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Raja Kumari: ‘Artists Don’t Always Have to Choose Between East and West’

Firing verses on traditional 'taals' of Bharatanatyam, she is the badass desi rapper everyone was waiting for 


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“Because I learned dance first, I learned about music through rhythm,” says rapper Raja Kumari. Photo: Nikko Lamere

When she was 14, Indian-American rapper Svetha Rao decided to take on the stage name of Raja Kumari–Hindi for ‘crown princess’–for a simple reason: she wanted to change the world’s idea of Indian music and culture. “South Asian culture hasn’t been exposed to the West from a South Asian person. They’ve only learned about it through other people exoticizing us,” says Rao over the phone from Los Angeles, where she has just finished rehearsing for the launch show of her newly released debut EP The Come Up.

Rao has in the past also written for pop veteran Gwen Stefani and rockers Fall Out Boy. One of the records she worked on, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic, even bagged a Grammy nomination in 2015. She is currently on three-city India tour to promote The Come Up. A collab is also in the offing with local hip-hop star Divine, with whom she shared the stage during his set at Bacardi NH7 Weekender Pune on December 4th.

As a child, Rao trained to be a Bharatanatyam dancer, and also watched out for rap, listening to American hip-hop artists like the Fugees, Lauryn Hill and Timbaland. Her love for classical dance and rap was a gift that led to the development of her personal brand of music. “Because I learned dance first, I learned about music through rhythm,” she explains, adding that she realized very early on that the jathis–the taals–of Bharatanatyam were the same as the beats in rap music.

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Kumari and Mumbai rapper Divine share the stage during the latter’s set at Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Pune. Photo: Bryan Jacob Daniel

Given her cross-cultural leanings, she seems to follow in the footsteps of artists like Tamil-British rapper M.I.A. “If M.I.A. opened the door for me, I have to kick the door open and make it even wider so everyone can come through,” says Rao. “While we’re in such a hurry to be Westernized, who is left to preserve the culture?” She hopes to show budding artists that they don’t always have to choose between East and West. “A lot of people ask me ‘How can you be both?’” she says. “The fact is, I am born as both.”

Rao started working on The Come Up’s title track two years ago while she was still a full-time songwriter. “I wrote it and it was so honest.  It was about me working hard through the night with my team and pushing hard for a goal no one else could see.” It was also the first track she didn’t want to sell. Soon she found herself inspired enough to finally tell more of her story. The Come Up as a whole is an effective introduction to Raja Kumari the badass rapper. “I’m tired of people picking up pieces of our culture like a costume and a gimmick,” says the rapper. “It’s not their fault necessarily–it’s because we haven’t been there to show them.”

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While her first single “Mute,” featuring hip-hop artist Elvis Brown, has her spitting fire to complex rhythms, the second, the mellow anthem “Believe In You” offers a look into her upbringing, with the music video featuring footage from the family camcorder of a young Rao performing on stage.

In the video for “Mute,” she wears the American flag, gold teeth grills and a maang tikka. The video caught the attention of young Indians across the world, prompting an influx of messages in her inbox. “I have to be the artist that I needed. I didn’t want another Indian girl to grow up in America or anywhere else in the world and be ashamed of who she was because she didn’t think it was ‘cool.’”

Raja Kumari India Tour 2016

December 15th – Summer House Cafe, Mumbai w/Divine, Diplomats of Sound

December 16th – Summer House Cafe, New Delhi w/Prabh Deep, Diplomats of Sound

December 17th – The Humming Tree, Bengaluru w/DJ Panic, Su.1

 

 

 

 

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"Tamacun" (Rodrigo y Gabriela) by Shruti Naik & Ashar Kazi


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