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NEW DELHI: Sri Lankan singer and songwriter Yohani whose Sinhalese song Manike Mage Hithe has been topping charts in India, is the latest foreign musician to have breached borders and found love in the country. 

Having appeared on television shows like Bigg Boss and The Big Picture, the 28-year-old has been signed on for a song in upcoming Ajay Devgn-starrer Thank God. Music industry experts say India has been one of the biggest markets for international artistes over the years, such as K-pop names like BTS and Blackpink or Spanish names like J Balvin and Farruko, with Gen Z particularly taking to such music. Digital penetration and audio streaming apps help the global music community come together with music buffs around the world often discovering and listening to the same things, resulting in artistes collaborating across borders, such as Enrique Iglesias with Sunidhi Chauhan and Akon for Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra.One in the past.

“The democratisation of music has allowed artists like Yohani to break beyond geographic boundaries and flex their creative muscle, unlocking opportunities around the world. It also encourages new formats of content to emerge, be discovered and gain popularity like covers, song responses , dance choreography and remixes all of which users love and lend to the popularity of the original track and artiste," said Pawan Agarwal, director, music partnerships (India and South Asia), YouTube, adding that their platform makes it easier for artistes, songwriters and labels to connect with and share their creativity in both visual and audio formats with billions of viewers around the globe. 

As of late October, Yohani’s Manike Mage Hithe had been on the YouTube Charts for Top Music Videos for 11 weeks. But Agarwal said YouTube saw this happen nearly a decade ago with K-pop breaking through language and cultural barriers. In 2012, PSY’s Gangnam Style had hit 1 billion views on the platform.

Foreign musicians finding acceptability here is not new, agreed Harikrishnan Pillai, CEO and co-founder of digital agency TheSmallBigIdea, but a strong sign of music being a bigger driver than lyrics.

Rahul Balyan, head of music, Spotify India, said, on the platform, India is the number one country that streams Yohani's music, with nearly three times the streams compared to Sri Lanka. In fact, all her top cities are Indian, with Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Chennai leading the list, while Colombo features at number 15. “While she has fans across age groups, it's the Gen Z that Yohani is most popular with. This is attributable to the fact that this audience spends perhaps the most amount of time on social media and music streaming platforms to discover music," Balyan said. 

For many international artistes, India often figures in their top five, if not top 10 markets on Spotify. Of the top 25 artists most streamed on the service in India, quite a few are international sensations, such as BTS, Ed Sheeran, Justin Beiber, Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, Shawn Mendes, and Alan Walker. India features in top 10 markets for all of them.

Further, Manike got picked via short-form video, and around the same time, listening on Spotify went up by 10 times in a span of one month (July to August). Since February this year, Yohani's followers have grown by over 80 times on Spotify, Balyan added.

Yohani’s team did not respond to Mint’s queries on her growing popularity in India and upcoming projects in the country. But Spotify’s Balyan said the pace of discovery and subsequently, the popularity of international music in India and elsewhere has picked up in the last few years, attributing it to platforms like theirs which have fuelled the discovery of artistes across the world, which means they have fans in almost every country possible and are open to and often seeking collaboration opportunities with local artists in some of these markets to expand their fan base even further. 

“Short-form videos trends have accelerated the discovery process for consumers, and many of the songs used in these videos escalate very quickly to becoming viral hits. Finally, exposure to video OTT content, viral trends, and news from across the world, with music being an integral part of these cultural moments - from Money Heist to Squid Game, there's a soundtrack for everything, making artists and music language and country agnostic," Balyan added.

Shahir Muneer, founder and director at south Indian music and media company Divo, said apart from the steady rise in the popularity of K-pop, these breakout international music hits make for recurring but staggered trends, with one or two songs emerging each year, and not by design or because they belong to a specific genre but because of a global shift in media consumption. It also comes close on the heels of regional language music in Tamil, Malayalam and Haryanvi finding pan-India popularity, he said.

“Music over lyrics, appearance and personality of the artist and collaborations or challenge culture drives music exposure and hence affinity and traction," Pillai said pointing out that Yohani too found traction with a lot of Indian artists doing language mashups with her song. “The challenge for them (foreign artistes) would be to move from being a one-song wonder to an established artiste consistently dropping hit songs," Pillai added.

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