26-year-old first-generation Singaporean Indian, and a prized member of the Def Jam South East Asia roster, Yung Raja‘s debut foray into the US territory commences with the release of his brand new single “Mami”, alongside Alamo Records, home to some of the hottest hip-hop acts such as Lil Durk and Smokepurpp. The artist, who has been dubbed as Southeast Asia’s next avant-garde hip-hop artist known for his tasteful unification of English and Tamil lyricism, aims to reinvent societal views in and out of his homeland, inspire the next generation of cultural conservators, and elevate Southeast Asian hip-hop to world-class stages through his music. Raja’s past few singles have zeroed in on his heritage, identity, and freewheeling way of life in Singapore. In March, he was included on NME’s 100 lists, appearing as the first-ever Singaporean to make it to the platform’s coveted “artist to watch” list.
In this exclusive interview, he talks about spreading joy, positive vibes through his art and his heritage-influenced music.
You just made your debut foray into the US territory with the release of your brand new single “Mami”. What was the idea and inspiration behind it? What response have you received?
I’m truly inspired by how music can lift people’s spirits, and one of my biggest motivations is to spread joy and positive vibes through my art. “Mami” was a record we made encapsulating that, especially at a time where clubs are closed and people aren’t throwing parties anymore. I really wanted to bring the club to the listener. “Mami” is a banger that’s meant for having fun, and we are super grateful to have the support of Alamo Records in the journey of breaking into the US market.
Tell us how your Singaporean-Indian heritage influences your music.
It’s what and who I am, really. Being a first-generation Singaporean Indian, my DNA is made up of all the wonderful things that make my heritage special. Being a hip-hop artist, it’s all about showing people your real background and story. I’m heavily inspired by my culture and driven to showcase different aspects of it tastefully through my arts.
Your previous songs have largely focused on your heritage, identity, and way of life. Tell us about some of the cultural issues that you hope to bring to light through your music.
Well, for me it’s all about representation. Being a part of a minority racial group in Singapore, I am very grateful to be able to use my voice to inspire goodness in others. Whilst doing so, I’m focused on shining light on various aspects of my culture in a manner that’s palatable to people all around the world.
Humour, color, and a sense of style always seem to mark your fresh and fashionable music videos. Tell us who or what are your musical inspirations.
I’m inspired by many different artists/people from the west and east – Tyler The Creator, Dennis Rodman, Travis Scott, A R Rahman just to name a few. I guess I’m a byproduct of mixing the vividness of my culture, the pride of my roots, my happy-go-lucky personality, and western hip-hop.
What are you working on next?
More vibrations for people! Can’t wait to share more when the time’s right… all I can say for now is stay tuned!
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.
Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
Learning to unwind in nature – A life-saving skill that can help us survive not just the pandemic, but the ups and downs of daily life.
In the early months of the pandemic, I consoled myself by saying that all the drastic changes demanded by the Covid-19 virus were short-term measures. The inconvenience was temporary; a test of resilience that was best borne with a smile. A year later, the once-surreal situation that has now become an unpleasant but accepted reality for the foreseeable future, makes me grimace.
As an unabashed urbanite who thrives in crowded spaces and fast moving environments, I doubt whether I can endure being cooped up on an island for much longer. Singapore is Covid-free but reluctant to risk outside threats, particularly in the form of returning residents who have visited other countries. Therefore travel, my preferred form of rejuvenation, is not an option. I need to find other ways to survive.
Mysteries of nature
Growing up in Mumbai, I assumed milk came in glass bottles or plastic bags, delivered to the doorstep each morning. I knew the names of common vegetables and fruits that were easily available at the store down the street but I had no idea whether they grew on creepers or shrubs or trees. Textbooks references to four seasons, particularly autumn and winter, seemed to be theoretical constructs, much like physics. The water cycle however, played out in front of my eyes each year in the form of a sultry summer that gave way to monsoon rains.
My first introduction to changing seasons came in my first year on the east coast of the US. Arriving on a cold December day in Washington DC, I was aghast to see wide avenues lined with tall tree trunks that resembled giant skeletons. The barren branches shocked me as much as the unfamiliar cold.
