Early in the pandemic, Hitesh Sharma remembers looking up at a giant, bright billboard at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto advertising The Weeknd’s album, After Hours.
Regina musician Sharma, better known by his stage name Tesher, recalls thinking to himself: The Weeknd’s “got this huge billboard and nobody’s looking at it because everybody’s inside, in quarantine.”
“Instead, everybody’s looking at the same ‘billboard,’ which is our phones,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Just over a year later, the 26-year-old’s own single Jalebi Baby would go viral on TikTok with over 1.6 billion video views, earning him legions of new fans across the globe, a collaboration with American singer Jason Derulo and a 2022 Juno award nomination for Breakthrough Artist of the Year.
He credits much of his international recognition to social platforms changing the way the music industry operates.
“It’s made everything so democratized … now I’m having the same chances as The Weeknd,” Sharma shared during preparations for his performance at Sunday’s Juno awards show.
Well before Jalebi Baby became an international staple in the soundtrack of summer 2021, Sharma had grown a loyal fan base with his remixes of beloved Bollywood songs. He interweaves Western hits with Indian classics and uploads them to YouTube from his basement in Regina; fan favourites include Young Shahrukh and a remix of Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road with A.R. Rahman’s Ramta Jogi. The energetic and suave tracks fuse his worlds together, resulting in a sound that is distinctly Tesher.
“Fusion and crossovers are always just so exciting,” he says. “It’s surprising, and when you get it to work, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Though he had found success in mostly South Asian and diaspora circles, it was Sharma’s remix of Justin Bieber’s Yummy with 2011 Bollywood hit Jalebi Bai that caught fire on TikTok, which led him to turn the song into an original, complete with his own vocals in English, Hindi and Punjabi.
“My dream from day one, for me and my community, was to make a song that has Indian/South Asian influences and pierces through the mainstream in a way that people will just listen to it like a regular song, not because [it’s] niche,” he said, comparing the track’s mass appeal to Panjabi MC’s Beware of the Boys.
“The song [Jalebi Baby] draws on so many different sounds and influences,” Sharma explained. “Sonically, it’s a reggaeton song with salsa influences, the drums are Middle Eastern/Persian, there’s darbukas and all that kind of stuff, and the synths are Balkan/Eastern European.”
Jalebi Baby, which name-checks the sticky and spiralled South Asian dessert, was used by all kinds of subcultures on TikTok: Sharma recalls watching Muslims use the sound to creatively transition into their Eid outfits, a group of people dressed in FBI uniforms dancing to the tune and others using the sound to recreate anime scenes.
While reveling in the worldwide love for Jalebi Baby, Sharma noticed a message on Instagram one day from Jason Derulo, showing admiration for the track, but also saying he wanted in.
“And I was like, ‘Man, that’s amazing because I was literally thinking about you, in a non-creepy way,’ ” he recalled with a chuckle. Sharma had previously thought about how Derulo’s vocals would elevate the track, and now they were on back-and-forth Zoom calls, sometimes at 3 a.m., exchanging ideas for their collaboration.
With Derulo’s inclusion of his classic vocal style, a playful verse, and even some lyrics sung in Punjabi, the new single was released in May, 2021, followed by a colourful, high-energy music video in July that saw the Bollywood-Hollywood duo dance Bhangra together. The new release was again embraced globally, with over 200 million views on YouTube alone. It also garnered more TikTok traction and earned unofficial must-play status at South Asian weddings.
“Honestly, if you go back to that music video and you see the part where we dance together, look at my face. I’ve never smiled that hard in my goddamn life,” he laughed, recalling the memory.
“You can see all the joy. That was the moment where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve done something that will hopefully stand the test of time.’ ”
As part of his Juno nomination, Sharma will take the stage for his first-ever performance at the biggest night in Canadian music, with his mom, dad and sister cheering him on from the crowd. He hints at something unexpected when he takes the stage.
“I always want to create moments that people remember and I’ve got a big surprise for our performance on Sunday.”
The artist says he’s working on putting out more energetic music just in time for the summer, with a new single set to release early June. He’s excited to bring his fusion style of music to people and inspire other artists to experiment.
“I think that’s kind of where music is heading,” he said. “A good mix of things where everybody can enjoy it together.”
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