April Feature: Ananya Birla

Ananya is a singer-songwriter based between Mumbai, London and Los Angeles, and the first homegrown artist to go Platinum with an English language track in India – something she has now done four times, breaking the dominance of Bollywood music on the Indian music scene.

Since signing with Universal Music India in 2016, the self-taught santoor and guitar player, has reached over 125m combined streams and collaborated with artists such as Afrojack, Jim Beanz, and  Mood Melodies. She has also performed at major Indian concerts including Global Citizen, Oktoberfest, and Sunburn, Asia’s biggest electronic music festival, and has plans to perform in The UK and US over the coming year.

Ananya, who has been listed as one of GQ’s Most Influential Young Indians and one of Forbes’ Women to Watch, is working on an upcoming EP which is due for release in April via UMG and Island Records UK.

Outside of her music, Ananya is a strong believer in equality. She uses music to bring people from all backgrounds together and organizes music festivals in Mumbai to benefit the mental health organization she founded, Mpower. Mpower was launched after she battled her own issues whilst at Oxford University and works towards dispelling the stigma associated with mental health illnesses and providing care in India where there’s been little to date. Her last two concerts have brought together over 30 thousand people. She recently spoke about Mpower at One Young World.

She also promotes female empowerment through her business Svatantra which helps women entrepreneurs in rural India grow their businesses and become financially independent. Svatantra means ‘freedom’ in Hindi.

JRK: Before we get into the interview can you tell us a bit about Ananya Birla, where you are from and all that good background stuff?

AB: I’m a 24-year-old singer-songwriter originally from India. I went to Oxford Uni, where I read economics and management. At the moment, I split my time between Mumbai, London, and LA, where I have been working on my upcoming EP.

Music livens my soul and it was a massive part of my life growing up – there was nothing that made me happier than playing my guitar or listening to the radio. I was kind of a quiet kid, but the songwriting and performing gave me this amazing way of expressing myself.

I started learning an Indian instrument called the santoor when I was like 8 or 9, then, as a teenager, I taught myself the guitar so I could play along with my favorite artists. When I got to university in the UK, I began gigging every weekend in random little spots around London. Pretty quickly, I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Alongside my music, I run Svatantra, a sustainable business which empowers women in rural India by giving them access to financial services, and Mpower, an initiative which campaigns to stamp out the stigma associated with mental illness in India, as well as providing care for those who struggle.

JRK: You have just released a new single entitled, “Unstoppable.” Can you tell us what the song is about?

AB: I released Unstoppable on International Women’s Day to celebrate women around the world who empower other women and obsolete gender stereotypes. It’s an ode to self-determination, inspired by women and girls who broke the rules to seize hold of their own destinies and achieve amazing things. I’m super proud of it!

JRK: On your website, it says that you have “always had a penchant for doing things differently.” Can you explain that a bit more?

AB: With my music, people said it wouldn’t work because I was singing in English and that I should follow a more conventional career path. With my business, they said I was too young and inexperienced. And with Mpower, they said the problem was too big to make a difference.

Everything I do is borne out of personal passion and a desire to make a positive impact. Even if it means going against the grain – with hard work, passion and a good team you can overcome the biggest challenges.

JRK: You are one that has always been acutely aware of the inequalities around you. Can you tell us when that awareness first appeared, what some of the inequalities were that got you riled up, and what you did to address those inequalities?

AB: Growing up in India, it’s impossible not to be aware of inequality in most things around us.

When I was 17, I set up Svatantra, which means freedom in Hindi because I wanted to do something to support women in the Indian countryside- to help them to grow their businesses and become independent. These women might be farmers, small shop owners, or women who make saris or jewelry. They have often been held back from things we take for granted, like opening a bank account, and life can be super tough for them. But the strength, passion, and determination I see are truly inspirational. When women work, not only do their lives improve but so do the lives of their families and communities.