When warm spring days arrived with spots of color on tree branches and sprouting tulip bulbs in the ground, I felt a lifting of my spirits. Finally the homesickness that had plagued me all winter seemed to melt. The breathtaking view of the cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial in full bloom in early April is indelibly etched in my memory. I hoped to one day visit Japan, the country that had gifted these Yoshino cherry trees to the United States.
Dreams take time, so do flowers
In March 2018, almost three decades after that original wish to travel to Japan, my dream came true. My husband and I arrived in Tokyo in late March. We had made arrangements to walk part of the Nakasendo trail, a path that runs between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Since the sakura usually blossoms in April, we wondered if we would catch the peak of the blossoming. But we were lucky. Tokyo looked like any densely populated city with it’s crowded trains and high rises, except for the majestic flowering trees lining its busy thoroughfares.
Side-effects of Shinrin-yoku
On the trail, we walked through picturesque villages and mature forests with well-marked paths. Each evening we checked into small ryokans, traditional Japanese inns. The hosts gave us cotton yukata robes to wear and served freshly-cooked food made using seasonal, local produce on exquisite crockery. To our delight, ryokans were able to accommodate special requests from vegetarian and vegan guests. After spending several hours each day absorbing the refreshing energy of the forests, we fell fast asleep on futons laid out on tatami-matted floors.
Although I had often visited the California redwoods in summer and admired the glorious colors of Shenandoah Valley in the fall, this entire experience was unusually soothing. It was my first foray into nature for a prolonged period.
The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku – forest bathing, involves soaking in the atmosphere of the forest by mindfully absorbing its sights, sounds, textures, smell and taste. Invented in 1982 in response to the increasingly stressful life that the Japanese were leading, as well as to protect its forests, the practice gained prominence after studies proved its health benefits that included stress and blood pressure reduction and ability to promote better sleep.
The act of immersing myself in nature forced me to slow down, be observant, and acknowledge the trees, the sky, and the gurgling river that kept us company for most of the trek. As a city slicker, it was an unfamiliar experience. Yet, it was exactly what I needed – an orientation to the therapeutic and restorative benefits of the natural world.
Escaping everyday life
In April 2021, I’m looking forward to receiving my Covid-19 vaccine shot and keeping my fingers crossed for the possibility of a vaccination passport to ferry me to foreign lands. But what can I do until then?
The accumulated stress of living and working from home demands a release. Last year we found creative ways to work from home. This year we need to find new ways to get outside.
My kitchen window offers a verdant view of a nature reserve that is literally in my backyard. Sometimes after a rain, the dense foliage is slick and shiny. At other times, trees topple, branches collapse and it’s a glorious green mess. During a dry spell, the trees shed leaves, the grass dries up and everything looks forlorn, like an abandoned project, begging for mother nature’s grace.
In April, hot mornings are often followed by afternoon thunderstorms. I step out for a stroll after the rain dies down, enjoying the gentle drip-drop of rain falling from saturated leaves. A meandering walk through paths littered with fallen leaves and creeping vines, amidst thick shrubs and trees, slows down my heartbeat. The green canopy soothes my tired eyes.
My solo nature walks are a mindful pause that invite mother nature to do what she does best, provide a nourishing environment for things to grow. These mini recharge breaks help clear my mind and allow budding ideas to take shape.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a time when I can travel to a faraway place to have a rejuvenating break. For now, I’m glad to have a quick serenity fix, right in my neighborhood.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is presently working on a memoir. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
Dressed in an orange salwar kameez, donning a small black bindi, as I sat on the floors of the verandah in my maiden home in Begusarai, finishing the last bits of the rangoli, it suddenly dawned on me that this was my last Diwali here. I was getting married soon, later in the month of November, and I did not know for sure when I would get a chance to celebrate Diwali in my hometown again. Nostalgia struck and I could see a carousel of images flash in front of my eyes—vibrant speckles of light livening the colony and the entire town, little kids spinning in euphoria around the chakri or ghirni, girls twirling their sparkly ghagra cholis, boys playing around in their best ethnic attires and arrays of sweets spreading the aroma of desi ghee in the air.
As my entire childhood flashed before my eyes, a drop of tear trickled down my cheek and smudged a petal off my floral rangoli. I quickly fixed it and heralded inside to clean up and get ready for the pooja. I decided to enjoy every bit of it, and cherish every moment with my family. We all got dressed, offered our prayers, lit diyas, and burnt a few ceremonious crackers. This was four years ago.
