'Music an extension of my personality': Composer Ricky Kej

Kej is the only Indian to win Grammy thrice

AWARDS-GRAMMYS/ Ricky Kej | Reuters

When he was 21, Bengaluru-based Ricky Kej graduated as a dentist. That done, he kept the degree aside, and took to making music. Twenty years later, at 41, he is an internationally acclaimed composer, and the only Indian to win the Grammy thrice. Not just that, Kej is the youngest person of Indian-origin to have ever won the Grammy.

I have been deeply connected with nature ever since I was very young. Music and our environment have always been two pillars that have defined my life.

While Kej’s first Grammy was in 2015 for the album Winds of Samsara, seven years later, in 2022, he bagged his second Grammy, along with Scottish American rock legend Stewart Copeland. Recently, Kej won his third Grammy for Divine Tides, which includes nine songs and eight videos featuring artists from around the world.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q/ Your third Grammy! Did you expect this?

A/ The nomination itself came as a huge surprise to all of us. It is always very surreal to live through the moment of winning another Grammy. It has been a week now and congratulatory messages are still pouring in from family, friends, and well-wishers. I am extremely grateful for all the love and I am incredibly thankful for having had another opportunity to make my country proud again on the biggest platform in the world for music.

Q/ You were nominated against Christina Aguilera [American singer-songwriter], for a category that cuts across genres. How did that feel?

A/ It is a huge honour to compete and win in a category where global superstars such as Aguilera and The Chainsmokers [American DJ duo] were nominated. It is extremely exciting that non-film Indian music is gaining so much popularity on the world stage and I’d like to thank the Recording Academy for this honour.

Q/ Tell us about spirituality awareness seeping into the creative output of Divine Tides. What were your own subconscious experiences?

A/ Divine Tides is a tribute to the magnificence of our natural world and the resilience of our species. I believe it is truly positive music that can transform our planet by evoking a powerful emotional response in listeners. I am always in a spiritual space when I create music and when I collaborate with other musicians who respect music as much as I do. The positive energy creates a ripple effect and reflects in the work that we put out. The entire journey of creating Divine Tides has been extremely special.

Q/ Is Indian classical music more mainstream than Indian film music, and the truest ambassador of India to the world?

A/ I am a huge fan of Indian classical music and it is the truest ambassador of India to the world. Our rich musical heritage is extremely unique and diverse. There is so much more to Indian music than film music, and independent, folk and classical artists in India deserve the spotlight. Stalwarts like Pandit Ravi Shankar are a huge inspiration to me because they have never let boundaries define them. All they did was make music that they strongly believed in and collaborated with some of the best musicians and individuals across the globe. They never lost their artistic personas. Although I consider my music to be global, it is strongly rooted in India.

Q/ Share your childhood and growing up experiences that shaped you―both as a musician and an environmentally conscious person?

A/ I was born in North Carolina in the US. My father was a third generation doctor, and when I was eight, my parents moved to Bengaluru. I completed the rest of my education in Bengaluru, and have lived here since. I have always been a musician at heart. My parents used to have a large music collection at home, from all kinds of genres, languages and cultures. While my friends loved video games, I used to put on these records, read the liner notes, figure out the musicians, and learn about the instruments they use. There was a baby piano and a guitar at home that no one played and I picked those up. I am a self-taught musician and it was only when I was around 20 that I went through formal music education to overcome what I thought was a handicap in classical music. I have also been deeply connected with nature ever since I was very young. Music and our environment have always been two pillars that have defined my life, and after I won my first Grammy in 2015, I dedicated my life and music to the sole purpose of environmental consciousness by blending these passions together.

Q/ Your music is always about a social message.

A/ I only make music from the heart and the music that I create is an extension of my personality and beliefs. All my songs are about protecting our environment, peaceful coexistence and to raise awareness about various social issues around the world, such as the refugee crisis, land degradation, war and conservation. I work closely with several global not-for-profit organisations and serve as an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, The UNESCO-Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development and the Earth Day Network. I am excited to continue to collaborate with these amazing entities, and to work hard by putting my creativity to make this world a better place for everything through my music.