JRK: You are a big supporter of equality, and since Diversity Rules Magazine’s focus is on the LGBTQ community, can you address your perspectives on equal treatment for LGBTQ individuals, or the lack thereof, both in India and generally?

AB: Love conquers all, I believe it’s time that society treats everyone as equals, whatever our sexuality, race or background. There’s a lot of destigmatizing to be done in India – but the country’s outlook is changing, and fast – we have a lot to be hopeful for!

Last year I wrote a song called Hold On, about the experiences of people I know whose relationship was pulled apart by societal pressures. It was a celebration of their love which endured in the face of adversity.

JRK: While in England you interacted with people suffering from anxiety and depression. It impacted you so much that you set up a mental health initiative called MPower. Can you tell us about that?

AB: In India, Mental health is a topic that is rarely discussed and when it is, it is often trivialized. As a result, depression and suicide rates are some of the highest in the world, particularly amongst young people.

When I was at university in the UK, I really struggled. I had a tough time battling anxiety and panic attacks. I found it difficult to reach out for help – I guess I had internalized the stigma. When I returned to Mumbai, I eventually got the support I needed. However, it became very clear to me that it was really difficult for other people because of the lack of education and support available.

I felt a huge responsibility to do something – and what started as a personal battle became something much bigger – so I set up MPower, which campaigns to dismantle stigma and provide world-class care for people living with mental health issues. We want everyone to know that it’s OK not to be OK sometimes and that there is help available if they need it. There is no shame and it doesn’t reflect on your value as a person.

JRK: You are also a songwriter and write many of your own songs. What inspires your songwriting and what are some of the themes in your music?

AB: I write or co-write all of my music, and it is drawn from my own personal experience. The themes are pretty universal; love, heartbreak, friendship, but the feelings are all genuine. I think audiences really appreciate that authenticity – it allows them to connect so much better with a song.

JRK: What challenges did you face as a woman growing up in India and with the initiatives you have undertaken?

AB: I think everybody knows that we have a lot more work to do in terms of battling gender inequality – that was something that I was constantly aware of growing up there. Initially, it was hard to be taken seriously – not just as a woman, but as a young woman; my age counted against me, both in music and in business – so it was tough to take the helm.

I have realized that the most important thing is to believe in yourself. I refused to back down, stuck to what I believed in and stayed true to myself. Eventually, things fell into place.

JRK: How can women empower themselves and find their true inspiration to become whatever they wish to be?

AB: Empowerment starts with a positive mindset; the conviction that you can achieve whatever you want to achieve. It’s so important to have to have the confidence and self-belief to take risks. Solidarity is also crucial; women must seek out other women who inspire them. We give each other strength. And when someone tries to bring you down, fight back – A ‘sorry, not sorry!’ attitude can be so liberating.

JRK: You have said that “Rules were made to be broken, especially if you’ve been told throughout history that you’re less than.” This can apply to not only women but LGBTQ individuals and other minorities that have been persecuted for who they are. What rules need to be broken to allow all people to advance forward to reach their full potential?

AB: When we punish people for simply being who they’re born to be, we inflict lasting, sometimes irreparable damage. This has to change. As a society, we have to work together to dismantle the shame and prejudices that are still so prevalent. We all deserve to have our voices heard; we all deserve to reach our full potential, whatever our sexuality, gender, creed or background.

JRK: What is next for Ananya Birla? Any exciting projects coming up that you’d like to divulge?

AB: My EP is coming in May, which I’m just so excited about! I’ve been working really hard on it, collaborating with all these amazing artists around the globe – musicians in LA and Nigeria, producers in Norway, Atlanta and London and some great people back home too – I can’t wait to release it into the world!

I signed with Island Records in the UK earlier this year, which will bring about some amazing opportunities. I’ll definitely be playing more live shows and festivals later in the coming months, so watch this space.

JRK: Do you have any parting thoughts you’d like to leave Diversity Rules readers?

AB: Never, ever give up on the thing that sets your soul alight. That’s easy to say, but often it’s so hard to do – but I promise that it is always worth it in the end.

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