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Cover Story

Blending Tradition & Contemporary Music: Raja Kumari

By Mrinalini Sundar & Petrina D’Souza, 27 Jan, 2020

    Staying true to her latest song, Karma, she is a self-proclaimed queen of Hindustan who perfectly blends music from her birthplace – California and her roots – India. Raja Kumari aka Svetha Yellapragada Rao is a singer, songwriter and fashion icon.

    2019 has been a gratifying year for the hip-hop, pop, dance music artist. From performing a cameo in the most-awarded movie of the year, Gully Boy, to releasing hit independent EPs like Bloodline, Raja Kumari is on top of her game. She also ruled the beauty scene as she was announced as the face of MAC Cosmetics’ holiday campaign. As part of her music journey, the recording artist and the Grammy-nominated rapper has also collaborated with notable artists including Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, Fifth Harmony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. She is currently a presenter and curator on the Apple Music Beats 1 Radio’s ‘New India Show’ that is broadcasted in 81 countries.

    Raja Kumari is exactly where she wants to be in her life. Becoming a singer was not an overnight dream for the rapper. “My dream was always to help people, and I found that music would give me the biggest platform to help the most amount of people,” she shares, adding that anybody can relate and connect to her music. “People all over the globe are going through similar problems, but sometimes we don’t know how to express those feelings. I think being authentic and wearing my heart on my sleeve helps people connect to the music and see themselves in my music,” says the global star.

    Her first introduction to music was with Carnatic classical dance and performing with a live orchestra. It was in her fifth grade that Raja Kumari discovered hip hop through The Score. By the age of 14, she became a freestyle MC. But it was during college that her songwriting journey began. “I took a songwriting course from a professional outside of my curriculum and fell in love with the craft,” says Raja Kumari, who has a unique style of music.

    So does blending traditional and contemporary music come naturally to the star? To this she says, “Blending Indian classical music with hip-hop wasn’t anything done on purpose, it’s just who I am. It was easy to blend the two because I grew up on Indian classical music but growing up in Los Angeles I was heavily influenced by hip-hop.” Raja Kumari merges both her worlds – Mumbai and Los Angeles – in her music. “It’s very important for me to incorporate my culture into my songs. I want to be the bridge between the East and the West and help people listen to music without borders,” states the City Slums singer.

    What was once a dream soon became reality when Raja Kumari worked with AR Rahman for the movie Kaatru Veliyidai. It didn’t stop with that, she also got an opportunity to perform with him on stage. Talking about working with the Mozart of Madras, she says, “I’ve always had a really fun relationship with him. I always like to play him whatever new music is coming out, and he always stays so relevant by working with young artists and trying new things, and that’s what I like to be with him.” She has worked with several other music composers for Indian movies such as Judgementall Hai Kya, Zero, Race 3, and Vivegam.

    Besides AR Rahman, she has collaborated with several musicians in the past. It was her collaboration with Iggy Azalea that earned her a Grammy nomination for writing, Change Your Life. But she considers working with Gwen close to her heart. “Writing with Gwen Stefani is a fond memory – she’s a true icon and someone I’ve always looked up too. To help put melodies to her ideas was an honor,” she remembers.

    In fact, she has worked with Sean Garrett for her latest EP, Bloodline, a collection of anthems that Raja Kumari worked on when she was going through some low moments in her life. Garrett has previously written and produced for musicians like Beyoncé, Drake, Usher and Nicki Minaj. Raja Kumari believes that partnerships are the way forward and her dream alliance would be with Missy Elliot and Sidhu Moose Wala.

    Raja Kumari can safely take credit for popularising Indian classical music to the international audience, thanks to her songs. “We’re currently in a musical transition where songs have no boundaries, and listeners from all over the world can experience the beauty of classical Indian music from inside their bedrooms all over the world,” explains the first Indian to host American Music Awards 2019.

    At the same time, Raja Kumari also has a major hand in promoting hip hop and making it more mainstream for youngsters in India. Her stint with Gully Boy helped her in this endeavour. “Hip hop is one of the fastest rising genres in India, and it’s great to see more Indians step into the spotlight. In my new MTV show, Hustle, I’m excited to help discover more local, home-grown talent. I get the privilege to mentor new hip-hop talent and foster the next generation. This will be the first prime time show for rappers,” shares the 34-year-old who will be judging the show alongside Raftaar and Nucleya.

    A few months ago, Raja Kumari completed a five-city Karma Kills tour in India. Performing at her homeland was a surreal feeling for the rapper. Sharing her experience, she says, “It was a dream come true to me. To come home and hear everyone singing my songs and hearing the words back was something I dreamt about since I was a little girl, and it’s a feeling I won’t soon forget.”

    With over 445K followers on Instagram and 21K plus followers on Twitter, Raja Kumari is a huge inspiration for a lot of aspiring singers and youngsters. Her all-time message to her followers is to find their own voice, to be authentic and to speak for themselves. But who is her inspiration? “I take inspiration from the world around me, current events, and what is in the air at the time. I enjoy writing for other people because I’m able to help put the feelings of others into melodies and words,” says the artist, who looks up to people like AR Rahman, Madhuri Dixit, Lauryn Hill, her mother, and M.I.A.

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