We are in this new era that I would like to call the 'brown renaissance': Raja Kumari
Little more than 10 days have passed since his most recent tattoo was made: a heart that feeds a lotus, from which a trishul emerges. If you are a fan of the Indian-American rap sensation Svetha Yellapragada Rao, also known as Raja Kumari, you will know how those three symbols are a striking reflection of his music and personality. Raja Kumari arrived on the playlist of all Indian hip-hop lovers when her only City Slums with rapper Divine played all the right chords. In addition to killing him as a power in her music videos, the singer and songwriter shook the red carpet as a presenter before the show, at the recent American Music Awards of 2019, the first Indian to do it! NHe has also judged an Indian reality show and has made a cameo in the Zoya Akhtar Bolya movie 2019, Gully Boy. Read on and you will see why this Grammy-nominated artist has to do with heart, emotion and power ...
Trishul tattoo by Raja Kumari
Q: Given the success of Gully Boy, would you say Bollywood will have a role to play in bringing Indian rap to the world?
They will try. It is a great platform. The collaborations I have made with Bollywood have exposed me to 90 million visits. We cannot not respect the power of the Bollywood platform.
Q: But many independent artists are not for that ...
You can go ahead and stay independent and underground. My goal is to play music all over the world because I come from the United States, where we (the Indians) are less than 1% of the population. We have been fighting for representation intensely. I grew up without even seeing an Indian face. I lived in a complete environment created to make me feel not beautiful. My goal is mass exposure. Bollywood will remain interested in the rappers that are coming and our job as artists is to try to maintain the spirit of hip-hop. It is not selling. It's about exposing people to the art form that is hip-hop. Many people did not think it was art and Gully Boy really helped us tell people that it is a true expression of human experience. I think Bollywood will help. I want to make a song in Bollywood where I sing in Hindi and rap in English. I feel that people need to hear me sing in Hindi. It will be fun.
Q: Artists around the world are being accused of cultural appropriation today. Your thoughts...
Cultural appropriation has long been a problem for the Indian community, because in many ways, people like to try us, but it does not allow us to speak on our own behalf. But I'm glad to say that we are in this new era that I would like to call the brown renaissance, where people like Hasan Minhaj have their own shows. There are Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra, so many people! This visibility time will help us to be part of the conversation and will no longer be the appropriation. It is us sharing. The culture of Coz is destined to be shared. It is only appropriate when the person whose culture is being used is not part of the conversation. I mean, you can't take the costume and leave us behind.
If someone adheres to the strict rules and ideas of a doctrine or dogma, then he may not like my music. Maybe he thinks I'm blasphemous. But if someone comes from an open space of white light and wanting us all to be a great and happy human family, I think they would understand where I am going.
Q: Have you been a mentor to young rappers on Indian reality television, do you see yourself doing this again?
I want to find a young female artist and develop it from scratch in music, songwriting. I had the opportunity to learn from so many different producers due to my proximity to Los Angeles. I also have a great father who allowed me to learn music and be in Los Angeles late at night for my composition sessions. I could not have done it if I did not have that freedom and I know that is not given to many young people who have a lot of talent. My goal is to try to help make more young girls make music. The more girls succeed in music, the more open their families will be to allow them to pursue their dreams and I hope to be part of that.
Q: Speaking of young people, in the era of social networks, would you say that young people today have the same opportunities?
Yes. Internet is like the leveling field. Everyone has access to it and puts everyone on equal terms. He took away the power of the small group of people who controlled the music that everyone listened to: they decided who signed, they decided which albums they would leave, they decided who they were going to invest in for the radio. But now the Internet is free and there have been so many advances in technology that everyone's home laptop is a recording studio!
Q: As someone who has studied religion, do you think he has a role to play in the way a person perceives music?
I studied religion to learn what was the same for everyone. There are universal truths and those are the truths that I try to talk about in my music. I speak of karma because I believe it is the law of the universe, not because it is a Hindu concept. If someone is attached to the strict rules and ideas of a doctrine or dogma, then he may not like my music. Maybe they think I'm being blasphemous. But if someone comes from an open space of white light and wants us all to be a big, human and happy family, I think they would understand where I am going. I can't please everyone and I'm not here to please a single party, religion or group. I just want to take what I know is real, beautiful and positive and try to project that. Because I think there is not enough of that in the world.
Q: What are you currently working on?
One of my main collaborators with whom I worked on my first album, Elvis Brown (from Atlanta, Georgia), has been in India for the past few weeks working on my new project. Reaching a complete circle and collaborating with one of my first collaborators has again been a very rewarding process and I think the new album will be very honest.
Q: So 2019 has been a good year?
2019 has been an incredible year for me. I learned to operate from abundance and to operate simply by trusting in God's plan and since I did, I feel that my energy has been flowing. All the maximums of my career have arrived this year. I have been alone in India without my family. India and my career have taught me to keep up. I stopped planning.
See this post on Instagram
My first @masters and they let me HOST! What an honor to use @tommyhilfiger #tommyxzendaya tonight, and for tuning in to the red carpet broadcast! Stylists: @samiagrand @mskimberlyv Assisted by @sallony_mahendru Jewelry @silverstreakstore Glam: @ jaime.creates
Culture is meant to be shared. It is only appropriate when the person whose culture is being used is not part of the conversation. I mean, you can't take the costume and leave us behind. Q: You have learned classical dance since you were six years old. How important is it to you?
2019 was also a difficult year since my guruji passed away in Guru Purnima. I always thought classical dance was great and I know that is not a popular opinion, especially in India. I want to inspire a person from each family to learn some form of classical dance. We need to maintain the transfer of knowledge. You will see classical dancers appear on my stage. I always think they are like my conscience.
Q: And do you consciously incorporate it into your music videos?
Always, be they hand movements, images or a story that I once danced. Classical dance was my introduction to rhythm and art.
Q: You have said on several occasions that your parents have been your greatest support. What do they say about your music?
Before each album, I have to give them all the lyrics. I used to give them false letters if there were bad words. If there was an 'f ** k', it would be like 'forgetting', and I hope you don't understand when you're live. But I have made them see that there is a weight in the word and there is a shock value in saying certain things. It is never vulgar, it is only vernacular.
Q: It's sweet to let them examine your lyrics ...
They fail to examine them. They are being informed. The first album, I took out all the bad words, but the second and third I thought: 'By the way, this is coming out.' But they are supportive. They have seen me evolve as a composer.
Q: We know you embraced the stage name Raja Kumari after people started calling you ‘Indian princess’, when you were still a young artiste. But what do your family and friends call you?
Everyone calls me different things. It depends on what time of my life you've met me. My family calls me Svetha. They call me Raja Kumari when they're trying to say that I'm never home or that I don't answer text messages. My friends in Bombay call me Kumari. I answer to Gangotri (a hook in her song City Slums) as well! That happens in the streets. My favorite part of a show is when I can get the Gangotri! back from the audience.
Q: What's on your playlist right now?
Kohinoor has been aware. He is a damn classic brother. Divine killed that whole album. For me that is in a loop and I think it is a classic and I am very proud that it has left India.