COVER STORY: How Raja Kumari Embraced Culture and Controversy
The Indian-American rapper on female representation in music, her conflicted relationship with the diaspora and why it’s time for the world to listen to Indian hip-hop
Like many young girls, there was a time in Svetha Yellapragada Rao’s life where she felt like she didn’t quite fit in. The early 2000s weren’t kind to most teens, but it was probably a little tougher for a South Indian girl in L.A. “I was alone,” she says. “Growing up in America, I didn’t see anybody like me. I wanted to be different, obviously. I wanted to dye my hair and I wished I were skinny. I wished I was so many things… and then I discovered hip-hop and Lauryn Hill.”
Over the next few years, the American R&B/hip-hop singer became the figure Rao hoped to be someday. “Her music wasn’t like the stuff that Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] were doing, like, ‘I’m a genie in a bottle, rub me the right way.’ No, it was more like, ‘I played my enemies like a game of chess’,” she recalls. “That was one of the first things that Lauryn said to me. Listening to albums when you’re young is like hanging out with the artist.” She realized that while she would never be a Britney or a Christina, maybe she could be a Lauryn Hill. Or maybe she wanted to be someone completely new and become the representation she so desperately wanted in the industry. “I needed to find a way to make it as an Indian pop star.”
In October 2016, my best friend sent me a link to a mini-documentary he’d come across on YouTube about an up-and-coming Indian-American rapper. “I think you’ll like her,” he had texted. But it was “Mute,” her breakout single that convinced me I needed to talk to Raja Kumari. We had our first conversation for Rolling Stone India in November 2016, right as she was beginning her journey into the Indian hip-hop scene, and over the years we kept in touch. We met at interviews, parties and gigs, each one bigger than the last with more fans milling around her. Meeting her again, this time for the cover shoot for the March edition of Rolling Stone India, was like coming full circle.
Rao arrives on time for the morning shoot, greets the entire team and begins the journey of transforming into Raja Kumari—a process that includes a whole lot of heavy, smoky eye shadow, waterfalls of hair extensions that twist into intricate updos and diamond-encrusted nails, all custom-made in L.A. I watch as at one point she tries on the same gold grill she had on in the music video for “Mute” — contemplating whether she should wear it for the cover shot or not — and what a moment it is. She’s the picture of confidence, completely at home in front of the cameras as she raps and dances along to the hip-hop we’ve got booming over the restaurant speakers — it’s hard to take your eyes off her.
Six hours later, the shoot is done. The crew leaves and we settle at a table in the restaurant for the interview. She’s dressed in a jacket, sweatpants and a T-shirt, hair up in messy braids and she orders “some guacamole, chips and salsa, please!” Suddenly, the magnetic, larger-than-life Raja Kumari recedes into her skin and the bubbly Svetha Yellapragada Rao emerges with a smile.
Inspired by Nas and Tupac to Rahman and Nusrat
She’s the girl who grew up listening to hip-hop greats like Lauryn Hill, Tupac, Nas and Biggie, but was also devoted to A.R. Rahman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Indian classical music. Spitting verses became as core to her creative identity as mastering Kuchipudi. She discovered her artistic refuge in hip-hop. “It is the most powerful genre in the whole world,” she says, adding, “Look at Divine — you see it [the impact] with somebody who raised themselves out of the slums with his words, with his poetry. You know, you see this shit. It’s an important time in hip-hop. And the reason I stayed, the reason I’m here, is because I just wanted to make sure that there was female representation in this way. Because I didn’t want them to think it was all about them.”
I remember standing in the front row at Raja Kumari’s first big performance in India at Bacardi NH7 Weekender 2016 in Pune. She was a guest on (then rising) Mumbai rapper Divine’s headlining set, but that’s all it took for the women in the crowd to realize that a shift was upon us. There was shock, there was awe and most importantly with Raja Kumari, there was female, Indian representation. “I can’t ever forget that show,” the rapper says. She kept the momentum going with small and big gigs across clubs in India. At first, those gigs were packed with hordes of young men who found their voice via Divine and Naezy. Then slowly the scene began to change. “I would be on stage and there would be like one or two other girls in the audience and I just watched it change,” the rapper says. “Like the more and more I performed with the boys, the more and more girls came out [to the shows.] So it felt like maybe I made it seem like hip-hop was a safer space, you know?” Finally in 2019, she got to play her own headlining set at NH7 Weekender.
It was a busy year full of various glittering achievements, including dropping her second EP Bloodline in June, appearing as a judge and mentor on MTV India’s rap battle competition Hustle, a handful of collaborations and a plethora of U.S. media appearances — she hosted the red carpet broadcast of the AMAs, did interviews with MTV, Larry King and more. But the excitement wouldn’t end there.
