COVER STORY: The Meteoric Rise of Guru Randhawa
How a singer from Gurdaspur, Punjab went on to rule Bollywood charts and clinch global collabs
Blame it on the overwhelming Punjabization of desi pop culture in the recent past or the addictive nature of his tunes, Guru Randhawa is not losing his envious spot on the playlist India is listening to on loop. If you’ve missed him on the charts, you’ve heard him on the radio. His Bollywood debut “Suit Suit” (originally his single “Suit” with Sri Lankan-British artist Arjun) from the 2017 film Hindi Medium was somewhat of a sensation, cementing Randhawa as a fixture in the Hindi film industry, a hit that was quickly followed up with another catchy number, “Ban Ja Rani” (originally his 2016 track “Tu Meri Rani” with rapper Haji Springer) from Tumhari Sulu, later that year. Since then, the industry has come to love Randhawa and even though his rise seems to have occurred overnight, the Punjabi artist has been a name in the making for about eight years.
From the black leather jacket to the slick-hair and the baller cars, Randhawa’s pop identity drips with what might be called ‘desi swag’ — a characteristic quality made famous by artists of the regional Punjabi milieu. A look at his music videos will have you believing the guy was born to entertain — except that’s not quite how he star ted out. Randhawa was a one-man band in his hometown
Gurdaspur, Punjab and New Delhi where he played small shows and participated in competitions, honing his skills as he tried to find a break while completing his MBA at the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM). He first found the spotlight in 2012 when a director friend introduced him to British singer-songwriter Arjun. Randhawa was the featured artist on Arjun’s R&B track “Same Girl,” also starring in the accompanying music video. They would later collaborate on “Suit.” “Today, it is easier for an artist to get discovered because of so many mediums. Back in the Nineties, there were fewer mediums besides radio and TV and the access was tough. But today you can upload a video and become a superstar,” says Randhawa who released his debut album Page One in 2013 under Punjabi music label Speed Records. He then signed to T-Series in 2015.
Born Gursharanjot Singh Randhawa, the Punjabi singer-songwriter’s stage name was a moniker given by Pakistani-American rapper Bohemia whom he worked with on the 2015 Punjabi pop track “Patola” which elevated him into Punjabi music royalty, winning him the award for the Best Male Debut at the 2014 PTC Music Awards. Fast forward to 2019 and Randhawa has crossed the coasts to collaborate with American rapper Pitbull on the party anthem “Slowly Slowly,” even featuring on the rapper’s Latin pop song “Mueve La Cintura,” rapping in Punjabi on the track which also features Puerto Rican artist Tito El Bambino. If there’s one takeaway from Randhawa’s journey, it’s that there’s no market a Punjabi number can’t dominate. The 2017 Punjabi- pop dance track “High Rated Gabru” (813 million views) and 2018’s pop ballad “Lahore” (780 million views) and the songs that’s played at almost all Indian weddings, “Made In India” (449 million views), have the highest view counts from all of Randhawa’s music videos, most of which have hit a million and above on YouTube. “Punjabi music has always been big and will always be. Bollywood doesn’t need Punjabi music nor Punjabi music needs Bollywood,” says Randhawa.
If you like contemporary Punjabi pop, you can’t miss listening to Guru Randhawa. For an artist making non-film music, these numbers present a promising development for alternative artists. A product of the Punjabi scene, Randhawa jumped to Bollywood and now has this coveted position, even winning the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for ‘Most Trending Singer’ in 2019. We caught up with him to talk about his unique position in the music industry, creative access, going global and more. Excerpts:
The story of your success is remarkable. As an artist, tell us about the hard work that went into it — the non-glamorous things that no one talks about.
If you are an artist, you have to work hard and I did too. Because of that, we are where we are and going ahead, it is all going to be the result of our hard work only.
Your songs do well independently as well as when they’re in Bollywood soundtracks. Both mediums have given you immense reach but which medium do you prefer and why?
I think being in India, Bollywood is the ultimate goal for every music artist. But if you started out as an independent artist, you would definitely like to continue making independent music. However, Bollywood gives you more reach and penetrates through each street in India. Both are equally important to me, but personally, I enjoy making independent music.
In the digital age, there is space for every kind of artist but there is clutter on the Internet also. Do you think artists today have a lower chance to get discovered than in the Nineties?
I think this question is wrong as today it’s easier for an artist to get discovered because of so many mediums. You can showcase your talent and easily approach directors, producers, composers and audiences. Back in the Nineties, there were fewer mediums besides radio and TV and the access was tough. But today, you can upload a video and become a superstar overnight.
Tell us about the role that social media has played in contributing to your success. Can an artist today afford to ignore social media?
Yes, if an artist chooses not to be on social media, it is fine. The artist’s talent speaks louder. Their art sells and if their art is selling well, they don’t really need social media. There are so many examples where people don’t use social media. Some use social media as a medium to promote their art. Even if you are not on social media and your art is doing wonders, you are a bonafide superstar and you don’t necessarily need social media as such.
How was the experience at Milan Fashion Week? What were the biggest highlights for you?
It was my first time at MFW and I loved it. I’m thankful to Fila India for making me a part of it. I got to learn and explore so many new things on my trip there. It was a beautiful experience.
What are the biggest challenges you’re facing as an artist today? When a certain style of song by you becomes very popular, do you feel the pressure from people (fans or your label) to replicate the same styles?
There is no challenge as an artist for me. Even before, there was no pressure and after becoming a hit, there’s definitely not. After becoming a hit, one should be happy and not pressurized. Even if you are not a hit, there shouldn’t be pressure. Either way, you can still create more art, more music that might rule people’s heart, so there is no pressure ever.
The Hindi music industry/Bollywood has a lot to learn from the Punjabi pop industry. What is it about the Punjabi music scene that it became so big and lucrative?
Punjabi music has always been big and will always be. Bollywood doesn’t need Punjabi music nor Punjabi music needs Bollywood. But when the two come together, they support each other and make it bigger. Independently they both are big in their own space and have always been.
What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
I think life motivates me, the sun motivates me, the moon motivates me. Everyday they rise and set. The same way we have to rise and keep working each day.
Tell us more about the team behind Guru Randhawa and their part in your journey. How important is it to have a great team (management + PR + social media) for an artist? Would you have come this far without their support?
I think without a good team nothing is possible, an artist can’t even step out of the house. A true team takes an artist to great heights and stays with you along the journey. The team is everything. The rest is all air.
How does it feel to be on the cover of Rolling Stone India, and how was the experience of shooting with us?
I’m honored to be part of such a great magazine. It was wonderful shooting the cover and everything was done well. Thank you for having me on the cover.
Guru Randhawa photographed for Rolling Stone India by Runvijay Paul
Wardrobe by Celio
Art Director: Tanvi Joel
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Makeup by Arveen Sandhu
Location courtesy: Roseate House, New Delhi