Ali Sethi opened his April 16 set at Coachella with an alaap, an intricate melody from Indian classical music. Next up was a folk song from Punjab, sung by generations upon generations of musicians, now reverberating alongside the music of some of the world’s top artists.
“I hope you fall in love, I hope it breaks your heart,” he sang in his silken voice, sending a ripple of energy through the crowd.
Sethi, suddenly, is everywhere. His tracks pop up in U.K clubs and on Disney’s “Ms. Marvel.” He’s been featured in Time magazine and has sold out shows in San Francisco and Boston. In Toronto, the audience threw thongs at him as he sang a ghazal, a verse in Urdu. And at Coachella, the crowd sang back to him in Punjabi and Urdu, the poetry and music of “Pasoori” evocative of a different time and space pulsating to a very modern beat.
The song’s melody is “kind of irresistible,” Sethi, 38, said in an interview this week, in between picking out sneakers for his next Coachella performance on Sunday. He acknowledges he was taken aback by its roaring success. “I knew this will be my first hit song, but I didn’t think it would be this wildly popular,” he said.
“Wildly popular” is an understatement. “Pasoori” — an ode to forbidden love and the tyranny of borders, sung with Pakistani Instagram star Shae Gill — has more than a half billion YouTube views. It was one of the most-streamed tracks on Spotify’s global charts and the No. 2 most-searched song on Google last year. It blends folk and reggaeton with strains of baglama, a Turkish string instrument, and has found a delirious fan base in archrival India — offering a rare respite from the drumbeat of caustic cross-border politics.
Many fans have told Sethi that “Pasoori” has allowed them to “connect with what they think of their ancestral culture in a way that other things, like religious lessons or political ideologies, have not. That’s, for me, the most rewarding thing to hear.”
Just as exhilarating, he said, is the global reaction. “I love the magic of connecting with people who may not know what I’m saying in [a local dialect], Hindi or Punjabi, but who are connecting at the level of melody or the vibe.”
It’s a typically meditative answer from someone whose growing international stardom is both exceptional and unusual. Pakistan is a conservative Muslim nation where fundamentalists often target musicians for what they see as blasphemy, despite the country’s rich history of devotional Sufi and folk music.
Sethi, however, grew up in a prominent liberal family in Lahore. His parents were journalists and politicians; his sister is an actor. He graduated from Harvard University, majoring in South Asian studies, and wrote a novel before dedicating himself to music.
What followed was a “backbreaking apprenticeship.” He studied classical Indian music for a decade, training in the genres of khayal, thumri and ghazal. He learned from two virtuosos — ghazal exponent Farida Khanum and Ustad Saami, the last known master of a 13th-century music tradition. And his music, from his base in New York, builds on this history to create a hybrid form that has proved irresistible to audiences in the age of TikTok.
“It’s a language and sensibility and a kind of ethos for a new cultural context, which for me is New York, Los Angeles, the internet. The world that I live in now,” Sethi said.
Sethi’s work stands out because it is accessible while containing a depth and complexity that is often missing in Western pop music, said Ian Brennan, a Grammy-winning producer from the United States who has worked to bring international musicians — including Saami — to a global stage.
“It’s something that is hypnotic. People appreciate it without maybe realizing that there’s a lot more going on,” Brennan said. “But at the same time, I think they’re unconsciously responding to the fact that there is more going on.”
It is also rooted in Sethi’s queer identity and in resistance to the myriad impositions of society on that identity. He finds refuge in using the gender-ambiguous idioms, he said, of the devotional music and poetic traditions he grew up with.
“I think what I’ve always been trying to do is find this place of reconciliation,” Sethi said. “Because growing up I was told ‘You’re either this or that.’ I just rejected that.”
This could “become more explicit and literal with time, especially if I start writing in English,” he said. “But where I’m at right now, this idiom feels very nicely comforting to me, where I think I can express myself very fully while also communicating with people who are like me, all over South Asian culture.”
Sethi’s popularity comes at a remarkable moment for Pakistani artists — Arooj Aftab last year became the first Pakistani singer to perform at Coachella, on the heels of her historic Grammy win.
But their success stories highlight the tough reality of the music industry in Pakistan, where censorship led to a years-long YouTube ban and where Spotify was first available only in 2021. Souring political relations with India have led to bans on Pakistani artists, drying up a major source of work and income.
Sethi’s success is the “umpteenth reminder that there is a lot of talent in Pakistan, and it deserves being invested in because the journey he’s taken is not replicable or sustainable for most musicians,” said Karachi-based pop culture writer Ahmer Naqvi. “There needs to be an engagement with what is needed to sustain this moment.”
For Sethi, his own journey of letting audiences know “folk is woke” is just getting started. He has a new track set for release later this month, there are collaborations with electronic musicians and percussionists coming up, and a slew of other projects close to fruition — he is tempted, he said, to do an “epic data leak” and put them all out at once.
But before all that, there is Sunday’s Coachella show. He’s settled on a pair of Concept X APL sneakers in a riot of colors, paired with a traditional long top by a Pakistani designer, in a nod to his trademark blend of styles.
“To be connected to tradition does not necessarily mean that you have to be orthodox or conservative. I think that’s my message,” Sethi said. And he hopes his audience will stay for the ride.
“Stay with me as I morph, as I speak in tongues, as I switch, as I adapt, as I reveal, as I cocoon. Every artist wants to be able to have that journey,” he said. “I want to be known by that and not by some preconceived idea of what I’m supposed to do.”