Raja Kumari has been one of the most prolific singers and songwriters in today’s times when it comes to rapping and hip-hop music. She has been switching between India and the US in the past few years and has managed to get everyone grooving to her brand of music.
Talking to Prateek Sur, Raja Kumari opens up about her journey from being Svetha Rao to Raja Kumari, her brand of rap and hip-hop music, the difference between independent and film music in her dictionary, her latest album ‘The Bridge’, her new single ‘Born To Win’, her aversion to being referred to as a foreigner, and lots more. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about the journey from being Svetha Rao to Raja Kumari. What prompted this change? Does your birth name find a space or an identity in your music or your writing?
Yes, you know, when I first started as an artist, back when I was six years old, they used to call me Kumari, Svetha Rao, USA. That was my name. Whenever I would dance in India or around the world, Kumari has always been a part of my name. However, when I started making music at around 14 or 15 years old in America, nobody could pronounce my name and they would butcher it, which drove me crazy. So they started calling me Indian Princess, which became a nickname. That's when I chose Raja Kumari. I was really obsessed with Sanskrit and I made it into two names because I felt like everyone should call me King, even at 14. It was a way for me to build an alter ego because Svetha Rao was a classical dancer, performing two-hour shows to raise money for charity and other activities. I needed to separate these identities. But my entire music career has been about integrating these two identities. How can I blend my American and Indian backgrounds in a musical and visual sense? Now that I'm heading my own label and have control over everything, Svetha Rao has found a place again. She's the senior representative of the Raja Kumari brand and a decision-maker. I find a lot of power in that.
You started by collaborating with other artists whether it was Fall Out Boy or Iggy Azalea. How different is it to write for other artists than writing for yourself?
It's a distinct experience, but one I enjoy. Sometimes it becomes exhausting to constantly think about what you, as an artist, want to convey, because it holds such personal significance to you. When you're deep in it, you start wondering what your fans want or how people perceive it. But in songwriting, you step out of your own box. It's like acting, trying to empathize with someone's personal experiences. Collaboration in songwriting is about agreeing on a lyric that emotionally impacts both writers, whether it's about loss or love. If both resonate with it, there's a better chance the world will too. I love songwriting; it's a gift to help someone express what's locked inside them. I also enjoy learning from others. For example, working with Gwen Stefani showed me the power of authenticity. After that collaboration, I fully embraced my artistic career, pausing songwriting to focus on being completely myself.
What do you think is the difference when you work with a band, a pop singer or a rapper? Do you think there is a specific approach for each genre?
Definitely, when working with a band, there's more room for musicality, where instruments play a larger role. With a pop singer, there are certain unwritten rules that people have learned over. And when it comes to pop music, there are these unwritten rules, like the ones people have obviously learned over time. And with rap music, I sense this constant presence of an element, almost like, does it carry that cool enough factor? Sometimes, I find this aspect more restrictive compared to when you're crafting pop music. Pop music often adheres to more traditional elements.
You spent your growing up years in America, and now have been switching between the USA and India. How different are the music scenarios in both countries and how do you adjust between the two?
They're actually quite different yet similar in certain ways, I would say. In America, there's a well-established music infrastructure, right? So, when I set out to write a song, there's an understood and acceptable structure that the song will follow. For instance, I'll own a certain percentage of the publishing, and I'll be consulted before it's released. They'll need to compensate me for my time. However, in India, the setup is very distinct. It mostly functions on a 'work for hire' basis. So, you need to come to terms with not receiving the familiar publishing benefits you're used to. In India, it can be quite different, mainly because of the diverse languages and elements we're dealing with. As for the industry, I'm not entirely sure. I'd probably say that in India, things are definitely different. The emphasis on independent music isn't as strong. Music has traditionally been associated with films here. In contrast, the independent music scene in America thrives outside of the film industry. That's one of the significant distinctions. In India, music's promotion is closely tied to films, offering a substantial platform for showcasing music. In the US, we have major labels and similar structures. Occasionally, this music may coexist with films, especially when used in trailers. The industry has commonalities no matter where you are. However, India certainly has room for growth in terms of giving proper credit to writers and performers.
Is your album ‘The Bridge’ all about this? Are you trying to bridge the gaps between the music scenarios in these two places?
I feel that the work I've accomplished over the past five or six years, involving my understanding of the independent scene and my efforts to propel it forward, particularly for female artists and within the realm of hip-hop, has led me to this point. As the head of my own label, I believe that I'm now effectively bridging gaps. I am able to combine what I perceive as necessary from both the Western and Eastern music scenes. There's no intermediary between me and the music, and that's what sets me apart
What about the audience in India and the USA? Do you find a difference in the reception of your songs as well in these two markets?
