Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy brought rap music into the limelight and introduced many people to the genre. But for those who follow rap music, Svetha Rao aka Raja Kumari is not a name unheard of. The creator of popular tracks like ‘City Slums’ and ‘Meera’, Kumari is a name to reckon with. Despite growing up in the United States, the Grammy-nominated Indian-American songwriter and rapper have stayed close to her roots – something her music, which can best be described as a mix of western influences and Indian culture, reflects.
The artist also made a special appearance in the Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt-starrer as a judge for the much-talked-about rap battle in the film. The 32-year-old artist has previously collaborated with Gwen Stefani, Tricky Stewart, Fifth Harmony, Timbaland and even A R Rahman, and her song written for Australian rapper Iggy Azalea even got a Grammy nomination.
Talking to indianexpress.com at the Bira 91, April Fools’ Fest at NSIC Grounds, Okhla, Kumari, who is also a trained classical dancer, talks about her passion, her journey into the industry and much more.
What drove you towards choosing hip hop/music as a profession?
It was never like a profession, but more of a passion. It was a way for me to express myself, and I could relate to it. Although I grew up in America, I have always been close to my culture, so I could easily bring in Indian influences into my music. The music it just kept leading me down the path and let me into opportunity; and now it’s a way of life.
Do you think the hip-hop culture in India has improved after Gully Boy?
This was going to happen. Hip hop is a strong force and it is changing the world. It is the most streamed music worldwide. Indian hip hop is just getting better; it’s like every time an artist rises they give inspiration to others to push more. I think if we have a better (hip hop) scene, everyone will rise because of more opportunities, more people listen to our music, and we will get more validation in the world market.
How did you get into songwriting?
I often used to study other songs and write down their lyrics to see what I liked in the songs which words repeated. I looked it at like Math. Like any other Indian kid, I was also curious (or nerdy) so I liked to practise. And then I started writing my own songs. I realised writing songs came naturally to me and if I write for other artists then I get to be in the studio every day so that excited me.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Indian classical training helped you understand hip-hop mathematically. Can you elaborate?
In classical music, there are beats and breaks. Similarly, hip hop also works around beats and off beats so I know how to interlock the rhythms in hip hop in different ways. It’s very mathematical as it brings balance in the method of making rhythm and music. I have lived in two different worlds and two different cultures, so when I make a fusion of it I think it’s the most authentic version of myself – it’s more me. Because the feelings and emotions are universal, even in the remotest part of this world, they connect to the words of ‘Meera’ or ‘Money’.
Your contribution to Gully Boy was short but impressive. It is rare that female rap artists are seen on the silver screen. How was your experience like?
It was so much fun to work with them. Zoya was very committed and I like how she made Mumbai an important character in the story. Even Ranveer Singh was so committed, he was always listening to the right type of music on set. Gully Boy is part of history in Indian hip hop culture now. I was on the set for four days working on that one scene, but then I got to watch all those artists during the rap battle. I got the opportunity to be familiar with artists whom I have never seen before like Kaambhari and Dope Daddy. There was so much talent around the whole time with the stadium filled with artists from Mumbai.
What inspires you to write the kind of songs you do?
Everything I see. I like to watch people and invest time in history, and also like to express everything that is important in life in words so that people can understand and relate to it. Like ‘Karma’ talks about the balance, ‘Meera’ stays in tunes with the universe, ‘Mute’ is all about forgetting negativity and focusing on positivity.
Which song of yours do you like better – Meera or Mute?
When I wrote Meera, I cried for hours. Like I couldn’t believe that I was so truly blessed to be able to actually pursue my dreams. I always wanted to put something like this together and when it happened it was like magic. It was like music that I wanted to hear while growing up and it was like if I can make this then I have to keep going. It was an important piece for me as an artist.