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Music

Punjabi Wave: Karan Aujla Is Aiming for the Number One Spot

The British Columbia-based singer just hit the highest spot for a Punjabi artist ever on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart, but he thinks Punjabi music can be the top global genre.

Karan Aujla

Karan Aujla

Photography team: Ishmil Waterman, Lane Dorsey, Sasha Jairam/Billboard Canada. Styling by Veronika Lipatova, Nikita Jaisinghani, Aliecia Brisette. Makeup & Hair by Franceline Graham.

Karan Aujla just had the highest charting Punjabi album ever in Canada, but he has his sights set higher. He wants the number one spot. Him, or one of his peers.

The Surrey, British Columbia singer/songwriter’s collaborative album with producer Ikky, Making Memories, hit No. 5 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart. That’s a testament to the music — an infectious, replayable mix of traditional Punjabi sounds and Western pop, hip-hop and R&B influences. But it also speaks to the momentum of Punjabi music on both the Canadian and world stage.


“It’s a big, big, massive moment,” Aujla tells Billboard Canada.

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Signed to the major label Warner Music in both India and Canada, Aujla shows what can happen when people from across the world work together to promote music. It’s support that he could have used years ago, he says, but he’s happy that it’s happening now. The songs have collectively garnered close to 60 million streams on Spotify, and they’re a social media sensation that’s transcended Aujla. More than 300,000 people have made Instagram reels set to the Preston Pablo-featuring song “Admiring You,” while “Softly” is a dance sensation on TikTok, with celebrities like Vicky Kaushal and Sargun Mehta grooving alongside listeners from all over the globe.

Aujla and Ikky are about to take the songs on a world tour, starting in New York in mid-October. Seeing the obsessive response from fans online, he’s ready to see how people react live. “I can just feel those voices in my head already,” he says. “Imagine 5,000 people singing ‘Admiring You’ together. I can’t wait to see it.”

Admirin' You (Official Video) Karan Aujla | Ikky | Making Memories | Latest Punjabi Songs 2023

From immigrating to Canada as a teenager to his days struggling as a songwriter and lyricist for hire, the come-up feels like a culmination for Aujla. But he wants to keep rising. And he wants to see other artists lifted up by the wave.

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Making Memories debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart, the highest-charting Punjabi album debut in Canadian history. Was it always your goal to be the one to make that breakthrough?

It's always in the back of my head to just do something great and achieve the goal to do something no one has done before. When we saw these numbers, and we saw that mark, we were like, okay, it's all finally worth it now. That number, for only 8 songs, was a big deal for us. I write [the songs] myself as well, so it makes it even more exciting. I feel like we’ve got a long way to go and soon we’ll be at number one. Hopefully, next year.

Do you take extra pride in it because you've written it yourself?

I started as a writer, as a lyricist first. That’s been a thing that I'm really proud of, and I'm pretty sure that the people that listen to my music are really proud of that, too. Every time they look at my project, first they say, Okay, the lyrics were really great. And then they go to my singing.

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What about for people who don’t speak the language, do you feel like there’s something resonating about the music itself?

One hundred percent. When we were writing this at some point we were kind of overthinking as well. The track “Softly” it’s like Number 6 on the album — lyrics and melody wise, that's a straight Punjabi melody that you would hear back in the 90s. It's a storytelling song from a girl's perspective. The words that I use, you won't really hear those words on the street. Those are the words that I used to hear from my grandparents. So I tried to put all that on this really happy groovy funk beat. It all came together and sounded so great. So that’s a great example with what we’re trying to do with the melodies and the lyrics.

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Softly (Lyric Video) Karan Aujla | Ikky | Making Memories | Latest Punjabi Songs 2023

When you were writing for other artists, was there a specific song when you realized you wanted to make music for yourself?

Yes, it was one of my first songs. It was called “Gangster Scene.” It was for this guy [Gursewak Dhillon], he was from [Vancouver]. He didn't really end up doing any tracks after that. He was basically one of my boys. I convinced him to do it, like, “yo, let’s make a track.” I use a lot of English words in that song. It blew up back in 2018, it got over 16 million views [now 21 million], and we gave it to some other YouTube channel. That's when it hit me — yo, I wish I sang this song myself, put it on my channel, and I'd be the one making money. But I couldn't really change it, because I needed money to record my own songs. So I had to keep going until I got to a level where I could do it myself.

You’re signed to Warner India and Warner Canada, and working with Ikky who’s the creative director for 91 North Records. You've talked before about how, as huge as Punjabi music is, the industry hasn’t been supporting you the way you should be. Do you think that's changing?

When I was young, I had nobody around me. I didn’t know what I was doing and I wasted at least two years figuring it out. I could have been where I’m at now two years before. I didn't know how streams worked. I didn't know how royalties worked. Now, having the support of all these intelligent people, I’m grateful to see it happening.

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Do you see it as a specific moment? Is something happening right now?

I'm a Punjabi. I came from a village with 200 houses around me, and nothing but fields and farms. I lived there for 16 years, and then I moved to Canada with nothing. And now, it's all of us together working to bring Punjabi language up to showcase it in a way that nobody's ever done. Punjabi music is having its moment now, we’ll all witness.

Is it something specific to Canadian-Punjabi artists? Is it something specific that’s happening here as well?

Yes, I feel like Canada is the second hub for Punjabi artists. There's so much happening here. I don't know, Canada gave me everything. If I never came to Canada, I don't know if I'd be here. This country taught me a lot. My motherland taught me a lot another way. But I learned how to communicate and showcase my talent, to connect with people.

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You’ve compared Punjabi music to Latin music, where it could travel everywhere in the world. What do you think it will take to make that happen?

It’s just that one line, that one hook. Like “Despacito” — you just love it even if you don't know what it means. If you compare it to Latin music, I won't say Punjabi music is there. But, it's heading there. I feel like I could hear people singing my melodies in Mexico, or somewhere in the Caribbean, or somewhere in Jamaica. Punjabi music sounds really great on Spanish beats, on reggae beats, on just anything. So I see that happening soon. We'll make that happen. We're just getting started.

This article is part of Billboard Canada's digital cover story on Punjabi-Canadian artists. Head here for interviews with every artist featured.

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The band, led by Daiki Tsuneta of King Gnu, will kick off the trek on Nov. 2 in Mexico City.

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