Imanbek Zeikenov is 19 years old and lives with his parents in the small village of Aksu in Kazakhstan. He studied railway engineering at school, and until last December, held a day job at his local train station. But everything changed in the summer of 2019, when he discovered a song called “Roses” by the Guyanese-American rapper and singer Saint Jhn.
On the raw, sinewy “Roses,” which had already been commercially available for three years, Saint Jhn sings (explicitly) about a night on the prowl. Imanbek, who records under his first name and had a number of amateur remixes under his belt, resolved to iron out some of the track’s inefficiencies. His take pitches up Jhn’s voice into a manic squeal; he added a thick, rubbery bass line and a snare drum rattling in the distance.
Imanbek posted his remix to Russian social media without giving it a second thought. He returned a few months later, surprised to learn he was a pop star.
“I made an illegal remix,” Imanbek said through a translator over a Zoom call. He was sitting in his newly purchased car and wearing a red-and-white Kappa top. “I didn’t know how to promote it, because I didn’t know how to clear it. So I just put it online, and let it go. A few months later, it blew up the whole world.”
Four years after the initial release of “Roses,” Imanbek’s remix is an international smash. The song is No. 5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and reached No. 1 on the United Kingdom’s chart. (Saint Jhn’s only other charting single was the 2019 Beyoncé collaboration “Brown Skin Girl.”) More important, Imanbek is no longer an unsanctioned artist. At the end of last August, he signed with the Russian label Effective Records. The following month, he reached a deal with Saint Jhn to officially release the accidental collaboration as a single.
“It was very easy. We said, ‘We want to break this record, it’s doing well, we want to make it legit,’” Imanbek said, describing the short meeting between Saint Jhn’s management and the Effective Records owner Kirill Lupinos that led to the alliance.
Imanbek started collecting revenue from “Roses” in late 2019, earning enough to quit his job and proclaim himself a professional musician, though Lupinos said checks from the first half of 2020, when the single exploded, aren’t due until later this year. Despite their extremely profitable partnership, Imanbek and Saint Jhn have yet to meet in person. The only way the two have communicated, the producer said, has been over Instagram direct messages.
“I’m performing in Russia,” Saint Jhn said in an interview with Genius last year, marveling at how audiences reacted to “Roses” despite not speaking English. “Not because I’m trying to perform in Russia, because Russia is requesting me, demanding I come. That’s surreal.”
Like many newer social media hits, “Roses” first caught fire on TikTok, in early 2020, when thousands of teens shimmied to easily replicable choreography. With the power shifting from the hands of industry gatekeepers to the young listeners who can amplify a track’s audience almost overnight, pop music success is becoming increasingly difficult to predict. In 2015, a love song called “Cheerleader,” written three years previously by the little-known Jamaican singer Omi, earned a sprightly remix by the German D.J. Felix Jaehn. It went triple platinum in the United States and had its own TikTok challenge.
Looking back now, “‘Cheerleader’ was always a good song,” Omi said in a phone interview, recalling that fans used to sing along to the original version. “I think in 2015 it was an easy transition to open the market up to a different demographic and appeal to a wider audience. It gave it a whole new life.”
Imanbek’s father is a fire marshal, and his mother works for a tourism agency. He said he grew up in a musical family, but added that he doesn’t have many western musical influences. Instead, he was inspired by his local scene of D.J.s and producers, and made his own foray into electronic music by watching tutorials on YouTube.
Right now, Imanbek is plotting his next move. In May, he put out a chilly house tune called “I’m Just Feelin’ (Du Du Du),” a collaboration with the Danish producer Martin Jensen. He doesn’t yet know how to D.J., so live dates (even virtual ones, because of the pandemic) are out of the question for now. There is an imitation Imanbek in a Michael Myers-like mask and an Effective Records hoodie who streams live sets on YouTube from a wood-paneled studio. Once Imanbek learns how to perform, he plans to take his place.
For now, he is still making music on his 10-year-old laptop using a copy of FL Studio. His sole upgrade has been a new pair of headphones, courtesy of his label. The only recurring reminders of his newfound fame are the emails, WhatsApp messages and Instagram DMs that have flooded his inbox from artists inquiring about potential collaborations. Imanbek screenshots every one of them as a personal memento, before forwarding it along to management.
“One of the latest was from Tiësto,” he said, referring to the star D.J. “He reached out to me and said he really appreciates what I’m doing, and he wished me good luck.”
Imanbek knows he’s sitting on top of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What’s important, he said, is whatever comes next. “I understand where I am now, that my success is truly global,” he said. “Now, I need to prove that I’m not a one-hit wonder.”