Fierce, feisty and full of life. Culturally-strong Raja Kumari is leading the hip-hop movement for women and inspiring them to follow.
She was in the city to promote her ‘The Come Up’ India Tour and we had the chance to catch the Goddess herself for a one-on-one chat.
The Sherp: We happened to catch your performance at Bacardi NH7 Weekender and it was so good! How was the whole experience for you?
Raja Kumari: It was crazy. As my debut performance in India, to come out in front of such a crowd that really respected and enjoyed hip-hop, it was so cool. It was great to perform for the people and especially to perform with Divine and the Gully Gang, after all that he’s done and contributed to this scene.
The Sherp: What made you think of collaborating with Divine?
Raja Kumari: I have been a fan of his ever since “Yeh Mera Bombay”. I hit him up on Twitter years ago. After that, I put out “Believe In You” which got telecasted on Vh1, so people knew about me and who I was. So, when I contacted him again and told him that I’m coming to India, he said, “You should come for the show”, and he invited me. We ended up doing that show and I linked up with MO and we ended up setting a whole tour. It was really exciting to put that body of work out and share it with everyone.
The Sherp: When did your transition into Raja Kumari begin?
Raja Kumari: I think I was 13 or 14 when I started making hip-hop music. Svetha Rao, my real name, is a classical Indian dancer and I thought that if Svetha Rao was giving a performance for a bunch of people, many uncles would show up and would want me to do a Tillana or something and they would be really confused to see what I was doing. So that’s how the character was born. When I was in high school, I would be into hip-hop ciphers during lunch and they would call me ‘Indian princess’. So I thought, if you’re going to call me that, might as well do it in Sanskrit and call me ‘Raja Kumari’. It became a character I wanted to play, which is funny because I created it to separate myself from dance. But now, my classical dance is so embedded into my music, it just became a greater version of myself.
The Sherp: Did you explore the Indian style of music even further after becoming Raja Kumari?
Raja Kumari: When I was growing up, most American kids would be listening to The Beatles or their parents played them Jazz music like Ray Charles. But my parents played classical music and they made me listen to A.R. Rahman and a lot of Telugu music. But one day, my eldest brother gave me The Fugees album when I was 10 years old, and that was the beginning of everything for me. I have credited The Fugees for being the genesis of my musical experience. I have always been connected to classical music because of the dance, so it took me time to realise that it could be interwoven and that I didn’t have to choose between either of them. That became my goal; to figure out how to show my pride and culture while doing something new.
The Sherp: This get-up that you come prepared with for every performance; where does the inspiration come from?
Raja Kumari: I just like to have fun. You think about how much jewellery a classical dancer has to wear. So for me, nothing is over the top. I have spent close to 2 and a half hours in makeup, hair and jewellery since I was six years old. When the time comes for me to go on stage, I just like to put on a good show. I feel like jewellery always tells my story and it holds our history and culture in a lot of ways. This is why I like to wear Indian jewellery. But I’ve been working with a few cool designers on this trip for more modern Indian stuff.
The Sherp: You have worked for many international artists like Gwen Stefani, Knife Party and Fall Out Boy. How different is it to write material for such mainstream artists?
Raja Kumari: I spent the last couple of years just learning from the best in songwriting in America, Sweden and Denmark. I travelled a lot and learned about English pop music. It’s really fun to write for people who have a built-in audience. It’s fun for me to help them express something and bring something new to the table. Every time I go there, I go in with the attitude that I need to help them do the song that they want to sing today and be of whatever support I can be; whether it’s in the melody, lyrics, support or whatever it is.
The Sherp: Are there any artists you are looking forward to collaborating with?
Raja Kumari: Divine and I have a song coming out called “City Slums”, which I’m really excited for. I met Anirudh (Ravichander) the other day; he’s been out in L.A. and I want to work with him. Kolaveri Di is on my song “Believe In You”. So technically, we have already worked together! But we need to do something fresh. I would love to work with Diplo and Anirudh because I think they would understand my sound. I have some songs coming out with Timbaland in the new year; my first single is with him which I’m very excited about.
The Sherp: Who would you say is your greatest inspiration in keeping your Indian roots alive?
Raja Kumari: My mom. She’s a vessel of culture. I just want to make her happy and proud. My parents came to America in the 70s with so much culture to share. I feel that we have erased the time capsule of Indian culture. I look at what’s happening in the world and I look at Indian people abroad and everywhere and I see this kind of hurry to be westernised and globalised, which is okay and cool. But it would be sad that after thousands of years we have kept this culture alive and nobody is fascinated with it. If I am a person who is not afraid to wear a bindi or wear anything else out there, then I can inspire some other kids to keep the culture going. I feel the happiest when I have a bindi on because my face looks symmetrical and I like to wear gold jewellery because my name is Raja Kumari, so that’s natural. I want people to be inspired and be proud of where we come from and just celebrate it.
The Sherp: How did you introduce rap music as a concept to your family?
Raja Kumari: Oh my God! Those conversations were bad, because you have to understand I am an Indian classical dancer who has learnt Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. The idea of going, “Hey dad, I kinda want to take a little break from dance and no I don’t want to be a doctor anymore. I want to be a rapper,” was a crazy conversation. But my parents have been supportive of the arts and they’re supportive of me. They saw my passion for it and what my father instilled in me was that if I’m going to do it then it should be doing it to the best of my capabilities and I need to put in those 10,000 hours as a professional. They just encouraged me to learn, practice and study, which is the thing that helped me a lot because I had their support. Without them, this whole thing would have been very difficult.
The Sherp: What would you like to tell your Indian fans and other aspiring musicians who look at you as an inspiration, especially the women?
Raja Kumari: I would tell them to be fearless and just do it and enjoy life. Let’s celebrate our beauty and have fun. I remember Divine and I had these conversations about how there aren’t many female rappers here, or the ones that are here are influenced by other things. Hip-hop is really in a unique place right now in India where it’s growing like it did in America in the early stage. And I think that if I can be an example, and if I can show them that it can be done, then it can be done. I think that I’m supposed to kick open the door for everyone and I think that there’s too many of us for sure way. I just hope that we see more music, let’s see more things, let’s get more girls rapping, let’s get more girls out there, let’s get more girls recording and engineering themselves and producing themselves because it can be done. I did it, so I really think that it can be done. I hope we see more of that and I hope that, by the time I come back to India again, there are more girls here that are making music.