Sanj has been posting viral music mashups of Bollywood songs mixed with a variety of Western artists on TikTok
For New York City based musician Sanjana Nayak, who goes by the name SANJ, the release of her debut album Nightingale just a few days ago is a culmination of a passion project.
SANJ’s music can be best defined as a fusion of silky Indian vocals that tap into her two decades of classical music training. She says that her music reflects sultry R&B flows inspired by songs that she grew up listening to.
As an artist in America with South Asian roots, she believes her music pushes the boundaries of traditional fusion music. She says about her debut album, “My music also highlights my creative ethos in a way I haven’t tapped into before.”
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NJ describes herself as an an Indian-American innovatrice. Bred in Chicago and based in NYC, SANJ has been a lifelong singer, songwriter, and musician, and folds her passion for music into many facets of her life.
Her new wave of songwriting showcases her vision for sultry Desi-R&B, whilst still maintaining her stark colors and classic nostalgic sound that have won the hearts of many.
By day, SANJ works in advertising strategy at Google, and performs often in venues across NYC by night. Already a social media star, SANJ has a following of over 150,000+ listeners across several platforms, and her Spotify saw 999% growth in 2022. She talks to the American Bazaar about mixing R&B with Carnatic.
AB: Let’s talk about your music. How would you describe it and who are your target audiences?
NJ: My music can best be described as R&B with sultry flows, intertwined with my Desi/Carnatic roots. I would say that my music is targeted towards those wanting to hear more worldly music that treads the cross-cultural balance of R&B and Bollywood, in a subtle and seamless way.
Read: Meet Neil Nayyar, the Indian American musical child prodigy (May 17, 2021)
AB: Growing up were you exposed to music in your house. What were your initial inspirations?
NJ: I absolutely was. I grew up training in the Carnatic style of vocals since I was four, so music was always a staple in my life. Bollywood music and bhajans were always playing at my house when I was younger, especially when my grandparents were around.
I think growing up listening to soundtracks from ‘Veer Zaara,’ ‘Devdas,’ and more were my initial inspiration for truly enjoying music as both a listener and a musician.
But on the other end, I also was inspired by the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Mary J Blige, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Trey Songz, and Coldplay when I was young as well, and this really helped me develop that duality of styles that you hear in my music now.
AB: Tell us about your experiences growing up in an immigrant household. Give us a little background on your life, growing up years.
NJ: I moved around a ton when I was younger. I was born in Jacksonville, Florida, then lived in Richmond for 10 years, and finally moved to the suburbs of Chicago when I was in the 5th grade.
Growing up, my parents were pretty strict about grades, social life, etc., but they were always supportive and pushed me towards becoming a better musician (I played violin and sang), which I’m really grateful for.
My suburb was almost 70% white back then, so it was definitely tough growing up there for a while; I experienced a lot of racism and bullying especially in my middle school years.
I think these experiences really shaped the pride I have for my culture now, and the due diligence I put in to showcase it as much as possible from the perspective of a first-generation South Indian woman in the US.
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AB: Artists like you are changing the stereotype that brown kids only choose and excel in STEM fields. What would you say? Also, was it difficult convincing family, relatives for a career in music
NJ: I’ve always been a “rebel” in this way, challenging my family and relatives around what they see as the ideal “path” for us brown kids. I absolutely believe that there is a place for South Asians in the fields of entertainment, art, and other non-STEM fields.
In fact, I think in the last year or two I’ve been seeing more and more of us come out of the shadows. I definitely think it’s important to be in a line of work where you can support yourself and you’re not struggling on a daily basis to feed yourself, but I also think that it’s totally possible to pursue lucrative creative paths as a career if you put the work in.
It’s also so important to not pursue a field just because other people are telling you to do so – your time, happiness, and untouched passions are not worth the sacrifice.
Luckily, my family always supported my endeavors in music, as long as I could support myself. I’m lucky enough to have found a full-time role in advertising at Google, which really helps me leverage my creative mind and network to successfully pursue my music career as well.
Read: When East Meets West: How Singer SANJ Brought Country R&B to Instagram (February 23, 2023)
AB: Tell us about some of your music breakthroughs and your future plans.
NJ: My first music breakthrough was during the release of my first EP, “At Dusk.” One of the songs, “Cloudmind” was my take on experimental Desi R&B, and it did overwhelmingly well with over 300k+ streams across platforms.
Feeling inspired by this sound, I started posting my “This is what happens when you combine” TikTok mashups of my favorite trending music with Bollywood songs, and those also went viral. I kept up the mashups for about a year, and saw 10x growth across all of my platforms.
It was amazing to see the reception my community received, but also people outside of the South Asian community had towards this type of fusion music. I just dropped my debut album, ‘Nightingale,’ a couple of days ago, and this album is an ode to my Desi R&B sound, including samples from ‘Devdas’ and ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham,’ but also Hindi lyricism and Indian sounds that I crafted myself. My hope is to be able to tour this album, and spread it to as much of the world as possible.