F1 Singapore 2019: American-Indian rapper Raja Kumari discusses songwriting for Gwen Stefani and kaya toast with Preetipls
Daughter of the king
Raja Kumari's life and music is full of dualities. She was born in Claremont, California — just outside of the ritzy chaos of Los Angeles — but she was raised in a conservative first-generation Indian immigrant household where she was immersed in culture and tradition. She started learning classical Indian dance at the age of six, while listening to the bubblegum-pop of Christina and Britney in her bedroom in the 1990s.
She entered the music industry as a songwriter in her twenties, and worked with Fall Out Boys ("Centuries"), Gwen Stefani (This is What the Truth Feels Like), and Iggy Azalea ("Change Your Life"). Things became a little more complicated when she decided to pursue her solo career as an Indian female hip-hop artiste in America. "We love the music, but we're confused about you singing it", she recounted the early feedback that she received in her recently released short film by Sony, Raja Kumari: So Far. She left Los Angeles thereafter, and moved to Bombay where she is currently based.
You might think that Raja Kumari's music might have little to do with Singapore, but take a look at her MV for "Unstoppable", and you'll soon notice the familiar chimes of the MRT, the graffitied walls of Haji Lane, and the lush greenery of Gardens by the Bay.
When I got word that she was in town for the Singapore Grand Prix last weekend, I thought who better to sit down with her than Singapore's very own top Indian female rapper, Preetipls? Here's what went down.
Preeti: I don't think a lot of people in Singapore understand who Raja Kumari is, so could you explain?
Raja Kumari: Raja Kumari literally translates to "the daughter of the king". I like to fuse classical Indian music and dance forms with hip-hop. I grew up in Los Angeles, and have been learning classical Indian dance my whole life. I was also around hip-hop and dope rappers, so it just kind of happened. My music is a reflection of who I am.
Preei: If you had to pick three things to create a Raja Kumari starter pack, what would they be?
Raja Kumari: Bindis, bangles and a grill.
Preeti: Looks like I'm just missing the grill now.
Raja Kumari: I'm also missing the grill, but it's good for the starter pack. You're pretty close.
Preeti: Your birth name is Svetha Rao. How different is Svetha from Raja Kumari?
Raja Kumari: Svetha doesn't wear make-up. Everything else is the same. Svetha is all about skincare, relaxing, and the spa life. It's funny because my friends always ask me what I'm doing, and I'll say, "I'm turning back into Svetha".
Preeti: It's all transformation. Maybe you should drop a skincare routine.
Raja Kumari: Yes, I love skincare! I have the jade roller, and I do the serums. It's all about drinking lots of water. I'll recommend one gallon of water a day.
Preeti: I'm Singapore's most dehydrated person.
Raja Kumari: Don't be thirsty!
Preeti: What's the difference between writing music for yourself and for other artistes like Gwen Stefani?
Raja Kumari: It's very different. When I go in for another artist, I'm trying to listen to what they have to express and try to help them. It's also fun that I get to be a story-teller. I step outside of myself and my own experiences to help people express themselves. When it comes to Raja Kumari, I have a character that's built up so it's almost a little harder sometimes to write for myself. I take it a little more serious, decipher it too much, and take it apart a lot. When I write for other people, it's what comes out of my mind and that's it.
Preeti: We tend to be our own biggest critic.
Raja Kumari: Of course, but I have fun. I like to collaborate a lot. When it comes to doing my own music, I put the best songwriters, artists, and talents that I really respect in the room with me.
Preeti: You're about to take the stage.
Raja Kumari: Yes, on the Sunset Stage. I performed on the Downtown Stage last night.
Preeti: I was there!
Raja Kumari: Yes, I saw you! I wasn't sure what to expect in Singapore because I've never performed here. It's actually my third time in Singapore, and I love it. My favourite thing to eat is kaya toast.
Preeti: Yes, that's the best breakfast food in Singapore.
Raja Kumari: I'd eat it all day, and I don't even care. I like kaya toast dipped in a soft-boiled egg with a little soya sauce. Don't forget the butter. I introduced my entire team to it today, and they were like, "Oh my god".
Preeti: You mentioned that you love collaborating earlier, so who's your dream collab?
Raja Kumari: M.I.A., I keep saying it in all my interviews because I think it would be cool.
Preeti: I see the similarities though, and I love both of you.
Raja Kumari: She opened the door for a lot of us.
Preeti: Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.
Raja Kumari: We do baby, we do.
Preei: Do you have any advice for other females in hip-hop?
Raja Kumari: Be authentic. Be yourself. There's already a Cardi B. There's already a Nicki Minaj. There's already a Raja Kumari. There's already a Preetipls, so be authentic to yourself. Experiment and try new fun things, and just keep making music. Every time you make a new song, you get better. We need more females in music, especially brown girls — all my Indian girls, where you at? We need more, so I want to hear from all of you. On MTV Hustle, we have a few girls on the show and I do protect them, because they are special to me, but I want to see more girls in music honestly.
Preetipls: Let's do a quick-fire round. Favourite Tamil song?
Raja Kumari: I like this one song by Nabz-47 and Rolex Rasathy. It's so dope.
Preeti: Country that you would like to travel to?
Raja Kumari: I want to go to Australia. I've never been there and I want to see the water flush the other way.
Preei: Favourite rapper?
Raja Kumari: Drake popped into my head. I like a lot of people like Tupac or Biggie, but I want to say Drake. I wonder what a Drake and Kumari collab would be like. I need it in my life.
Preeti: One stage you want to perform on?
Raja Kumari: Madison Square Garden.
Preeti: What are you watching on Netflix right now?
Raja Kumari: I'm watching Patriot Act hosted by Hasan Minhaj. That's my homie and I'm so proud of him.
Preeti: What's the biggest highlight of your career so far?
Raja Kumari: It's when my fans meet me when I don't expect it. I can say all these big shows, but it means the most to me when someone comes up to me. There were these two British and Korean guys who approached me last night at my performance. It's just the fact that my music is going worldwide. If you see me out, come say hi to me and I'd take a selfie.
Preeti: I love how it connects everyone and anyone from across the globe.
Raja Kumari: I opened for Wiz Khalifa in Delhi recently. There were about 10,000 people there, and I sang "City Slumps". They sang along with me and it was so sweet.
Preeti: What are some of your upcoming projects, and where can we find you next?
Raja Kumari: I'm on MTV Hustle. If you're in India, I'm headlining NH7. I also have music coming out. I'd love to say it but I'd get into trouble, so just keep watching. Things are coming.
Preeti: For my last question, would you ever collaborate with an independent, female, Singaporean hip-hop artist?
Raja Kumari: Girl when you say it like that, the answer is yes. You literally had the whole list: independent, female, Singaporean artist. Yes, sign me up!
Preeti: And that's how you get a Raja Kumari collaboration!
Check out their conversation on the scenic rooftop Sky Terrace below.
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