A label deal that isn’t frustrating
Raja Kumari’s 2020 kicked off with the finalization of a record deal with hip-hop legend Nas’ Mass Appeal India. The rapper launched the Indian division of his label back in September 2019, bringing in Divine as his first artist. Now, Raja Kumari has just been announced as the latest addition to the roster. “I just remembered Nas being synonymous with real hip-hop, you know? It’s like Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Lauryn… For me, growing up in America, I can clearly remember sitting in my room listening to ‘One Mic’ by Nas. I was thinking about that other day, that [back then] I wouldn’t have known that later the same man would sign me, give me a seal of approval.” For Raja Kumari, the Mass Appeal India deal comes as an answer to the long struggle to fit in. “It’s really frustrating to deal with major labels in general. And dealing with it from the West trying to infiltrate the East was all very hard because they never gave gravity or enough importance to us. Now, to work with a company that has set up a whole branch here — I don’t have to fight them and tell them how important India is. So I feel like this is like a new era for me. I get to put all my energy towards my art.”
Last year was also possibly the biggest for Indian hip-hop with filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy breaking the box office. Millions fell in love with the film that showcased how raw poetry built the careers of leading Mumbai rappers Divine and Naezy, on whose lives it was loosely adapted on. Akhtar involved several hip-hop artists and producers from across India in the film’s soundtrack with cameos from several big names in the scene including Brodha V, Dee MC and Raja Kumari. Gully Boy would go on to win a whopping 13 awards at the 2020 Filmfare awards, cementing its ‘mainstream’ crown in Indian pop culture. “I always credit Gully Boy for helping our parents’ generation understand that we’re poets,” she explains. “I think now there’s a little bit more understanding. I think as Indians, we need understanding from the older generation — that we’re not the type that just cuts off everything and runs. We are rooted in who we are. So I think there’s been an easier energy [since the movie’s success.]”
Do women get a raw deal?
It’s that understanding that allowed her to dive deeper into Indian culture with her latest single “Bindis and Bangles,” which portrays her as a sort of hip-hop apsara. “I just dreamt of these visuals, being able to pull off something like that and dressing like the ‘Mahabharata’ apsaras and making it modern, you know.” It is no cakewalk — what we’re talking about here is multiple mood boards, a smorgasbord of fabrics, tailors, custom-made jewelry, headpieces, hairpieces, with rapper involved in almost every single detail. “It takes about three hours to get in full costume. We give ourselves three hours from the beginning, from sitting down, to full Kumari,” she says with a solemn nod.
Although she had done 16 music videos already, Raja Kumari felt she was still being watched on just a linear level. “You are getting used to who I am and how I move, but you don’t know how I think, you don’t know how I see the world. I felt like I was being misunderstood a lot, by the press and by people…”
It made her think about what she was really leaving behind in the world, giving her the idea to make something a lot deeper, portraying the various layers of who she is as an artist and individual. Years of training in Indian classical dance had after all taught her that even the smallest movements and details could mean a hundred different things. “One person can tell a million stories at the same time. So why was I just staying linear?”
The “Bindis and Bangles” video was inspired by Mumbai visual artist Sam Madhu’s piece ‘Cyberpunk Mahabharat,’ a neon-drenched virtual re-imagining of the most significant works of Indian mythology and literature. “It was a piece where this man was in his dhoti, laid out by a tree, but he’s plugged into a VR headset, and there’s this Shakuntala devi-like apsara coming out of the forest. So it’s like this woman was his fantasy. I saw it and I wanted to be that hot apsara! So then we started imagining what that world would look like and what it all means.” Madhu was a creative director on several projects for Raja Kumari last year, including the music video for “Karma” and several of the artist’s stage visuals. They started playing with new ideas for a world that combined myth and technology, partnering with filmmaker Nizrin Aziz and stylist Sallony Mahendru to come up with visuals and bring to life the glitching digital deity we finally see onscreen. “Obviously this is a women-led project which I feel I think it’s the best way to go,” Raja Kumari says with a laugh. “Just like the last few projects — they’ve been on point visually creatively, not fighting anybody… it’s all coming together.”
With music being such a male dominated field across the globe as well as in India, is there a pressure to represent femininity in hip-hop? Does a female artist have to compromise between showing who they are and what people perceive ‘femininity’ to be? “I don’t know,” she answers honestly, after a moment of contemplation. “I think I’m still dealing with the balance of it. I have this obsession with the Ardhanarishvara (a conjoined form of Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati) and the balance between feminine and masculine.” She rolls up her left sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a trident and lotus joined with each other on her forearm, a symbol of Shiva and Parvati’s role of working together to balance the universe. “I think that there’s always going to be people that have these perceptions and ideas of how a South Asian woman is supposed to behave. So I’d like to break all those stereotypes.”