This year, as we gear up for yet another Diwali abroad, I miss home. I miss the smiling faces of friends and families. I miss the special desi ghee laddu and barfi. I miss the ambiance of the festival in the air. But most of all, I miss the quintessential Indianness of coming together as a community.
India’s unmatched sense of community
Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is celebrated during the Hindu Lunisolar month of Kartika. One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.
One of the best things about growing up in a small Indian town is that you get to experience the sense of community at an altogether different level. For major festivals like Diwali, the entire town decks up and the air fills with ubiquitous love. Every shop, big or small, is decorated, every house, the poor’s or the rich’s, is lit with lamps, and people all over the town visit each other to exchange sweets and gifts.
One of the aspects that makes suburban and rural India unique and special, is the unmatched sense of community. Sadly, in big Indian cities, the essence of the community is slowly diminishing. Having grown up in a small town for 18 years of my life and then having spent a decade in the national capital, I can say this based on my personal experiences and observations. In the blind race to embrace everything modern (read western), we are becoming more and more closed. We have started living behind shut doors. We question all existing traditions and mock centuries-old rituals in the name of modernity. However, this notion cannot be generalized.
Fortunately, there are still thousands of people who are keeping these traditions alive even while living away from their motherland. I know a lot of Indians, both friends, and families, based outside India in countries like Singapore, the UK, and the US who are actually more traditional than a lot of Indian friends living in cities like Delhi and Bangalore. Only last month, here in Singapore, I was invited to a friend’s place for Navratri celebrations where we offered prayers to Goddess Durga and enjoyed homemade traditional prasad.
On a personal level, I too try my best to celebrate festivals like Holi, Teej, Diwali, and Dussehra with my friends here in Singapore. We visit the temple together, cook traditional dishes, exchange gifts, and bask in the glory of our rich Indian culture. On that note, let me share how I celebrate Diwali in Singapore.
How I celebrate Diwali away from India…
Singapore is a multicultural country with a considerable Indian population. The mecca for Indians like myself looking for specific Indian supplies is Little India. So, naturally, all my festival preparations involve one or two trips to the markets to Little India where I get everything I need- from desi ghee laddu and pooja samagri todiyas and colorful earthen lamps. Besides, whenever I visit India, I make it a point to get sarees for myself and new clothes for my husband, keeping the upcoming festivals in mind.
As the festival approaches, I follow the drill that I grew up watching in my mom’s house. From thorough cleaning of the entire house to replacing old sheets and mats and buying new clothes and garlands for the divine images in my home temple. Following a generations-old family tradition, one night before Diwali, I light the Jam ka Diya. This mitti ka diya is traditionally lit to keep the evil away and invite prosperity and happiness into the house. Lit at midnight, this diya is kept outside the main entrance of the house on a base of five essential grains or anaaj.
A day before Diwali, we celebrate Dhanteras, also known as Dhanatrayodashi. This day is dedicated to Lord Dhanvantari, Kubera, Yama, and Devi Lakshmi. There are several folk tales associated with this festival.
One of the most popular ones is that of King Hima and how his wife laid all her gold and silver ornaments at the threshold of her husband’s sleeping chamber and lit an oil lamp in the evening upon hearing about the prediction of his death. The story entails that when Yama– the Lord of death arrived disguised as a serpent to kill King Hima, his eyes were blinded by the shining jewelry and the brilliance of the lamps. Yama returned without taking the life of King Hima. Another story goes that Dhanvantari-— the Lord of Medicine was born on this day following Samudra Manthan, a cosmic battle between Gods and Demons over Amrit or the holy nectar of immortality.
I get really excited about this pre-festival celebration as we go out and buy gold or silver coins as a sign of prosperity to mark this day.
On the night of Diwali, we deck our house with floral decorations, lamps, lights, and diyas, cook special dishes and offer prayers to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha. I generally get my desi ghee laddu from Kailasa Parbat in Little India and try to make some sweets at home as well. We meet with some of our local friends and exchange gifts. I love dressing up in a saree and taking pictures for the families back at home.
Another key aspect of celebrating Diwali, or for that matter any festival abroad, is video calling everyone back at home and exchanging greetings and good wishes.
