Raja Kumari: Queen Of Words, Hearts, And Modern Poetry
By Bayar Jain
11 Jun 2021 10:00 AM
In an industry dominated by male voices, Indian-American rap artist Raja Kumari reigns. A fearless musician on a mission to bridge the musical gap between the East and the West, the singer-songwriter celebrates her multi-cultural personality with each beat—be it with international collaborations that went on to score double-platinum, judging rap battle shows on Indian soil, or even lending her voice to Bollywood movies like Pagglait, and India’s first skater movie—Skater Girl. In an unfiltered interview, the rebel rapper bares it all.
Why did you choose Raja Kumari as your stage name?
I’ve been a performer since I was seven years old. By the time I was 14 and wanted to start making music, my name—Svetha Rao—was already well known as an accomplished classical dancer. I had already done 15 city tours in India as a dancer and won awards. Many people knew me in that way, so I needed an alter ego to become a rockstar—which was very different from what I had been doing so far. I needed a name for my character which was larger than me.
In high school when I started to get into music and make raps, they would call me ‘Indian Princess’ or IP. I felt like if they wanted to call me that, they should say it in Sanskrit. Since I had always been interested in classical culture, I liked the way Raja Kumari sounded then. I also liked using ‘Raja’ as my first name because I loved everyone calling me king; it just fit. And over time, I was able to grow into that character. It’s been 20 years since.
How did you foray into music, despite being a trained classical dancer?
It was a natural transition. When I was touring as a classical dancer, I was touring with an eight-piece orchestra. While dancing, your feet are the rhythm; while in rap, it’s all rhythm and poetry. Foraying into rap was a way for me to express my American identity, and not just my Indian identity. It was a way for me to make sense of both worlds. When I started to make music, I kept bringing elements of classical music that I learned and loved. At the time, there wasn’t a space in my life where I could be both. In my music, it was a safe space to create that.
You’ve collaborated extensively with both Indian and international artists. As a musician, how different or similar is the music-making process?
It depends. The way people write has always been different. The process when I was working with Kailash Kher was completely different from when I was working with someone like Raftaar. With Kher or AR Rahman, it was mostly me trying to absorb and share knowledge.
I’ve been very thankful to be able to work in such close proximity to these music gods. For me, I always just give my opinion and talk to the person like a friend, no matter who it is.
Maybe in Los Angeles (LA), everything is more freestyle-based. We use a lot of engineers. But maybe in India, sometimes I just have to write in a room with no technology.
As an Indian-American juggling between India and the USA, how does this blend of cultures impact your work?
It impacts every part of my work, and that has been the main angst that I’ve had to express. I feel art is a means to portray your perspective and the way you see the world. Before I was even making my personality, I was already immersed in classical culture. In America, people around me grew up watching Batman and Superman; I had Hanuman and Bheem!
I’ve come to understand how unique it [her Indian roots] has been and have come to appreciate it. I never really wanted to let go of my culture and embrace ‘western’ culture just to be ‘accepted’. I guess I’ve always been a rebel in that sense.
What’s your take on the current hip-hop and rap scene in India?
It was always going to pick up, it was only a matter of time! When I came in 2016 and saw what was bubbling, I could just see what was about to happen. Hip hop is the voice of the youth, and 60 per cent of the population is under 30. You’re going to see this change in the culture of the youth expressing themselves in their vernacular ways. Though it’s young and nascent, hip hop has infiltrated every corner of India, and it’s exciting! I’m so thankful that more female voices are being celebrated.
Top three destinations a first-timer in Los Angeles must visit?
LA is beautiful! The one thing I always tell people is that it’s an hour to the desert. You can visit the Joshua Tree, and look at the vast sky and the milky way. Or you can drive for 30 minutes and head to Malibu to see some of the most pristine beaches. Or you could take an hour-long drive to Big Bear Mountain for snowboarding. LA, for me, is about the fact that you can just escape to so many different worlds.
Any hidden gems you discovered in Mumbai during your collaboration with The Gully Gang?
I love Bandra! It’s a really fun place. It’s a mix of cultures, especially with the houses and the gullies. Before I left the city, I started seeing a lot of South Bombay and its buildings. I enjoyed going to Colaba Causeway, shopping, and experiencing the different vibes of the area. I spent some time in Juhu, too. I think Mumbai requires a proper darshan (city tour)!
Your favourite hangout spots in Delhi?
I’ve been really lucky to stay with my friend at Prithviraj Road [at the time of shoot]; so, I’ve been seeing beautiful properties. I went to Hauz Khas village, which was cool. I visited The Roseate, which was such a beautiful experience. I spent every day at the spa for eight days! I’m hoping to see more of Delhi’s architecture because I’m a fan of it. I’m still learning about the city and I hope to see more of it and understand it better.
How did you satiate your wanderlust during the lockdown?
Right before lockdown, I had bought myself a whole travel set—carry-on, backpack with my name, and everything as a gift to myself! The only trip it took was from India to LA. Around June or July last year, however, I started taking small trips to Santa Barbara or driving to Joshua Tree. I went on hikes to nearby places and discovered the art of the American road trip. Just going out, getting in the car, and seeing the world through the window helped me a lot.
However, I spent most of my time making my LA house—which I hadn’t gotten a chance to live in yet—a ‘home’.
Any message for our readers?
It’s important to keep your eyes open and see the world. Travel doesn’t always have to be luxurious. It can be finding that beautiful garden in your area and taking trips to connect with nature. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that it is important to be in the present moment and be thankful. You don’t have to go very far to take yourself out of the regular world. You can just travel out of your comfort zone by seeking out nature.