But fighting the patriarchy is a battle that shifts and evolves constantly, requiring stronger tactics every time you take it on. Raja Kumari is calm as she explains, “I’ve understood now that I have to be authentic even when I’m dealing with people or something I don’t like. India and America are two different places, so sometimes some of the things that I want to get done are not possible to get done here yet, you know? Because if you’re too assertive, then you’re hard to work with and you’re a bitch and a diva. Because I’m friends with a lot of guy hip-hop artists, I know that I’m asked to do things they would never be asked to do.”
Whose culture is it anyway?
Raja Kumari is no stranger to controversy, often caught between people’s perceptions of how she should interpret Indian and American culture. “When people from the diaspora question me about ‘appropriating’… I find it so strange. Like, how do I appropriate myself? I don’t know how to! It’s like they want me to have nothing. Because I’m in between both, they want me to not have either. No one can ever be happy, you know?”
In addition to accusations of cultural appropriation, she’s been criticized for ‘using Mumbai’s slums as a backdrop’ in the video for “City Slums,” her 2017 collaborative track with Divine (“Somebody actually asked me if I thought it was irresponsible for me to sing a song called ‘City Slums,’” she says with an incredulous laugh) and later of casteism thanks to the infamous “Untouchable with the Brahmin flow” lyric in 2018’s “Roots” — also a single with Divine. The track prompted several angry op eds and tweets from writers across India, viewing the rapper with skepticism and labeling her a gimmick. “Because [they think] I should have been out of here a long time ago. ‘That American girl doesn’t know shit, who does she think she is.’”
Raja Kumari says she came to India to fit in, find her tribe. “I’m not trying to take from India and leave, I’m not pillaging anything,” she says. “I think that that could have been said in the beginning, but I’ve been here for three years and I still live here. I bought a car and I have a dog…. I’m here.” The audience is and always has been India. “I wish that people would look at what I’m doing. If it challenges them, then good. That means the whole scene is going to keep getting better. An American publication was asking me for a quote about whether I think the next new hip-hop star will come out of India, and I feel like this is what we need to be focusing on as a community. There are a billion people, but we’re all so small-minded. We need to keep pushing ourselves to be better sonically, in terms of video production, authenticity, performances; If we push ourselves, we’ll be at the Grammys — all of us.”
Right now Raja Kumari’s focus is to stay away from toxicity — it’s the big reason behind why she isn’t too active on Twitter. “We don’t have to participate in everything that’s going on,” the rapper says. “People try to pull me in and obviously I have my opinions. But I also know that usually I’m fucked if I say something, fucked if I don’t.” She turns all her attention towards her music, the best way to escape as well as express herself. It’s at this point where she reveals she’s working on a brand new record titled The Bridge. Her manager shoots her a glance, asking if she’s ready to put out the title, and it’s a worry that Raja Kumari waves off gently. We’ve talked about this before, back during our first conversation in 2016, and now she’s finally ready to make it happen. It’s about being the artist who opens a door for another. But what’s something that can get in the way of opening these doors? “The biggest challenge in America is racism. In India, it’s patriarchy,” she replies. “Misinformation, ignorance and miseducation.”
We spend a few silent minutes examining the weight of her words before she continues, “You know, M.I.A. opened the door for me,” she says of the British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. “Yeah, whether she knew she was or not, just her existence was a fucking revolution and the door was open and people had a way to even perceive who I was. Our music is very different, but just her existence made people start to understand who I could be. So if I can blow open the door then so many artists can follow. I keep saying after Ricky Martin, Latin pop didn’t just stop — it became J. Lo and now Bad Bunny and now we have all these Latin artists. But it all started with Ricky Martin at the Grammys in 1999.” It’s one of the main reasons she decided to do MTV’s Hustle and Levi’s All Women Cypher. “I put two of the girls from Hustle on [the Cypher] and then I put these two unnamed girls that just hit me up on Instagram that I loved because I just want to help them, you know? I want to teach them, spend time with them. I’m putting them on this set so they can see themselves with Dee MC, Meba Ofilia and everyone else from Hustle and know that success is just one song away. For me it was ‘Mute’ and now I’m here.”
I ask what’s holding India back from exploding on the global pop scene and her answer is immediate: nothing. “Absolutely nothing right now. Everything is open. I think the only thing that could hold us back is mediocrity. Push yourself, be better than your idols.” That’s the only way people will stop and listen. She says, “I want to be an executive, maybe later in life, dealing with my label, dealing with all of my artists. Then when I look back on how when we had the chance to be the pioneers of hip-hop, I want to see that we did it. We pushed it, and the whole world turned to listen to India.”
Raja Kumari photographed by Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India
Art Direction by Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Makeup by Gayetri Chakravarthy
Hair by Daksh Dubey
Raja Kumari styled by Sallony Mahendru
Location Courtesy: Uno Más Tapas Bar Kitchen, Mumbai