Capping off a remarkable journey that began with his birth in a refugee camp in Nepal, a man from Louisville, Kentucky, recently emerged as champion of the Nepali version of the singing competition The Voice.
Karan Rai’s dramatic rise as the south Asian nation’s latest singing sensation was chronicled Friday in the Louisville Eccentric Observer alternative weekly newspaper, which declared his story “a classic humble-beginnings epic”.
According to the alt-weekly, nicknamed Leo, Rai was born in 1994 in the Pathri Morang refugee camp in eastern Nepal. It was one of two camps remaining for people fleeing ethnic cleansing of people with Nepali roots in Bhutan – another Himalayan country – in the 1980s.
Rai’s parents were born in Bhutan and were descendants of Nepalis who went there to work. But they went to the refugee camps amid conflict over speaking and teaching the Nepali language.
Rai told Leo that his family didn’t feel accepted as Nepali at the camp, where life was rugged.
“We just had a little house,” Rai said. “We used to get rations weekly,” including rice, potatoes and chiles – “and then sometimes we’d run out of the rations.”
Other countries, including the US, began offering ways for refugees to migrate. In 2013, Rai and his family went to the US, initially spending time in Seattle, Washington, before moving to Louisville for what they considered better educational opportunities, he said.
Rai had first shown a talent for singing during his days at the refugee camp. The thought of participating in a reality show always appealed to him, including NBC’s singing competition The Voice, whose 23rd American season is scheduled to air beginning in March.
Then Rai learned online that the Nepali version of The Voice allowed anyone who spoke the nation’s language to audition to become a contestant – “including those who had been trapped between two lands that didn’t want them, in refugee camps, left without a country to call home”, as Leo’s Erica Rucker put it.
Leo reported that Rai made an audition tape demonstrating how his range, from “hard rock to a delicate falsetto on more traditional Nepali melodies”, and submitted it to the show through its website. Producers notified him that he’d moved on to the next round, and he traveled to Nepal for a blind audition.
Rai went on to spend seven months in Nepal competing on the show’s fourth season as part of a team coached by Raju Lama, one of the brightest singing stars in the country of 30 million people.
He clinched the crown as the competition’s champion in late December and with Lama performed a concert at the Pathri Morang camp, where his life began. He has also released an album, The Kites, and shot a video for his first single, Changa, which involved him collaborating with Dayahang Rai, a revered Nepali actor.
“He’s the superstar of [the] Nepal industry at this moment,” Karan Rai told Leo of the actor. “I get lucky to play with him in my music video.”
Rai spoke to Leo as he prepared to travel to Australia to perform as part of his contract with The Voice of Nepal. The contract calls on him to tour several countries and serve as an ambassador for the competition’s brand.
But first, he returned to Louisville – more than 7,700 miles from Nepal by airplane – with his trophy in hand. A small crowd of Nepali and Bhutanese residents of Louisville gathered at the city’s airport – named after another local champion, the late legendary boxer Muhammad Ali – and greeted him as a hero.
Later, he performed in a high school gym for a larger crowd of Louisville’s Nepali and Bhutanese residents. Banners at the venue read “Nepal-America Society of Kentucky” and “Bhutanese Society of Kentucky”, a striking illustration of how people from two countries that he once felt didn’t want him now claimed him proudly.
“All I want to say is no matter where you come from, where is your background, just focus – just do one thing,” Rai said. “Be passionate about one thing.”