Armed with heart-hitting lyrics and rhyming lines, rappers from the South Asian diaspora are fearlessly talking about diversity. They are efficiently challenging current social norms. The journey of hip-hop in India started sometime in the early 2000s with the likes of Tupac, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg.
In 2016, Svetha Yallapragada Rao aka Raja Kumari, an Indian American songwriter, recording artist, and rapper made heads turn with her first single ‘Mute’. She is best known for her collaboration with artists like Iggy Azalea, Gwen Stefani, Fall Out Boy. After being nominated for a Grammy Award in 2015, she received the BMI Pop Award for songwriting and featured in Bobby Friction, a programme on BBC Asian Network.
In an exclusive interview with Outlook's Eshita Bhargava, Raja Kumari shared with Outlook her journey, from the time when her doctor parents expected her to follow their footsteps and go to medical school, and learn classical dance, her unique stage name, her Indian inspiration, and much more.
Can you tell us about how you got into the music scene?
Music was always something I was passionate about, whether that be through dance or singing or through just listening. From a very young age, I learned classical dance, and the accompanying style of vocals is called Carnatic singing. Because that was all I ever knew, I started incorporating Carnatic vocalization into rap, and I found my trademark style.
As an Indian growing up in the US, what were the sounds you were influenced by?
Growing up in a South Indian household and a Telugu upbringing, I was influenced by Telugu music. At a young age, I would always try to get my hands on any American pop music, and what I listened to range from Madonna to Michael Jackson, and from Missy Elliot to Lauren Hill
I feel like I was raised by MTV. Whatever pop culture music I could get my hands on, I would listen to. I loved anything from Boyz II Men to 2PAC and Mariah Carey to Nas. My parents always played Indian music in the home as well, and a lot of who I listened to was A.R. Rahman. He was a huge inspiration growing up.
3. Were your parents happy about you getting into music?
I feel like everyone has had their reservations with what I chose to do, but they are so supportive of me and I will remain forever grateful.
4. Can you tell us about your early days in music?
In high school, I would always freestyle rap in ciphers and that’s kind of where my style was born. I started writing and recording my songs and performed at a few clubs here and there and I loved the feeling of being on stage. And the rest is history.
5. What would you say is your style of music? Tell us something about your unique style.
I feel like I’m the bridge between East and West. I’ve always been passionate about incorporating ancient Indian vocalizations and sounds into modern music.
6. How has India influenced you?
India is the motherland. It’s always been a huge part of my life. My parents moved here from India in their 20’s, but we went back and visited every year with my brothers and stayed with a family there. India is rich with culture and history, and especially through Indian classical dance, so much of who I have always been rooted there. So when I moved there in 2016, it was like coming home.
7. Why that particular name? Tell us something about your journey from Svetha Rao to Raja Kumari.
Raja Kumari means the daughter of the king. I wanted my name to be rooted in my spirituality, so for me, it's the daughter of the king of kings. I needed a persona greater than who I thought I was. We’re living in a man’s world and Raja Kumari makes a statement. She’s bold, she’s fearless, she’s royalty.
8. Every rapper/singer has a message to convey through her music? What is yours?
I feel like what I want to convey through my music and in everything I’m doing, is that manifestation is real. Anything is possible with intention. I love making bad bitch anthems for women and with women and I can only hope empowerment stems from thereon.
9. Why do you think there is a dearth of women in hip-hop music?
India has always been a patriarchal society. It’s harder for women and girls to even get into music studios and have access to this industry. I can only hope that my appearance on Hustle can have and will maybe continue to encourage women to strive for what they want. I am so hopeful to see more and more women in the industry.
10. Tell us something about your new song
Shanti, the Hindi version of my song PEACE, is a song about surrounding yourself with good energy and positive vibes. It’s a special treat for my fans around the world as we gear up to release my album.
1. How are you coping with quarantine? 5 things you are doing to keep yourself busy
It was so weird because I left India so abruptly. And at first, it was difficult to get used to this new normal and I missed the busy lifestyle and performing and glam, but I’ve been super busy! Quarantine has been an adjustment, but I also think it’s been a great time to self-reflect. Five things I’m doing to keep myself busy are:
-Yoga and meditation
-Trying new vegan recipes every day
-Hanging with my dogs Tara and Kush
-Working on new things that I’m excited to share with everyone in the future
2. Possible ways to fight anxiety during coronavirus pandemic?
I’ve found that yoga and sound healing has been my best ways to fight internal anxiety. Meditation has been super helpful to me. It’s the perfect way to keep your mind and body active while stuck at home.
3. The inspiration behind your songs (lyrics)
My inspirations come from past experiences and things I’ve lived through. I also try to make songs that I need for that specific time of my life. For example, PEACE came at a time when I didn’t have PEACE in my life. My EP BLOODLINE was a collection of battle anthems that I needed at the time.
4. 2 things that you are missing the most
I miss pani puri and my friends in India.
5. First thing you would do once all of this is over.
I cannot wait to hug my fans again!
6. Any new projects?
Yes! I’ve been previewing a lot of my music on Instagram Live and YouTube Live over the past few weeks, gearing up for a release. A lot of things to look forward to!
7. Your most expensive indulgence
Essential oils, like rose oil!
8. What keeps you grounded?
Yoga and meditation. But also, My parents keep me grounded. I’ve been fortunate enough that my Mom has traveled with me to some shows, especially in India. And it always feels so special to have her there.
9. Craziest fan encounter?
I remember when I was leaving the Yongo River Festival in Arunachal Pradesh, we were driving in a rural and mountainous area, and people were chasing the car! It felt like a Michael Jackson moment.
10. How do you deal with criticism?
There are two different ways to deal with criticism. I always listen to constructive criticism because I’m always trying to be a better person and grow. However, if someone’s criticism comes from a place of negativity, I’ve learned it’s best to let it slide off you and not let it affect you. Every single person is entitled to their own opinion. What they say should not affect me and if it does, I have to actively remind myself of just that.
11. What is the first thing you notice in a man?
12. Your favourite Indian rapper?
I’m most excited about this next generation of rappers! Season 1 of MTV Hustle showed that the youth is ready to take over the scene, and I'm looking forward to it!
13. What’s your favourite song?
It’s hard to choose, but I have been listening to a lot of music by Summer Walker right now.
14. What is your brainstorming process like when it comes to composing original singles?
I always start with melodies.
15. What do you enjoy doing most on the weekend when not rapping or composing?
I love nature walks with my dogs. It’s been one of my favorite pass time activities. Lately, I’ve been interested in learning more about gemstones and their healing properties, so I’ve started collecting some.