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Verve People
February 16, 2017

Raja Kumari On Breaking New Ground With Her Music

Text by Simone Louis. Photograph by Madeleine Kobold

The Indian American musician talks about celebrating her roots…

Who: Svetha Rao
Why: An Indian American musician with uninhibited moxie, she is the epitome of desi spunk. Despite being born and raised in California, the singer-songwriter has celebrated her roots in everything she’s done, from being a trained professional Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi dancer since she was five years old to making music that incorporates the sounds, rhythms and melodies which that background introduced her to. Rao recently turned heads with the music video and cover for her first single, called Mute, where she dons traditional Indian jewellery and drapes the American flag around her like a ghoonghat. After writing hit songs for artistes like Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, Fifth Harmony and Fall Out Boy, she’s on her own path to superstardom, winning hearts one sollukattu at a time.

“Growing up in a very traditional household, I listened to A.R. Rahman and classical Telugu music. I was well-versed with the rhythms because of my training; my dance guru from India lived with us. But when my brother gave me The Score, an album by the Fugees, my interest in hip-hop was piqued. It was the first album that inspired me to make music in English.”

“Melody is king; lyrics are secondary…that’s my philosophy. You can sing or rap in any language, but the tune is what stays with people. I channel the melody and then listen to it — it tells me what the words should be.”

“I had to prove over and over again that this is what I was meant to do. My whole family is comprised of doctors, so when I turned around at the age of 13 and said ‘I want to be a rapper’, it wasn’t the easiest transition! I’m lucky that my parents have supported me and stood by me; they realised that this was my true passion.”

“My guru initially wasn’t too pleased about my decision; it wasn’t anybody’s first choice for me. But I spoke to her recently and she said she was very proud of me for putting classical sounds on a new platform. She knows now that I didn’t lose what we worked so hard to create.”

“A seed from the motherland — that’s how I’ve always viewed myself. Wherever you sow that seed, it’ll still grow as the same plant. There’s just one degree of separation between me and India. If my dad hadn’t taken that one flight in the ’70s, I would’ve been born here like everyone before me.”

“I need my elaborate temple jewellery to feel like myself on stage. My dance background shapes all of my choices, from fashion to songwriting to performance.”

“Kumari was always attached to my name ever since I was five years old; when I toured India to perform, they always introduced me as Kumari Svetha Rao. In college, they called me ‘Indian princess’ in the rap cyphers. And I felt that if you want to call me that, it should be in Sanskrit.”

“Nothing could’ve prepared me for the love I received on my India tour. Especially hearing the crowds scream ‘I had to put ’em on mute’ along with me…I still get chills thinking about it. I knew I wanted to start my journey here, and now I feel like I’ve planted my flag so I can do anything.”

“Being a South Asian in the American music industry means that I’m subject to everybody having their own perspective of what I should be like, sound like and dress like. What’s funny is when people debate about whether I’m ‘too Indian’. I just learned to tune them out…that’s why I wrote Mute!”

“I didn’t have anybody to look up to when I was growing up, because the few artistes who were kind of like me either changed their names or their images to sound or look more American. There was always some kind of abandoning of the culture. I hope I can play a part in helping little girls believe that their heritage is cool.”

“Philanthropy is my main purpose, and all of this is just to help me do more for people. I work the most with the Vegesna Foundation, a school for the handicapped in Hyderabad. I built a meditation hall for them when I was 10 years old. The students were all the same age as me, so it was really moving to see how different my life was. And being able to do that from my dance earnings taught me that my art could affect real change.”

“Hip-hop is an international culture now, not just the expression of one group of people. I’m excited about what’s happening in India. It’s pushing the envelope and bringing a whole new vibe to the table.”

Read about the rise of hip-hop in India, here.

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