The next day, we celebrate baasi Diwali where we clean up the diyas that completely used up the oil and light the diyas that still have oil left in them using the baasi (old or stale) oil. This brings the three-day celebrations to an end and leaves us with lights twinkling in our eyes and smiles on our faces. I feel that as Indians, we are lucky to inherit a rich cultural heritage. Our traditions are thousands of years old and we must take pride in celebrating them no matter where we are. If we look at everything that is happening around the world right now—from natural disasters to health pandemics and increasing crime rates to the unnecessary spread of hatred—I think we all can use some knowledge over ignorance and some light.
May this Diwali enlighten us all with love, compassion, and kindness.
Surabhi Pandey is a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram
It was supposed to be a momentous year. I was planning to throw a party. A graduation party. Friends, flowers, photos. Smiles, speeches, tears. A memorable day where I would watch my daughter walk across the stage, surrounded by her peers, basking in the cheers of their families. A communal celebration. A coming of age. A time to fly. A time to sigh.
From the time she was four, I had imagined this milestone moment of her college graduation. Almost twenty years ago, I had heard commentary by Baxter Black about his graduating daughter on National Public Radio. It began with a question. “Did you ever stop and think to yourself – this will be the last time?”
It was a brief monologue, simple and moving, in the way heartfelt words often are. I thought about his words for days, trying to remember the order of those short sentences, trying to grasp the genuine emotions they conveyed. Years later, Google helped me trace the transcript.
I printed the words on an off-white sheet of paper with green trellis design, inserted it into a plastic sheet protector, and tucked it into a cardboard box. The box traveled from America to India, and then to Singapore. My job was to keep the paper safe until her graduation day. The idea was to hand the sheet to her; to ponder, to keep, to discard, just like all the words I had uttered her over the years. That was the plan.
To paraphrase John Lennon, Covid-19 is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Instead of the class of 2020, my daughter’s graduating cohort will forever be referred to as the Covid-19 class.
Without a public ceremony for graduation, there will be no visible marker of an event to signify an end and a beginning. For me, the end of the years of direct parenting; for her, a beginning that would require her to fly away with strong wings and a smile.
The disappointment of not having a large in-person ceremony was not just hers. I was hoping to vicariously relive the memory of my own graduation that took place more than two decades ago. To temper my disappointment, I revisited commencement speeches that form an important part of the US graduation experience.
Encapsulating the distilled wisdom of the lived experience of writers, entrepreneurs, and people of substance, each speech is a mini self-help book of sorts, a concentrated shot of a carefully fermented brew that could cause a palpable buzz if swallowed swiftly. Many popular speeches became books that could be handed out as graduation gifts containing words of advice to young people stepping into a world of possibilities.
But what advice can you give this cohort of millennial youth who feel cheated of their moment in the spotlight? They were denied the chance to post envy-inducing photos of a champagne-popping, hat-tossing, party-hopping day on Instagram. More importantly, they were denied the chance to savor the last in-person class, the last in-class exam, the last time of simply hanging out around campus, and the last chance to say goodbye.
In an ideal world, my daughter would have heard inspiring words from influential people. All she can do now is hang out with family members with whom she has been stuck at home for months. While I cannot provide her the chance to march across a stage, victorious in a cap and gown, the one thing I can do is dispense pearls of wisdom. After all, I have lived an interesting life. But, as she helpfully points out, I have been giving ‘lectures’ forever. Instead of applause, my monologues are usually met with eye rolls.
Even though I grudgingly agree, I am tempted to install some final pieces of programming code into her before she flies away.
“Uncertainty is inevitable. Doing something is more important than getting it right every time. Take all advice with a pinch of salt.’
But in this post-COVID world, I look back on my years of parenting and consider the futility of the insistence on helmets and seatbelts, at the constant attempt to ease my child’s path and smooth the bumps, and wonder if anything I have said can prepare her for a world that has literally turned on a dime.
Words, however, are not empty platitudes. They carry with them the weight of a person’s experience, and their value is proportional to your trust and respect for the person involved.
There is much I want to say, but this is the time for action, not words. I once again read Baxter Black’s musings and notice for the first time that like me, he has more questions than answers.
All I can do is mutely nod in response to his final question – “Where did she go, this little girl of mine?”
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog