Jay Sean: Ahead of the race

He's the Punjabi-Sikh from Hounslow who speaks like Hugh Grant and gave up medicine to become an R&B sensation. But now that Jay Sean is the highest-selling British male artist in America since Elton John, can his success really eradicate racial stereotyping?

Nick Duerden
Sunday 06 December 2009 01:00

At seven o'clock on a freezing November morning in Osterley, a west London enclave so close to Heathrow Airport you can wave to the flight attendants as they pass by overhead and watch as they wave back, Hounslow's biggest pop star gets into the awaiting taxi with a smile that suggests the early start doesn't trouble him. In many ways, this is a typical day at the office for Jay Sean. He is due on breakfast television in an hour to promote his single "Down" (number three in the charts at the time of writing), and immediately afterwards will be whisked by Virgin motorbike to Heathrow, where he will fly to Los Angeles on yet more promotional duties. "Down", a slick R&B confection redolent of a pants-down Justin Timberlake, is his debut single in America, and it recently achieved what no other Anglo-Asian artist ever has in the US: a number-one single. This is quite a turnaround of fortunes for a British singer who, just a couple of years ago, was let go by his UK record label. "Down" has sold two million copies Stateside.

"I'm a novelty to them," he grins as the taxi pulls away from the family house he still occasionally shares with his parents and grandparents. "A brown-skinned man who isn't a Muslim, and doesn't speak like the stereotypical cornershop-owning Indian." This is true. Sean speaks impeccably well; his management team call him Hugh Grant. "I've spent a lot of time in America these past couple of years, and the level of ignorance regarding Indian culture is vast. I suppose there are still not enough of us over there yet; their immigrant population is still mostly Hispanic. Fair enough, I suppose."

He is confident, however, that his album All or Nothing – his US debut, his third over here – will not only open the doors to him, but also to his "kind". "I have an opportunity here to raise awareness, and that's always been important to me," he says, peering out of the cab window as we speed through the still-empty streets of W6. "I'll never be content with just walking around Hammersmith [where he attended private school] and the neighbouring boroughs in the hope that people know who I am. I want to be recognised globally and to be a positive representative for my community."

He reveals that he was recently asked to sing the US national anthem at an upcoming NFL American football game, the kind of privilege normally reserved for corn-fed, white Americans with names like Jon and Bon and Jovi. "It's bonkers! Me, a British-Indian boy, singing in front of the Stars & Stripes for a television audience of millions." He laughs out loud. "It's at times like this I can't help but pat myself on the back and think, 'Well done, mate. Well done.'"

As first impressions ago, Jay Sean offers up an unassuming one. He does not stand out as particularly remarkable or a potential record-breaker, much less a bringer-down of cultural stereotypes. But spend any time with him, and you soon realise he is driven by a disarming amount of determination. A good looking 28-year-old with a strong jaw and innocent Bambi eyes, he dresses like a GQ subscriber and peddles the kind of mellifluous urban soul that could easily get him mistaken not just for Timberlake, but any number of (invariably American) purveyors of the genre: Ne-Yo, Usher, Chris Brown. "I've never claimed myself to be a particularly Asian R&B singer," he says. "I'm R&B, pure and simple, regardless of my skin colour. Should that matter? I think not."

He was born Kamaljit Singh Jhooti to Punjabi-Sikh parents, and spent the first 12 years of his life in Southall, west London, before the family moved five minutes across town, to Hounslow. Both areas are overwhelmingly Asian, which never sat particularly comfortably with Sean. "If you are raised in somewhere like Southall," he says, "you are surrounded by Indian people 99 per cent of the time. I didn't want that. I wanted diversity, a true taste of London and beyond." When his father sent him to the £2,000-a-term Latymer Upper School, he says, "it was the best thing he did for me. I met all sorts there, black kids, white kids, rich and poor – because many were there on scholarships. Everything opened up for me then; it was the making of me."

And it was private education, he says, that ensured he would avoid the restrictions endured by his forefathers. When his grandparents arrived from Delhi 40 years ago, his grandfather found it impossible to find even the lowliest employment until he ditched the turban and shaved off his beard: "That's how discriminatory this country was, how ignorant, how racist – refused work packing sausages because of his turban, his religion."

Sean's father was sent to the local comprehensive, which was riven with drugs and crime, but he applied himself with a determination that would go on to define Sean too. His father excelled, and now runs an insurance business and a private shipping company. His mother is a beautician.

