On the stage of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune, Indian-American singer, songwriter and rapper Raja Kumari presented a glimpse of the cultures she straddles. There were Indian classical dancers sharing space with hip-hop stunt theatrical performers from Mumbai group Kings United as well as local performers from Pune. “It was one of my most ambitious performances on stage. It was amazing to bring that many people on stage and have props as well.” she said. The crowds loved it and Kumari returned home to the US with a host of new fans.
Kumari made her debut album The Come Up in 2016 and packed it with hard-hitting lyrics and beats. In February, she released another album, Bloodline. “Bloodline asks the question, ‘Who are you?’ It’s not about your family line or heritage. What runs through your veins and what are you willing to fight for? This collection of songs was inspired by my time in India. I found strength in the motherland, and these battle anthems are my story, my bloodline,” she says.
Born Svetha Rao in Claremont, California, the Grammy-nominated musician said that she started writing songs when she was about 12 years old. At five, she began learning Indian classical dances — Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam and Odissi. “Indian classical dance is the root of my understanding of art, so I usually imagine everything through that lens — whether it is the rhythm I am dancing to or the rhythm I am rapping on or the drama of classical dance I try to bring on stage,” she says.
In 2012, she turned her passion for songwriting into a profession. “I have learned so much from every single co-writer and producer I have worked with and that has made me into the artiste I am today,” she says. California and the West Coast style of rap have influenced her musical career. “I was immersed in West Coast Hip Hop and music that I was watching on MTV. It shaped the way that I viewed music. My favourite rapper growing up was Tupac,” she says.
The performer has signed a deal with Pulse Recordings and Sony Epic Records Worldwide as well as co-written for international artists such as T.I., Iggy Azalea, Lindsey Stirling, Ghost Town and Gwen Stefani. Kumari has also shared space with heavyweights such as Timbaland, Scott Storch, Tricky Stewart and The Dream, Sean Garret, Afrojack and Rob Kmox. She is also a presenter and curator on the Apple Music Beats 1 Radio’s New India Show and is one of the adjudicators of MTV Hustle alongside musicians Raftaar and Nucleya.
Apart from her career as an independent artiste, Kumari has also lent her voice as a playback singer for Bollywood movies. In 2018, she worked with Shah Rukh Khan for Husn Parcham in Zero and Salman Khan for Allah Duhai in Race 3. She had a cameo in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy in 2019. “My experience of Bollywood has really been fun. I have always been kind of invited as a guest artiste and told to do my own thing. I had a lot of fun bringing my own style to the different projects I have worked on and I really look forward to doing that over and over again,” says she.
What is the achievement that is closest to her heart? “There have been a lot of moments where people have come up to me and shared how important my journey has been for them, seeing themselves and feeling represented and giving them strength to achieve whatever they have in mind. But definitely seeing my billboard, larger-than-life, was a point of manifestation that always convinces me to move forward because success was right in front of me and there was more to come.”