The first song of Svetha Yellapragada Rao, known by her stage name Raja Kumari, came from her first heartbreak. She was 11 or 12 and had a crush on an Indian boy in California, where she grew up. He, however, liked the typical American blue-eyed blonde. “That was the first upset for me. He is supposed to like me, I thought. I am Jasmine to his Aladdin. He is not supposed to go after Cinderella. Cinderella has her own movie,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. “My first music came from not feeling good enough or beautiful enough.” Still, she got over it because of a deep-rooted love for her culture, born of learning classical Indian dance from the age of seven. “I loved where I came from too deeply,” she says.
This translated into an innate confidence that suffuses her music, which she describes as a sonic bridge between the west and the east. “It is the way that I have translated my American and Indian experience and wanting to be included on both sides,” she says.
She could not have put it more succinctly. Her music videos are full of this dichotomy—mythology with technology; gritty, guttural lyrics with flowing, classical dance moves; sparkly body suits with half-saris; bindis with crop tops; eastern bling with western minimalism; an exaggerated femininity in the overwhelmingly masculine world of hip-hop. There is rebellion in her music. Years of others trying to tame her into a well-defined category has made her untamable. As she sings in her breakout song, ‘Mute’: “I had to put them on mute… Same old thing, different day… I had to feed these fools… I had to go home and regroup….”
Her latest song, ‘Shanti’, is the first Hindi single that she is releasing. Some might say that ‘Shanti’ is the first stop on the spiritual journey that she has undertaken. “In the music industry, you can get swept up in a lot of the devils that accompany levels of celebrity, and I have found peace in meditation, yoga, sound healing, and more,” she says.
Everything about Raja Kumari is intense—from her infectious laughter to her determination to make the most of each moment. This need to find happiness was born out of much suffering. “Growing up, I did not really see anybody that looked like me,” she says. “That was a challenge in itself, to find an identity and to find somewhere to be comfortable with my Indianness. [Later], I was pressured to simulate an American, especially in the beginning of my career. My managers would tell me to dye my hair, wear less clothes, change the way I spelled my name. But I just stuck to it. I envisioned myself as a devi, a kind of Indian superhero. I was a little girl obsessed with the Mahabharat. My favourite character while dancing was Draupadi.”
Her hard work paid off! She has written songs for some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Fall Out Boy, Iggy Azalea and Gwen Stefani. She has also written music for the hit Fox show, Empire . She received a Grammy nomination for her work with Azalea and a BMI Pop Award for her work with Fall Out Boy. She has guest-starred in the Bollywood movie, Gully Boy , judged India’s first rap reality show, MTV Hustle, and hosted and curated her own show, The New India.
The rapper credits Stefani for inspiring her to move to Mumbai and bring out her first EP, The Come Up, in 2016. “I grew up watching her,” she says. “In a strange way, she was the only person who gave an Indian representation in the Western space. [There were the small things like how] she loved wearing bindis. Growing up, even though I wore it at home, it was the only time I saw someone wear a bindi on TV. It took a white woman to make me comfortable with my culture.”
Moving to Mumbai for three years was like coming home for the first time. “It was so wonderful to be among my own people,” she says. “India was a magical playground of colours and sensory overload. Whenever I am in America, I am just trying to replicate India out of this dark, grey and desolate place.” Her first big performance in India was at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in 2016, when she was a guest on rapper Divine’s headlining set. Three years later, in 2019, she got to play her own headlining set at the NH7 Weekender. “When I first started performing, there were hardly any girls in the crowd,” she says. “At the end of my tour, after 30 shows, I could see so many more women coming to the shows. In a way, I feel I have created a safe space for them. They knew that there would be flowers and jewellery and hip-hop. It would not just be all guys and dangerous.”
She is one of the best-known names in hip-hop today. But she is also a 34-year-old single woman coming from a culture that believes a woman’s primary role in life is to marry and start a family. Does she feel that responsibility? “Of course I want a family, have little babies and teach them about the Mahabharat and how to meditate with stones,” she quips. “But I also feel a commitment to my music and to myself.” She jokes about how, when she informs her parents that she is on the cover of Vogue or Rolling Stone , they reply that if she does not get married, all of that does not matter.
Yes, there have been many heartbreaks along the way. Underlying that is a perpetual longing to belong. In fact, that is why she chose hip-hop in the first place. “Hip-hop has always been the voice of the sub-culture,” she says. “It was a vehicle of communication for the under-represented, and I felt at home in hip-hop in a way that I did not feel at home in America.” This combination of fearlessness and vulnerability adds complexity to her music. It also makes her brand of hip-hop unique; it has Raja Kumari stamped all over it. She is truly the queen of her universe.
INDIA WAS A MAGICAL PLAYGROUND
OF COLOURS AND SENSORY OVERLOAD.