We had the honor to interview Ananya, an influential philanthropist and recording artist who is changing perceptions of diversity in the entertainment industry and creating a global impact on mental health and financial solutions.
Ananya, you are one of the first Indian musicians to break into the West, you have touched nearly 350 million combined streams, collaborated with artists from Afrojack to Sean Kingston, and performed alongside Coldplay and Wiz Khalifa, who What has your success in music meant to you personally as an Indian musician? “
I have a long way to go, but I love the journey. I feel so lucky to be able to live my passion every day – especially in the past year which has been so difficult for everyone, the music has been a lifeline through the heaviness and isolation. When I got to LA in early 2020 my management had all of these shows and appearances set up and then it all stopped. So like everyone else, we had to be so resourceful to do our jobs. I really wanted to put out some music, so I set up a studio in my spare bedroom at home – hung blankets and pillows all over the place, and did all the zoom production. It was a bit of a homecoming, which really allowed me to connect with the slopes. I’m so glad the people here connected with the music once it came out. It’s always crazy to me that I’ve spent little open mic evenings around London to appearing on American radio and working with the amazing people I have, be it Wiz, Sean Kingston or Afrojack, I’m meaning totally, immensely grateful – not to say justified. When I started I had to really fight to be heard, there weren’t a lot of artists doing the kind of music I wanted to do in India and it was hard to stay true to me- even and what I believed in. I’m so glad I did – now I’m proud to be me shameless! It’s amazing to have the streams, but the best thing is when someone contacts me to tell me that they connected to something in one of my songs and that maybe helped them through something or made them feel less alone. Music has always done that for me, and if I can do that for other people, that’s what it is. It’s success for me.
What do you think your success in music means for musicians from India or from India?
I really want to make India proud of what I’m doing here. It is not common for artists to venture outside. When I started there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, who made the kind of music I wanted to do and it was hard not having anyone to relate to and follow in his footsteps. I hope what I’m doing will encourage other musicians back home to feel more confident in their international thinking when creating. There is so much talent out there that deserves to be heard on the world stage.
As an entrepreneur, you have created “Svatantra” , which means freedom in Hindi, when you were only 17 years old to provide financial solutions to underserved women in rural India. You now have over a million customers. Do you have any favorite personal stories about the impact you have had on financial solutions for underserved women in rural India?
Every customer that we have supported is important to me. In India, the gap between rich and poor is incredibly wide. I consider myself enormously privileged and I feel that it is my duty to give back. We are able to reach the most marginalized women in the country: women who otherwise would not have access to banks or financial aid. We are putting in place the infrastructure so that women can help themselves and have a hand in their own future. It is an honor to do so. Whenever I am back in India I always take a little time to catch up with a few clients to see if what we are doing continues to have a positive impact. Before the pandemic, I went to see one of our very first clients, a lady who offered beauty services but who at the time could not afford to grow her business. I was so inspired when I returned, in the few years since she became a client, she now has a real business that employs four other women, and she was also able to forward her daughter full-time studies. It is a testament to the fact that when women are able to earn and own and determine their own futures, entire communities are uplifted.
You also have a mental health organization in India, âMpowerâ, which was formed after your own difficulties at the University of Oxford. You are also an Ambassador for NAMI, the largest mental health organization in the United States. Thanks to this work, you are ranked among the most influential Indians in GQ. How important is mental health advocacy to you as an entrepreneur?
It is extremely important to me that I can use whatever platform I build to do good – otherwise what’s the point? When I was at university in the UK I struggled a lot with anxiety and panic attacks. Between my studies, running my business in India, working on my music and trying to maintain a social life, I was completely exhaustedâ¦ It took a while for me to come to terms with all of this, but eventually I was fortunate to get the professional help I needed. I know from personal experience that the consequences of just “sweeping it under the rug” are terrible and how important professional help can be. So I wanted to make sure that everyone at home could have access to the same support as me. India is in the throes of a mental health crisis, and this has only been made worse by the terrible impact COVID has had. Rates of depression and suicide are on the rise, and people are too afraid to seek help because of the stigma, lack of awareness, or simply because there isn’t enough support. At MPower, we campaign to eliminate stigma and provide exceptional care to people living with mental health issues who have been ignored or discriminated against. We want people to know that sometimes there is no problem and that there is help available if they need it. Thanks to the Ananya Birla Foundation, I am also working on a study on mental health and care in rural India which I hope will bring much needed changes in these hard to reach places. I also recently teamed up with NAMI in the US, to support them in their amazing work around mental health here. They provide advocacy and support so that individuals and families affected by mental health issues can have better lives. We teamed up at the end of last year and it was amazing helping them get their message out.
Ananya, you WERE ON THE COVER Vogue India last month, can you talk about the changing perceptions of Indian musicians in the US and the growing appetite for diversity
I am proud to be able to question the idea that people have of what an Indian musician looks like. Most people only think of Bollywood. And don’t get me wrong, I love some of this stuff, but there is so much, so much more to Indian music. I think streaming platforms like Spotify and social media have made it possible for audiences to find music they would never have heard otherwise, which is great for artists not only in India but around the world. It also means that young people are influenced by a whole range of styles and sounds.
You had to overcome cultural stereotypes to drop out of Oxford University and pursue music, can you comment on this process?
For a while, I was definitely this super bookish student who was so focused on my grades – like many kids, I felt special pressure to be successful. I really wanted this to work, but despite my best efforts, this path just wasn’t like me. I used to play little shows in uncrowded bars around London every weekend, and that’s what made me feel complete. There was nothing on earth that made me happier – that feeling of being on stage was so addicting, the opportunity to write songs gave me the ability to process my emotions and channel my pain and fear into the creativity was second to none. I dropped out in second year. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew that if I had any chance of success, I had to devote every part of myself to it. It was scary turning my back on a traditional career path and that security, but it wouldn’t have made me happy. I have no regrets.
Finally, are you yourself someone who has struggled and overcame mental health issues, what was this process like and do you have any advice for other artists or fans who might be going through a similar situation?I remember feeling completely alone and completely ashamed. So what I would like to say is: it’s okay not to be well, in fact it’s normal – most of us will go through this at some point. What is wrong is suffering in silence. Mental illness isn’t a sign of weakness, and asking for help can be the strongest thing you’ve ever done.