It's actually quite distinct, and I find it intriguing. In India, I feel that my connection is the strongest due to the extensive work and touring I've undertaken there. India holds a sense of closeness for me, as they have witnessed my growth across various contexts. Conversely, in America, where I was born, my presence seems to carry an air of mystique for many. People often react with surprise upon encountering me there, as their familiarity with me often stems from internet exposure—watching me in India, viewing my music videos, and witnessing the grandeur. When I'm in India, there's a unique level of connection with fans who seemingly feel they know me well. In contrast, in America, I remain somewhat enigmatic. This contrast deeply moves me. I believe the diaspora required a specific message, one centred around self-acceptance regardless of location, even within America, and finding harmony between both worlds. I've noticed that many of my fans in America often display heightened emotions, likely because they don't have as many opportunities to see me in person.
Being a foreigner coming to the Indian music industry, did you find any problems adjusting? Did you also have to struggle in your initial days?
Well, first, I have a problem with you calling me a straight-up foreigner. I think that Indians should be a little more sensitive about the way they talk about people. In my career, to be called a foreigner is kind of rude at this point. My family lives in Hyderabad, and my grandma, along with my entire family, and I have been coming here every summer throughout my life. Additionally, I've lived in Bombay for about six years. So first, perhaps remove that word. However, yes, entering the Indian music industry from the US as a successful and established American songwriter, and then stepping into the Indian industry, there were certainly problems to adjust to. I had become accustomed to receiving credit when I write things, being given a portion of the royalties, and there was a certain infrastructure set up to value this time.
When I came to India and started working in the Bollywood scene, with brands and labels, I encountered situations I'd never experienced before. I had never heard of a label attempting to take 50% of the royalties, let alone 50% of the publishing. They generally always receive royalties, but this was a very interesting and new experience. Nonetheless, it taught me a lot, and it helped me learn how to manoeuvre and survive in various scenarios. This experience also led to the establishment of Godmother Records, which aims to avoid many of the challenges I faced during the initial days.
Your latest single ‘Born To Win’ seems to be a song about personal angst. What was the germ of the idea behind this song?
I don't know if it's angst; I think it's belief, dedication, and a reminder to oneself. During the pandemic, it was an incredibly dark time for musicians because we didn't know if we'd ever get back to the stage.
Consider people like me; we were judged based on the size of the crowd we could draw, and suddenly crowds were deemed illegal. This song is about individuals recalling their purpose and why they came to Earth, and always staying connected to that purpose. Whether it means being a mother, a teacher, or a musician – whatever one was born to do – putting your whole heart into it is crucial. By following your Dharma, you'll always emerge victorious
If you could go back in time and give advice to an 18-year-old Svetha Rao, what would you do?
I wouldn't alter anything. I'm content with my current position, and I wouldn't have desired to reach this point any earlier. The only advice I would give myself is this: you'll eventually come full circle to the very same writing style you possess today. So, feel free to learn from every individual who can teach you over the next ten years, but eventually, you'll revert to the identical style you currently hold at 18 years old.
Sonically, how would you say you evolved in this album and where do you see your artistry going from here?
Sonically, I've undergone significant evolution. I believe the album commences in a rather dark place and culminates in an enlightened pop ambience, almost akin to Swedish pop. I sense that my music is heading in that direction. As a musician, I've yearned to reintegrate more musicality into my work. For instance, my live shows are entirely live, devoid of backing vocals. On stage, you'll find elements like an upright bass and a violin. I'm currently experimenting within this more enriching sphere.With the current capability to include whatever I desire on stage, I'm bubbling with ideas. This album holds a special place in my heart, and I intend to invest substantial effort into its promotion. Often, artists release an album in a mere two days and then conclude the promotion. However, many of the tracks on this album have received extensive crafting from me. I'm now transitioning into the subsequent phase of this project, which involves a visual component. I'm preparing to release visuals associated with this album, delving deeper into the themes it explores.
What next is on your plate? What’s coming up next that we can hear?
What's next on my agenda? Touring is high on the list. There's an India tour in the works as well as a global tour. I'm reshaping my stage performance, introducing novel elements to the stage in India and around the world. My primary focus is on meeting as many of my fans as possible and ensuring they grasp the depth of the music. I aim to continue inspiring. So, yes, that's my plan.