When singer Hrishi Balaji was growing up in Potomac, Maryland, he was the least prepared and least interested student in his South Indian singing classes. Now, the 24-year-old TikToker has over 60,000 followers on the app and recently sang in front of a cheering audience at Times Square for the Diwali celebration.
"It was really like all of the mission statements I'd ever said out loud manifested in one moment, which was really cool," the singer, who goes professionally by Hrishi, told TODAY.
Hrishi, found on social media under the handle @hrishisongs, is known for his mashups of popular songs like "Levitating" by Dua Lipa with a South Indian classical twist on it. He is also currently working on his first debut album featuring almost all original music.
But the style Hrishi is trained in, called Carnatic music, was not something he always embraced as he navigated growing up as an immigrant.
A nonlinear love for music
Growing up, Hrishi said his first exposure to music was through his dad, who was always singing film songs. His parents put him in Carnatic singing lessons, but Hrishi said he was never invested in the classes.
"I was like the worst in the class, I did not want to do it," he said. "I was super disorganized ... my practice moments would be the 20 minutes right before we got in the car."
As an elementary school and middle school student, Hrishi said he never felt like he could wear his culture on his sleeve due to a lack of South Asian representation in mainstream media.
Instead, as he entered high school, he decided to dive deeper into musical theatre and wasn't too interested in his Carnatic music studies.
"There's something about being seen that's really wonderful, and I never thought much of it," Hrishi said. "I didn't even think that it was worth chasing it."
But eventually, in high school, Hrishi found a South Asian song he wanted to sing and decided to get back into his Carnatic training — and from there, his love for music blossomed.
Hrishi said he fell in love with Carnatic music, and even though he was a STEM major in college, he continued to practice and write songs on the side so that when he graduated, he decided it was worth taking a year to see if his music career would go anywhere. And it definitely did.
'The entire landscape shifted'
Hrishi said his foray into TikTok was actually largely unplanned. But one day, his friend recommended adding a Carnatic twist to a popular song at the time, "Astronaut in the Ocean" by Masked Wolf. By the time they returned from lunch, the video had gained over 50 thousand likes.
"I got follows from people that have a couple million followers all within the same day, and I just remember thinking, 'When is this going to stop?'" And it just kept going for the next couple of days," he said.
Hrishi began making more TikToks fusing together aspects of Carnatic music with popular American songs like "Good for You" by Olivia Rodrigo and "Peaches" by Justin Bieber.
What followed was nothing like what he could have predicted, Hrishi said. Dancers began choreographing to his songs, other singers began remixing his mashups and Bollywood celebrities began reaching out to him.
"The entire landscape shifted," Hrishi reflected. "I had been working for like, five years trying to be a professional musician and this is not what I expected."
Hrishi said he had always envisioned himself making original hit songs that were purely one American style. But as his TikToks blew up, he realized that his calling was slightly different.
"It was a cool moment too because I spent a long time feeling like Carnatic music wasn't cool or worth telling my friends about," he said. "But then I had all these American people saying the style was so cool and so difficult, and I was like, 'Okay, I was wrong.' I was glad that I was able to mix the two (styles)."
Coming into his own
Hrishi's journey hasn't been an easy ride, though. He said social media can be overwhelming, especially as he learns to balance replying to fans and interacting with thousands of humans on a daily basis.
To recalibrate himself, Hrishi said he took a brief break from social media to balance "artist Hrishi and human Hrishi." With the break, he was able to return feeling more connected with himself and his craft, he said, and promoted a successful summer tour.
Although he originally didn't see himself singing professionally in the Carnatic style in any capacity, Hrishi said the fusion style has allowed him to feel more in touch with aspects of his background that he otherwise shunned.
"Our culture is so vast, and our parents tell us to be proud of it, but it's hard to do that when you're surrounded by a bunch of people that don't understand it so then you have to be the ambassador for it," he said. "I’m coming into this moment where my entire career shifted into being like, ‘This is what actually works for you. It’s not the English-only thing — embrace all parts of your identity.'"
Now, Hrishi said he's encouraged to see the rising number of South Asian creators and artists entering mainstream media and hopes it can serve as inspiration for the next generation of South Indian kids balancing their hyphenated identities.
The singer is also working on his first album, set to release next year. His performance at Times Square also marked a pivotal moment in his career, he said, when he realized he was bringing South Asian music to western mainstream in an iconic New York City venue.
"The goal is to be mainstream," Hrishi said. "Most artists that are very successful in America are white... but can we change that? Can we also bring Bollywood and Indian music to the limelight in the way that like K-Pop has kind of entered the limelight?"
Looking ahead, Hrishi said he already has his next album lined up as he crafts a new genre of music combining Carnatic music with pop music.
Ultimately, although he never saw himself taking this path with his career, Hrishi said he's excited by what's yet to come.
"I feel like we're in an era where the lyricism and the stories and the musical cultures are all kind of sifting together, and I think we'll find ourselves — Indian people — on that roundtable soon," he said.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com