Armed with heart-hitting lyrics and rhyming lines, hip-hop rappers from the South Asian diaspora are fearlessly speaking of diversity and efficiently challenging current social norms. The journey of hip-hop in India began sometime in the early 2000s with the likes of Eminem, Tupac and Snoop Dogg.
In 2016, Svetha Rao aka Raja Kumari, an Indian American songwriter, rapper and recording artist made heads turn with her first single Mute. Raja is best known for her collaboration with artists like Gwen Stefani, Fall Out Boy, Iggy Azalea. 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, Raja Kumari shared with THE MAN her journey, from the time when her doctor parents expected her to follow their footsteps and go to medical school, and learn classical dance. Instead, she found her calling in music, and decided to pursue it full-time. "I am professionally trained in three dance forms — Odissi, Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam — and used to dance six hours a day. My parents thought I would learn dance as a hobby and would pursue medical studies. Things changed when I chanced upon the Fugees and found my love for hip hop."
Talking about song-writing and finding her voice in India, Raja Kumari explained how she has been true to herself and her roots. She feels lucky to have been born in a family where people respect art. "For me, culture comes first as it has kept me close to my roots while growing up in America. I kind of made space for myself inheriting both the cultures. Learning classical music and dance helped me understand hip-hop even more. Just like classical music, hip-hop is all about rhyme and rhythm.
For me, culture comes first as it has kept me close to my roots while growing up in America.
It is all about expressing yourself using taal and voice modulations."
Beginning of street hip hop
Arjun Sankali, Head International and Special Projects, Sony Music India said, "After Eminem, Tupac and Snoop Dogg created a buzz, the next step or phase would have been 8 Mile, the movie and Eminem's role in it. In particular, Lose Yourself as a song, I think had a lot of impact on the scene and perhaps introduced the concept of rape battles to a larger audience in India. The scene here kept bubbling until 2015 when Mere Gully Mein happened, I think you could call that the big tentpole moment. This made hip-hop come out of the underground and made people stand up and take notice."
Sony Music has been a great driving force behind the growing hip-hop culture in India. Sankali said, "As an international label, we are obviously tuned into what's happening around the world and with Divine we had a head start in getting it. We always let the product and the artist take the lead, keeping it real, authentic and true to its style."
Raja Kumari's City Slum with Sony Music and Divine created a buzz in no time. In a span of just two days, the video got more than two million views. Raja Kumari feels that her journey so far has been quite rewarding. Working with top names like Gwen Stefani and now doing my own music has been a learning experience.
I knew I had it in me when the songs I had written for such super stars were a part of billboard. I realised that I need to share it with society."
While speaking about the reason behind taking Raja Kumari as her stage name, she revealed, "At the age of 14, I was noticed as a freestyle MC and people started calling me 'Indian Princess' or Raja Kumari. I wanted to use Sanskrit and Raja Kumari means daughter of the King (God). It helps me and keeps me connected to my spirituality and my culture."
At the age of 14, I was noticed as a freestyle MC and people started calling me 'Indian Princess'
Her unique style
"I come from a multi-cultural upbringing. I was born in America but my parents poured Indianess in me. Raised to respect my culture and stay close to my roots, I was obsessed with ancient Indian culture. For me to wear Indian accessories with western clothes is an expression of my multi-cultural identity. My style and my music is inspired by my life. I live between Los Angeles and Mumbai and am constantly thinking about two different worlds and two different cultures and my style is just a balance between the East and the West." Raja Kumari explained that her fans make her feel at home, be it on the streets of LA. or in the gullies of Mumbai. "Wherever I get love, I feel at home. Mumbai has become a second home for me and is very close to my heart. Working with Divine has given me the opportunity to explore India and be a part of the rise of hip hop in India."
Impressed with the hip-hop scene in India, Raja Kumari says there is a lot of buzz in the industry here. "The rising hip hop scene in South Asia is really exciting and to be an ambassador of it internationally and seeing all the MCs coming out of India has been a treat. I am very proud of the music India is producing. Artitsts like Divine, Ritviz, Nucleya are making mind blowing music that can be exported to the whole world. However, I still think there are not enough women in the hip-hop scene, may be because there hasn't been enough representation from them. I hope to inspire more and more girls to come out and follow their passion and love for music."
Hip-hop a male dominated genre?
"Hip-hop may be a male dominated genre but it’s fun to be a badass female in it. There’s not enough representation for girls so I have no problem being a strong woman in Indian hip-hop," Raja said. " I personally don’t listen to music where women are being objectified and body shamed so I’m not encouraging that but I really do love all the authentic music coming out of the Indian hip-hop scene right now."
She has a strong message for people who believe women are not capable of doing things better than men. She said, "Watch me do it. That’s all I have to say."
Raja Kumari signed off the interview on a beautiful note. "I want to be a role model for Indian kids who are trying hard to be American. Hopefully, seeing me and my love for India they'll realise how rich we are culturally and will cherish being Indians. I just don't want to use street kids, poverty to embellish my video, but actually to bring a change."
I want to be a role model for Indian kids who are trying hard to be American.
Your favorite Indian rapper?
What’s your favourite song?
How do you deal with criticism?
I put them on Mute
What is the first thing you notice in a man?
How they carry themselves and how they walk.
Craziest fan encounter?
They haven’t been crazy they have been sweet. I ran into a fan at the Dallas Airport. I was pretty much in disguise in sweatshirt and no make-up. The fan started crying and I was so surprised because I didn’t know I had fans like that in Dallas.
What keeps me grounded?
My family. They have no problem letting me know if I’m acting like a brat.
Fun facts About Raja Kumari
Raja Kumari's real name is Svetha Rao
In 2016, she received the BMI Pop Awards for songwriting
In February 2015, she was nominated for the Grammy Award
She was featured on BBC Asian Network programme Bobby Friction in 2016
Kumari holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies, with an emphasis on South Asian religions