Neha Pant on the Indian-American musician who often blends her Indian roots perfectly into hip-hop
There is no stopping a woman who is unafraid to be herself and no one knows this better than 31-year-old, Svetha Rao aka Raja Kumari. In her temple jewelry, embroidered jackets and kohl lined eyes, Kumari spits out fierce rap that she writes herself. Having previously written songs for Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, Fifth Harmony and even working with Rock band Fall Out Boys for their 2014 song Centuries, gives her the quiet confidence of someone who knows what she is doing.
The effortless way in which she blends her Indian roots with her hip-hop is something that is enviably original. Kumari who is also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, toured India as a child, raising money for various charitable organisations. When she realised that there was a very small audience for Indian classical dance in America, she decided to focus her energies on becoming a pop star. “Around that age I was listening to a lot of American pop music. We would go and do these charities, but we couldn’t do the whole goal and, so, the idea came in my mind that these American pop stars, these people that I am obsessed with watching and thinking, and I thought if I was on that platform and if I could say one thing about India or the classical dance, then so many more people would see it,” she said.
Then in 2012, she started to focus all her energies on her goal and was signed by Pulse Records. She eventually went on to write Change your Life for Iggy Azalea, it was also nominated for a Grammy. Six songs on the Gwen Stefani album, This is What Truth Feels Like, were also written by her. In 2015, Kumari was signed by L.A.Reid, chairman of Epic Records, in November last year, she released her album, The Come Up which has both tabla and trap in equal measure.
Being an Indian in the American music industry means that she is constantly bombarded with everybody’s perceptions of what she should sound or dress like. “What’s funny is that people debate about whether I am too Indian. I just learned to tune them out…that’s why I wrote mute.” She also says that while growing up, she had no-one to look up to because artists who looked like her constantly abandoned their culture to be more American. “I hope I can play a part in helping little girls believe that their heritage is cool.”
If that isn’t reason enough to love her, here’s more, Kumari believes in using her music as a mode to help people, most of her work is with 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.”
Follow her on soundcloud