"My father decided early on to get me the best education money could buy," Sean says. "He wanted me to have the opportunities that were denied to him." By 18, he was studying medicine at Queen Mary University in London, intent on becoming a doctor. But two years into the course, he dropped out. "The hardest decision I ever made, because I seriously loved medicine, and felt entirely committed to it. But I already had the music bug. It wouldn't go away." '

He had been dabbling in music since the age of 11, and by his mid-teens had adopted the moniker Jay Sean, convinced it would look better on flyers. He soon started rapping and singing at local venues, where he came to the attention of Billy Grant and Rob Stuart, his future managers. "The boy had talent, you could see that straight off. He just shone," says Grant when I meet him a day later. Along with Stuart, Grant had already guided the early careers of Craig David and Alesha Dixon's first band, Mis-Teeq. They signed him to their management label Point9, and by the time Sean had turned 22, the pair had landed him a £1m deal with Virgin. His 2003 debut album, Me Against Myself, went on to sell 100,000 copies in this country. In India, where several of its songs appeared in Bollywood films, it shifted 200,000 officially, and somewhere in the region of 1.8 million in bootlegs.

Though such immediate success constituted an impressively solid beginning for the man critics were calling the new Craig David, his record company was not so sure. Sean was now thrown in with a succession of songwriters to mix things up a bit: "They wanted me to become another James Blunt, basically, because James Blunt was selling a lot of records." But he resisted. "I was never your average artist, happy to do whatever the record company told me," he says. "I knew I had a very strong fan base, and I didn't want to let them down by releasing something that wasn't true to me, and to them. I'd walked away from what would have been a highly successful career in medicine. Nobody was going to steal the reins away from me now I had decided to become a singer."

The deal soured irrevocably, but by now Sean was happy to walk away. Rather than seek another contract, he, Grant and Stuart created their own label, Jayded. On a minimal budget – Grant was forced to remortgage his house, while Stuart filmed all of Sean's promo videos in his garden shed – they came up with second album My Own Way. Via various online sources, particularly MySpace and YouTube, they quickly reached a global audience and the album shifted another 100,000 copies. Sean then went on tour, clocking up appearances in 100 cities across the world. Jayded Records had achieved the improbable: a genuinely independent worldwide success. "Virgin must have been gutted," says Grant, unable to keep the smile from his lips.

We've arrive at BBC Centre and Sean is now ensconced in his rose-red dressing-room awaiting an 8.40am interview on Breakfast, where pun-obsessed co-host Bill Turnbull will say to the singer: "'Down' is very up, isn't it?" Sean will smile easily back. He is used to television hosts. "Very," he responds. He then turns directly to the camera. "And it's out now."

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he endeavours to explain just how he has established such far-reaching appeal without the heft of major-label muscle. "There are Indians everywhere," he says. "In every country in the world you will find a community of us, and it is those communities that brought me to them. I've toured everywhere over the past couple of years – Australia, Africa, Hong Kong, Dubai. It's been exhausting, but how better to reach your target audience than in person? Clearly it's worked. Look at me now."

Quite. He also developed a strong underground following in America, where he came to the attention of Cash Money Records, the New Orleans-based label that discovered Lil Wayne, the rapper who, last year, sold more records in America than anybody else. They signed him, then encouraged he and Wayne to collaborate. The result, "Down", was a record-breaking number-one hit single, the perfect platform from which to launch All or Nothing, which isn't quite as new for British audiences as it is for Americans: essentially a reworking of My Own Way, but with added songs.

"I've always done pretty well for myself here in the UK," he says, "but I was never going to be content being a big fish in a small pond. Why? I'm an extremely motivated and highly competitive person, that's why. Also, I want to help change the perception of my people. It's overdue." Indians in general, he says, remain shamefully under-represented in the media: "Or else we are portrayed unrealistically. I feel that people still know so little about Indian culture, and I guess the only way any layman is going to get the chance to learn more is when they see it represented in the mainstream, and represented properly. We're not all shop keepers, you know."

Which is why he is so eager to appear, this morning, on Breakfast to spread the message, just as he has on early morning shows across America of late. "When I'm on television, I won't be talking in a stereotypical Indian voice, but with my own voice. And I'll happily tell them, you, whoever wants to know, that, yes, I have had girlfriends, and I have been drunk, I do eat meat and I do the same things my black and white friends do. You see, we're not so different after all."

But if he feels he is making inroads here in his own country, in America, where people are now tipping him for superstar status, it's more of an uphill struggle. "I've spent a lot of time in airports over there recently, and I see the way people look at me. They take in my skin colour, and they secretly wonder whether I'm going to blow the plane up. It's a stereotype that has been built because of all the crap that has been going on in the world. The question is: how do we change that stereotype? By taking any opportunity I can to show them another side to us, that's how. That's why I think it's so incredible that me, a brown-skinned person, has been asked to sing the American national anthem on TV. And that's why," he adds, eyes sparkling, "I'll happily rub shoulders with the likes of Paris Hilton if those are the kind of doors that open for me after this success: to assimilate, to smash the stereotype."

Outside now, Sean is putting on a helmet and overcoat. The Virgin motorbike awaits, as does, beyond it, the West Coast of America. "Look," he says, "I'm aware that people far more talented than me would die to be where I am right now. I realise how lucky I am to be here, and just what an opportunity I've got. I'm not going to waste it."

The Virgin courier turns to him. "Ready?" he asks him.


The album "All or Nothing" and the single "Down" are out now

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