Indian-American rapper, songwriter, and singer Raja Kumari is a force of nature. Hailing from Claremont, California, she is best known for her collaboration with notable artists including Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. A fearless, charismatic personality and natural-born storyteller, her mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing.
In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about the challenges she had to face as an American of Indian origin, her latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ and ‘Hello World’ which released on Women’s Day, and philanthropic activities that she participates in through her music.
Being of Indian American origin, tell us more about the challenges you had to face and the uniqueness you bring to your music.
RK: One of the main issues I faced trying to get started in America was racism. I was always told to tone down my ethnicity, that I was “too Indian” to be successful in America. I struggled to find someone to look up to as a South Asian kid in America. I remember, on weekends I would travel for classical dancing and wouldn’t necessarily share that with my friends. I would come to school with the Alta (painting the palms and feet with a red dye) fading on my hands and they’d ask me, “What is that? Do you have a hand disease?”
Things are evolving in the US now. I like to call it the ‘brown renaissance’ Indians are more relevant in so many fields, especially entertainment. On the other hand, some people in India called me a ‘culture vulture’. How can I be a ‘culture vulture’ in my own culture just because I’m born in America? I’m not just another South Asian. I still have put in my time to be Indian enough to talk about India without being an appropriator of culture. My family did a really great job of preserving the culture for us. We don’t fake it. We wear sarees for pujas, my mom does Vijayadashami and Navratri, I have studied Indian music and dance. As a result, my style is just a balance between the East and the West.
I think learning to navigate both worlds with authenticity has helped me become the artist I am today. I have carved a place for myself in the male-dominated music circuit by staying authentic and rooted in my culture. I think there a lot of women in the industry who say a lot of things from the female perspective about relationships, broken hearts, love lost, pain, sadness, happiness, or sexiness; there are so many of those voices. I felt like we were missing my perspective. Of course, I could sing soft and beautiful songs but there are many people to do that.
You are also a trained dancer in Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Bharatanatyam. Tell us more about this passion of yours.
RK: My passion for Indian dance started at a very young age. My mother had always wanted to be a classical dancer and it wasn’t feasible for her to pursue it growing up, so it was always in her heart to have a daughter who was a dancer so I came out dancing. My attachment to classical Indian dancing really gave me so much of my personality, so much the way I dress and the way I perceive the world, and also the stories that I relate to. Some kids grew up to Batman, Superman and I was really obsessed with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the stories of Hanuman. Those were my superheroes, and so I think classical dance really made that a part of my life.
Tell us more about philanthropic activities you have participated in in the past through your performances.
RK: I always believed art should be used for the greater good. Since I was a child, my parents always involved me in a lot of charity work and I was able to help build the meditational hall in Hyderabad and donate a wing for a hospital in Bengaluru. I consistently performed for so many temples to raise funds for building certain temples in Southern California. I think now I definitely use my art to open doors for others to create an opportunity to inspire. There are many philanthropic activities I am a part of but I mostly like to support the charities that support the girl child because I believe in India, we need more attention and more support to encourage young girls to be in art and not just sciences or leaving school as we usher in an era of more creative artists. I think we have enough of everything else and I would hate to lose our artistry as a culture with the idea of modernizing ourselves and lose everything we are, so anything that will help support the art, I am there.
Who are some of your inspirations?
Tell our readers more about your latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ (featuring Kiara Advani and Bani J in lead roles) as well as ‘Hello World’ (with Hollywood actor Rita Wilson and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte), both of which released on Women’s Day.
RK: Both these tracks were created from the inkling to motivate and inspire young girls. Teaming up with Rita Wilson and Claudia Leitte on ‘Hello World’ was amazing, as these are two women I have so much respect for and it was really cool to see how our styles complemented one another. When boAt approached me to write ‘I Am A Rebel’, I was so excited to collaborate with my longtime friend DJ SA on the music. I’ve always considered myself a rebel in my music choice, my career, and my unapologetic nature! I loved crafting the lyrics to depict that energy and I’m so happy to have been joined by so many strong women like Bani J and Kiara on the campaign.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.