#ELLEDigitalCoverStar: Raja Kumari, Changing The Narrative
“Every time I make a music video I think of it as my gallery, the place people come to understand how I see the world."
I knew the Zoom interview with Raja Kumari was going to be an interesting one—how could it not be? Besides being a musical icon of sorts, Raja Kumari is a loud and proud feminist, a body-positive activist, a cheerleader for lifting people with her, and a dog mama. She’s the ‘cool girl’ we all want to be friends with. For my 7 am cross-continental chat with her, I find her with a hot cup of tea and her dog by her side, enthused to discuss music, her journey towards self-discovery and everything in between.
For Raja (as she’s affectionately called by her team), the last two years have been a rollercoaster of hard work, dealing with mental health and starting the right conversations. But the most important lesson has been learning to take things as they come. “Survival kicked in for me. I was doing so many things, and I was working so much (I went to the hospital three hours before my last show in 2020), and I was weak from exhaustion. And then, all of a sudden, I was alone in my living room, and I didn’t have anyone around, and I had to sort of start over.
For the first couple of months, I wasn’t working, and that was a dark space for me. I started with my therapy, turned vegan and deep-dived into scriptures, trying to find answers to why I pushed myself so hard? And I feel like I got the time to prepare for what was coming. The body of work I was going to release before the pandemic is so different from what I have created now. It’s so much more introspective, honest, and reflective of who I am right now,” she recalls her last few months.
Listing all of Raja’s achievements would take up a paragraph, but even a prefix is impressive. The Grammy-nominated artist’s debut Indian single, City Slums was one of the biggest street anthems of 2017; she’s collaborated with a bunch of artists, including Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, and Fifth Harmony; she won the BMI Pop Awards in 2016; she’s the face of MAC Cosmetic’s holiday campaign; she is also the first female rapper to be signed to Nas’ Mass Appeal.
This year saw the release of Rani Cypher, a song that focuses on gender equality, featuring female emcees Dee MC, Siri and Meba Ofilia. “I feel like this song sets the tone of what I want to do in the industry. I want to create opportunities for artists. I mean, if you are going to break bread, there’s no point eating all alone. I hope that people see how much value collaborative projects bring in. These women in my video have been working for years, and all they needed was a platform that recognised their talent. It’s not just about chasing numbers. All of these women don’t have the ‘blue ticks’ on Instagram but look at the art we created without verification,” she adds. “I feel like we should all take it upon ourselves to elevate new, talented artists in the industry. That’s really how we grow as a community.”
As an Indian-American artist, what was her journey like? Where did it all start? “I never learnt music, but I just grew up around it. My first music memory comes from my mom, just singing her prayers. I also started my Indian classical dance classes at the age of five, and I understood the beats as a dancer. I listened to a lot of Carnatic songs, along with a mix of American ones, and music just became something that I grew up with. And these influences find a natural place in my work. I don’t know how to express myself without this fusion.”
The start of her music career also gave birth to Raja Kumari, her stage name (she’s born Svetha Yallapragada Rao). She laughs when I ask her about the story behind the name. “I think now that I’m older and I can analyse it. I’d say the identity was formed because I needed something that was bigger than me at that time. Svetha didn’t like her body and wasn’t too confident, but Raja Kumari was a superhero, a goddess. I was familiar with these powerful women in classical dances, and I just wanted that energy. And I also loved the idea that every man had to call me a king,” she chuckles. “I am a person who will fake it till she makes it. So this was just what I needed at that point.”
Her passion for making music meaningful and relevant continues in tandem with her growth as an individual. “Every time I make a music video I think of it as my gallery, the place people come to understand how I see the world. When I was 13 years old and was listening to music in my room, I had a vision where I saw myself as a strong, powerful person with a sea of people around me. I think I am still chasing that vision, that energy.”
In keeping with being relevant, I ask her about the recent popularity of media like TikTok and Instagram Reels and how that has changed her music. Turns out, Raja is all for it. “I enjoy the exposure that comes from these platforms, with the song going viral by itself. Instead of loving it or hating it, I am just focusing on learning it because social media is not going anywhere, especially now when we don’t have live shows. I try to be more accepting of this because this is the way I have to communicate with the audience. This also reflects a coming together of a community, and maybe it’s what we need right now.”
As our chat comes to an end, I ask her about what keeps her going. “I make art the way that I see it. I try not to compromise. I try to do the best that I can. Because what if it was never even about me? What if it’s about some little girl who sees me, and in fifteen years, becomes the torchbearer of music?” she ends with a smile.
Content Director & Editor: Kamna Malik; Photographer: Kirti Narain; Stylist: Saloni Mahendru; Hair & Makeup: Anup Singh; Nails: naiLIT; Assistant stylists: Lorraine Gonzalves and Jharna; Artist management: Latium Entertainment; Artist publicity: Dream & Hustle Media