The East-Meets-West Rapper
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her Indian and American identities forge a forceful style all her own.
By Tania Bhattacharya
Groovy yet sharp, with a dancehall-reggae feel, “Shook” by Raja Kumari is an act of resistance. The video, in which Kumari dons a half-sari over a camouflage jumpsuit and flaunts a bindi on her forehead, lands the ultimate punch. In short, it’s shook, in a way only she could pull off.
“I am thriving in a space that’s not designated for me,” Kumari says. We’re talking over coffee and quinoa in Mumbai, and Kumari couldn’t be more pumped. She headlined the Adidas Nite Jogger shoe launch the night before, and it went spectacularly well. Hip-hop, after all, is the musical toast of the season in India, following the massive success of Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, a film that celebrates rappers from Mumbai’s slums. Kumari has long supported Divine and Naezy, the street rappers who inspired the film, and has a song with Divine called “City Slums.” She even has a cameo in the flick.
“The audiences here have been so loving; they’re why I live 8,000 miles away from home,” Kumari says.
Born Svetha Rao, the 33-year-old took up the name Raja Kumari (Sanskrit for princess) when she was in high school. As an amateur musician on the circuit in California, she earned the stage name Indian Princess. But it reeked of the subtle isolation she had experienced all her life coming up in Claremont, outside Los Angeles. “I grew up in the diaspora, and life was very different,” Kumari says. “There were no movie stars or Indian icons in popular culture we could look up to. Even my lunch was different. I never felt seen; I felt like we didn’t exist.”
I’ve been called a colonizer of Indian rap.
Kumari had a traditional South Indian upbringing, perhaps even more so than kids who grow up in India. It’s evident in the way she carries herself and her unapologetic embrace of all things Indian. But this balance was difficult to achieve. Kumari’s training in three Indian classical dances from the age of 6 — Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Odissi — under the guidance of a teacher who lived with the family for 10 years pushed her into the center of a cultural and existential maelstrom. On the one hand, she was a child prodigy, making her stage debut at age 7 and touring India for performances and fundraising for charities. On the other, she was an American kid who wanted to fit in, find her place and be valued in her home country.
“I went through a phase where I dyed my hair and did Bieber and Britney,” says Kumari. She would also struggle to explain to schoolmates that the alta (a red dye Indian classical dancers smear on their palms and feet) on her hands wasn’t blood. And at some point, she realized that “I have to find a way to do both. I had to be responsible as a vessel of [Indian] culture, but I am American too, which reflects in the audacity of my dreams.”
For Ambika Sanjana, Kumari’s stylist and close friend, it is this fusion that’s inspiring as well as the glue that binds them. “She’s very relatable to the modern Indian woman and is really putting Indian music on the map,” says Sanjana.
Ironically, in spite of Kumari’s growing popularity — “Shook” has nearly 16 million streams in three months, huge for an indie artist — the rapper constantly faces opposition in India, from people who believe she doesn’t belong here. “I’ve been called a colonizer of Indian rap,” says Kumari. These criticisms pervade social media as well, which do get to her, a characteristic Sanjana believes Kumari must improve. “For someone who’s so different in breaking the mold, people are going to have a lot to say,” Sanjana says. Kumari also demands a high standard of professionalism — driven by her American side — which doesn’t go over too well in India, where patriarchy is the norm. “‘Too determined’ means ‘hard to work with,’” says Kumari, though she notes that 70 percent of her Indian fans are men. “I am what Indians need to see. I love being a woman in a man’s world.”
With a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, Kumari has a musical identity rooted in spiritualism and the divine feminine or the Hindu devi, typically represented by Durga and her various avatars in religious and cultural tropes. The goddess is the epitome of power, which manifests in love, anger, pain, destruction, rebellion and anarchy — themes that are rich and intense for a musician like Kumari. Her ferocity shines in “Shook,” which was produced and co-written by the iconic Sean Garrett, and the shift in tone and presence is clear. “When you talk about a female emcee, you can’t mess around with that,” says Garrett, who has written and produced with the likes of Beyoncé, Drake, Usher and Nicki Minaj. “You got to be thorough, dope, fresh. So many people have tried to downplay her heritage, but when it feels right, people will listen. Raja is a star, for sure.”
Kumari has certainly made a mark out west, if not yet as a performer. Apart from hitting up songwriting camps in Europe, Jamaica and Canada, she earned a Grammy nomination for writing “Change Your Life” for Iggy Azalea, and a platinum record for Centuries, which she wrote with Justin Tranter for Fall Out Boy. She’s co-written records for Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, Dirty South, Knife Party, Twin Shadow and Ghost Town, as well as for the critically acclaimed series Empire.
Needless to say, she is the family oddball. Her brothers “have ticked all the right boxes,” she says, laughing, and nine of the 12 children within the extended family are doctors. They’re proud, although her parents worry, in the true Indian spirit, about when Kumari will settle down. Her mother even tried to sign her up on matrimonial websites, but “you’re not supposed to find Raja Kumari on them!” the daughter says incredulously.
In India, Kumari counts musical legend A.R. Rahman as a mentor and was handpicked by Shah Rukh Khan to rap in “Husn Parcham,” a song for his film Zero. She released an EP, Bloodline, in February, and is working on an English-Hindi album, to be out in the fall. Her North American tour kicks off June 4 in Washington, D.C.
“Bloodline was for the West to understand the East,” she says. “Now my goal is to reach the masses in India.” Kumari also wants to kick-start the Kumari Kids Scholarship Program in 2020, to encourage more girls in India to be in the arts, like her father did — even if it did deprive the family of another doctor.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Raja Kumari
- What’s the last book you read? Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, by Devdutt Pattanaik.
- What do you worry about? Things I can’t control.
- What the one thing you can’t you live without? Dal!
- Who’s your hero? My mom.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Walk on a beach where the only footsteps are mine.
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- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY Author Contact Tania Bhattacharya