Grammy winner Ricky Kej: 'I knew this year the Oscar would go to Naatu Naatu'

Grammy winner Ricky Kej: 'I knew this year the Oscar would go to Naatu Naatu'

Ricky Kej, who has done India proud by bringing home the biggest music award thrice, talks about working on PM Narendra Modi’s Mission, making music with refugees and why he was convinced Naatu Naatu would win the Oscar

Roshmila BhattacharyaUpdated: Saturday, March 25, 2023, 06:00 PM IST
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He has a concert the next evening, but hang on, he is free for an hour before rehearsals, he can squeeze in an interview then. That’s Ricky Kej, affable, amiable, a man who wears his fame lightly. Meet the three-times Grammy winner, Billboard #1 Artist (USA), UN Refugee ‘Goodwill Ambassador’, UNCCD ‘Land Ambassador’, UNESCO MGIEP ‘Global Ambassador for Kindness’, UNICEF ‘Celebrity Supporter’ and so much more.

In an interaction with The Free Press Journal, the composer and environmentalist gives a glimpse of his journey.

Excerpts from the interview:

A hat-trick of Grammys now, how does it feel?

Amazing, though technically it’s not a hat-trick! I won the first Grammy in 2015 and the second, only seven years later. But the second and third have come back-to- back. This is the biggest music award on the planet and getting it thrice is a kind of a validation that the choices one has made were correct.

It’s a struggle when you are not a part of the mainstream music industry in India. More so, when you are creating music that fits with one’s thoughts, beliefs and the issues one feels strongly about.

Ricky Kej, Stewart Copeland, and Herbert Waltl after winning Grammy 2023

Ricky Kej, Stewart Copeland, and Herbert Waltl after winning Grammy 2023 |

After being voted the Best New Age Album, were you expecting Divine Tides to bring you another Grammy, for Best Immersive Audio Album?

Well, I truly believed that ours was the best album, but this is one category which cuts across genres and the competition was really tough with Christina Aguilera being extremely popular and The Chainsmokers being the highest paid DJs in the world. I thought PR machinery and money would come into play this time, so it was a surprise when Stewart (Copeland) and my name was called out.

What next?

I am working on multiple projects. The first is a tribute for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mission LiFE movement. ‘Lifestyle For The Environment’ is an India-led global mass movement which goes beyond policy making to urge individuals to make lifestyle changes towards preserving and protecting the environment. It works on the concept of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’. It is all about buying and using things with deliberation to cut down on wastage.

The mission is an opportunity for me to inspire people not just across the country, but even the world through my music and work collectively to save the planet. We will be releasing music related to LiFE throughout the year.

I’m also working on a music project with Stewart Copeland which will be out in August. It’s my biggest project so far.

Last year, on India’s 75th Independence Day, you came out with a unique rendition of our national anthem by a dozen refugees. How did that come about?

While working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) India, I mentored and collaborated with 24 refugees from different countries. They were as good as professional musicians but ironically, some had to leave their countries because of their music. They have found a home in India, but in their struggle to survive, their art had taken a back seat.

We worked together for three months during the Covid pandemic and made a song about hope and love to bring people out of the darkness. Shine Your Light: Song by Refugees was a huge global success.

In the 75th year of India’s Independence, some of these refugee musicians approached me, saying they wanted to express their gratitude to India for giving them not just a home, but for some a far better life than what they had in their own country. This time I worked with just 12 refugees from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cameroon and Afghanistan who lived in the Delhi-NCR region since we were working on a tight budget. Also, they had to be fantastic musicians as they were singing the national anthem.

We recorded the song in half a day in a Noida Studio and shot the video with one camera, putting it out on August 14, 2022. Within a day, we had 11 million views across social media. Amazing given that there were so many other videos made on a much bigger scale released on the occasion!

Your life and journey are a part of the Standard 7 ICSE syllabus, right?

Yeah, and I’ve also written a couple of chapters on climate change and biodiversity. It’s important to educate children early when they are kind to everyone and don’t look down on anyone. As they grow older, a certain consciousness creeps in through the systems that have been built and they start to confirm. Through My Earth Songs — 27 children’s rhymes based on 17 Sustainable Development Goals — I’m trying to ensure that they retain and build on their innate sensitivity.

If you have done the country proud with a third Grammy, then RRR’s chartbuster, Naatu Naatu, has also brought home an Oscar for Best Original Song. What is your take on it?

It’s intelligently written, beautifully composed and choreographed. And this one song encapsulates all that the film signifies… Friendship, love, sacrifice, patriotism and energy. It is deeply integrated in the film while the other nominated songs, be it Lady Gaga’s Hold My Hand from Top Gun: Maverick or Rihanna, Tems and Ryan Coogler’s Lift Me

Up from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, This is Life from Everything Everywhere All At Once or Applause from Tell It Like A Woman, played either in the background or featured in the end credits. As soon as I went through the list of nominees, I knew that this year, the Oscar would go to Naatu Naatu.

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