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“My parents poured all their Indianness in me!” Raja Kumari talks about what makes her the bridge between the East and the West

The Grammy-nominated Indian-American songwriter and rapper is collaborating with the gully boys of Mumbai

brunch Updated: Jan 31, 2019 16:20 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Svetha Rao aka Rajakumari is an Indian-origin American songwriter, rapper and recording artist
Svetha Rao aka Rajakumari is an Indian-origin American songwriter, rapper and recording artist(Aalok Soni)
         

If you are not into the independent music scene, chances are the name Svetha Rao aka Raja Kumari will not ring a bell. That’s fine, because this 32-year-old Indian-origin American songwriter, rapper and recording artist is well-known in the land of her birth, the USA. She has collaborated with Gwen Stefani, Tricky Stewart, Fifth Harmony, Timbaland and A. R. Rahman, and her song written for Australian rapper Iggy Azalea even got a Grammy nomination.

But Raja has been living in India for almost two years now, and with her talent for infusing Indian classical rhythms in rap songs, she has already become an important voice of the country’s growing hip-hop community. Her debut single with Sony Music, titled City Slums and featuring rapper, Divine got two million views in just two days. And she now has two Bollywood releases lined up. So what brought this LA girl to the gullies of Mumbai?

Between two worlds

Raja Kumari may have been born in Los Angeles, but as far as her parents were concerned, she was not going to be anything but Indian. From an early age, she was trained in classical Indian dance and by the age of five, she was already performing on stage. “I think my parents poured all their Indianness in me,” laughs Raja. “I am trained in three dance forms: Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam and Odissi. Between the ages of eight and 14, I was touring the country for weeks, performing. I came to India when I was 10 and did a 15-city tour with an elaborate eight-piece orchestra.”

“You don’t know how it feels like to be in a room full of people who look like you. I seldom had that growing up”

Bollywood was a big part of her life, even though the US had hardly any theatres screening Indian films then. “I was a huge Madhuri Dixit fan. I had all the outfits she wore in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994)” she laughs. “The first Indian movie I watched on the big screen on one of my India trips was Sridevi’s Kshana Kshanam (1991). I was mesmerised. I watched it over and over.”

However, torn between her love for all things American as well as Indian, Raja slowly found herself battling an identity crisis. “My love for Lauryn Hill was no less than my love for Madhuri Dixit. I was born in America and was very much an American kid,” she says.

She was never bullied or seen as exotic, perhaps because she went to a private school. But Raja Kumari would seldom talk about her Indian origin, let alone flaunt her Indianness the way she does today.

“I would not be wearing a bindi when I was out with my friends. It was as if I was living a dual life. I needed a way to merge the two,” she says. “And that happened when I chanced upon the Fugees. I found the rhythm in hip-hop very similar to that of our classical dance. I felt at home with that music.”

She joined the school hip-hop group and at 16 gave her first hip hop performance. But when she decided to take up music as a career, it shocked her parents. “They thought I would learn classical dance, go to a medical school, and become a doctor,” she says. “But music was freedom to me. It was a space where I didn’t have to pick a side. I always thought of myself as the perfect bridge between the East and the West. ”

Raja Kumari gave her first hip-hop performance when she was 16.
Raja Kumari gave her first hip-hop performance when she was 16. ( Aalok Soni )

Brown is the new black

In Los Angeles, Raja started writing music for friends and attending music sessions. Eventually, she became a prolific writer, writing at least two songs a day. “If you do anything that much, you can’t help but improve! Today I have more than 400 written songs in my catalogue,” she laughs. However, she didn’t put out her music before 2016, when she had an epiphany...

“I was collaborating with some of the biggest names in the industry,” she says. “One day I thought, if Gwen Stefani can sing what I am saying with my music and get applauded for it, why can’t I sing my own songs? I need to make myself credible enough that people listen to a South East Asian woman’s voice.”

There wasn’t much Indian representation in the American pop culture Raja grew up with. “I remember getting excited when I heard that Tony Ashwin Kanal, the bassist for No Doubt (An American band), is half Indian. It was quite a moment, as such references were really hard to find,” she muses.

“But right now, there is a brown renaissance in the US. And the funniest part is that I really think Kim Kardashian changed the scene for us. She made curvaceous brown women ‘sexy’. It opened the door for a lot of people. Now we have brown girls.”

Priyanka Chopra’s foray into American television was a game changer for desi girls in the US. “While growing up, I would have never imagined the face of an Indian girl plastered on buses,” she says. But, Raja quietly adds, although Priyanka is such a big Bollywood star, for her US television debut she had to be shown having sex in a car in the first episode. “They will not just let things be as they are in real life,” she muses.

“One day I thought, if Gwen Stefani can sing what I am saying with my music and get applauded, why can’t I sing my own songs?”

Between Priyanka on TV and comedians like Hassan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, the US popular culture scene is now extending to shades of brown, but that’s not enough, says Raja. “We need to do the same in the music scene. It would be really exciting to have more musicians to cross over. Even 10 years back, they would not open the door for you, however hard you pushed. Now that they have unlocked that door, I have to do my bit and open the door a bit wider for the next generation,” she says.

Culture as costume

While her music references are Dr Dre and Timbaland, her get-up is heavily influenced by her Indian roots
While her music references are Dr Dre and Timbaland, her get-up is heavily influenced by her Indian roots ( Aalok Soni )

While Raja’s musical references are Dr. Dre and Timbaland, her videos, as well as her onstage get-up, are heavily India-influenced. “Everything I do comes through the prism of classical dance,” she explains. “Apart from incorporating Indian rhythm in my music, my onstage persona is totally a result of me being a classical dancer first. I can never turn up for a performance without being elaborately dressed.”

Then she gets serious. “It is sad that Bollywood doesn’t do much classical stuff anymore,” she says. “It is shocking how a country that preserved certain values and traditions for thousands of years suddenly has begun to forget those in favour of Western culture. I probably value India more than kids growing up in India. That’s because I have learnt to treasure whatever bits of India we could find in the US. You don’t know how it feels like to be in a room full of people who look like you. I seldom had that growing up. To me, it is a big deal.”

Although Raja wants to make India more accessible to the West, she is firmly against cultural appropriation. You see that in her lyrics: I had to put em on mute/Thought that the curry was soup/I had to feed these fools/Had to go home and regroup. “They like the henna and the bindi and chicken tikka masala and the Bikram yoga but they don’t want to understand the people,” she frets.

“In the US, you will often see people wearing bindis. I get it if people want to wear it just because it looks pretty. But I do have a problem when the bindi is sold as part of a Halloween costume. I don’t think our traditional wear can be reduced to ‘costumes’,” she says.

This is why she took exception to Iggy Azalea wearing a kiritam (headgear) in the Bounce video. “She used it as a costume, and I just think there should be some cultural sensitivity. You wouldn’t just dress as a geisha and walk around, right? There is a cultural context and you need to be aware of that.”

But she feels differently about Beyonce’s Indian look in the Coldplay music video, Hymn for the Weekend. “Beyonce looked gorgeous!” says Raja. “A lot of people criticised her for wearing Indian clothes, but I think she wore them with respect and awe.”

This is why Raja believes India’s cultures should be more approachable. “I don’t want the world to be scared of the East and approach it as something ‘exotic’. It should be for everyone to embrace,” she says. “I am riled by Western artists who use India as an exotic background. Don’t just shoot a video with street children and leave. Do something for them. Don’t use the poverty to embellish your video.”

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From HT Brunch, January 27, 2019

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First Published: Jan 27, 2019 00:01 IST