he found himself on Number 35 in Billboard’s Hot 100 Artists of the year. The year came to a stunning end for the artiste as he became the first South Asian to perform at the Madison Square Garden in New York. For the next few years, he belted out hits after hits with The Mistress, Do You Remember and All or Nothing. It was in 2015 that he reunited with Rishi Rich and Juggy D to restart the Rishi Rich project with their new single Freak.
In 2020, Sean resurfaced with a bang with Eyes on You 2 which reached No 1 on BBC Asian Chart. While Sean’s journey has had its shares of ups and downs, like any Asian, he too felt stereotyped in the initial years of his career. “I have experienced stereotypes and lack of equal opportunities. The reason being that certain people don’t look at you as an artist but take the whole package into mind and put you in a box. I experienced it a lot but I also took it upon myself to show people very early on in my career that there was no stopping me. When they would label me as a specific type of artiste, I would break out of that box and do something completely different every single time. It’s something I really love doing. Hopping onto different genres and expanding on what I can do as an artiste,” he told Urban Asian.
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The 40-year-old is not just busy making music but also lends support to organizations and causes that resonate with him. For someone who was training to be a doctor in his graduation, medical field is closer to his heart. In 2004 and 2009, he supported the Aga Khan Foundation in the charity event Partnership Walk and Run by performing in Regent’s Park. Around the same time, he performed at Justin Timberlake‘s charity concert to raise finds for the Shriners Hospital for Children, thus raising more than $9 million along with artistes like Taylor Swift and Alicia Key. In 2012, he joined Child Hunger Ends Here campaign, and recorded a song Here’s Hope to create awareness.