Princess of Fu­sion

Grammy nom­i­nee Svetha S Rao aka k Raja R Ku­mari K has been mak­ing waves on the in­ter­na­tional mu­sic cir­cuit with her quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can desi swag. The In­dian at heart and Amer­i­can by lo­ca­tion gives So­ci­ety a peek into her mul­ti­fac­eted life and mu­sic


This In­dian Amer­i­can singer, song­writer, rap­per and clas­si­cal dancer is best known for her col­lab­o­ra­tions with prom­i­nent in­ter­na­tional artists like Gwen Ste­fani, Iggy Azalea, Fifth Har­mony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. Her mu­sic is a melt­ing pot of In­dian and Western cul­tures, with the former tak­ing prece­dence, thanks to her desi roots. Raja Ku­mari calls her lat­est sin­gle I Did It as an “an­them to re­mind my­self that I can do any­thing that I set my in­ten­tion on. It’s a song about be­liev­ing in your­self at all costs while find­ing a way to stay au­then­tic to who you are”. She re­ceived the BMI Pop Awards in 2016 for song­writ­ing af­ter be­ing nom­i­nated for the Grammy Awards in 2015. Ku­mari has also col­lab­o­rated with AR Rah­man as a singer for Mani Rat­nam’s Kaa­tru Veliyidai and also sung for the Sridevi star­rer Mom.

You have an un­usual name. Any story be­hind it?

Yes, there is def­i­nitely a story be­hind it. My name is Svetha Rao. There was a clas­si­cal dancer by that name. It was also a re­ally long name for Amer­i­cans to learn. They used to have a hard time pro­nounc­ing it. In high school, people would al­ways call me an In­dian princess like in the cyphers. When I first started mak­ing hip-hop and I was rap­ping, people would call me In­dian Princess. I re­ally liked that name but I pre­ferred it in San­skrit. Thus the name Raja Ku­mari was born. So this has been my name since I was 15 years old and I felt like I needed an al­ter ego be­cause Svetha Rao was the In­dian clas­si­cal dancer. I feel like the name re­ally em­bod­ied who I was as an artist and who I wanted to be.

Where in In­dia are you from? Tell us about your family, tra­di­tion… your roots.

My family is from Hy­der­abad, we are Tel­ugu. My par­ents moved to Amer­ica in the 70s af­ter they got mar­ried. My broth­ers and I were born in Los An­ge­les. I was raised learn­ing a new clas­si­cal dance form from a very young age. That was def­i­nitely part of my roots and has in­spired my mu­sic. When my par­ents left in their early 20s, they left a very dif­fer­ent In­dia. They car­ried that In­dia with them to Amer­ica and planted it there. They taught us to re­spect the cul­ture and re­spect the arts. That was some­thing that I have al­ways been proud of. We used to come back every sum­mer and visit our family in Hy­der­abad. I was never dis­con­nected from my family here. As a child, I went to so many tem­ples, it’s al­ways some­thing that’s in­ter­ested me. Even when I make my mu­sic, I make au­then­tic mu­sic so there’s noth­ing to sep­a­rate me from my tra­di­tions. My cul­ture in­spires me. I was gen­uinely drawn. How can some­one do so much if they aren’t gen­uinely drawn?

You have also been ac­tively in­volved in char­ity work back home in In­dia. You built a med­i­ta­tion hall, a hos­pi­tal in Ban­ga­lore and a school for phys­i­cally dis­abled chil­dren. Did you al­ways want to work to­wards giv­ing it back to your coun­try? What are the causes you are re­ally pas­sion­ate about in In­dia?

I am pas­sion­ate about In­dia be­cause it’s where I be­long. Even though I grew up in Amer­ica, I was never ac­cepted as an Amer­i­can. It was al­ways, “oh where are you re­ally from?” My par­ents were re­ally won­der­ful in help­ing me un­der­stand that my art could cre­ate some­thing for people and that I could make a difference by of­fer­ing my art. I wanted to do it as a child and I have al­ways wanted to give back. They helped me have these ex­pe­ri­ences as a child by set­ting up these fundraiser per­for­mances etc in In­dia. They re­ally made sure my dreams of want­ing to do some­thing for the coun­try of my ori­gin be­came a re­al­ity. These ex­pe­ri­ences in­spired me for­ever. I feel like my art is for that and ev­ery­thing I do is to gain a larger plat­form, so that I can truly in­flu­ence people and make real change in ev­ery­day lives of people in In­dia. At the end of the day, I am In­dian and it’s where my heart is.

If given a chance, would you set­tle in In­dia?

I al­ready spend half of my time be­tween Bom­bay and LA and that’s how it will be.

You have learnt and are dab­bling in such di­verse mu­si­cal and dance forms. Rap, Hip-hop, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and so on. What do you en­joy the most? And what do you think you are re­ally good at out of all these?

I re­ally like mu­sic and dance. I think that mu­sic and dance are con­nected. I just en­joy arts in gen­eral. I like to paint, dance, sing, write. I think if you are an artist, you’re an artist, and that’s it.

And then you have a de­gree in South Asian Re­li­gious Stud­ies…

In col­lege, I took a class on Hin­duism and I re­ally en­joyed it. I re­alised that I was fas­ci­nated. While pur­su­ing clas­si­cal dance, I had played so many of these mytho­log­i­cal char­ac­ters and I had learnt about it when I was so young. I just wanted to learn more about it. Also, while pur­su­ing a Mu­sic Ma­jor in col­lege, there was some­thing about learn­ing mu­sic in a sort of a school for­mat that I didn’t re­ally en­joy. I feel like mu­sic has al­ways been more nat­u­ral for me. I like to fol­low my in­spi­ra­tions and fol­low the greats and that’s what I have re­ally done. I stud­ied all kinds of things like re­li­gion, film, dance, etc. I stud­ied dif­fer­ent types of re­li­gion—western re­li­gion, Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity, ev­ery­thing. The thing that I

learnt was there was a com­mon truth that binds all the re­li­gions and we all agree upon that truth. That in­spired me to write more lyrics…words that more people can re­late to in­stead of some­thing from a text­book.

Your mu­sic is a mix of In­dian clas­si­cal and hip-hop. Why then do you call your mu­sic ‘Bol­lyHood’?

‘Bol­lyHood’ was the term I used when I was younger, to al­low Amer­i­cans to un­der­stand what I was do­ing since they knew the word Bol­ly­wood and they un­der­stood what ‘hood’ meant. So it’s just a term that Amer­i­cans would un­der­stand. But I think my mu­sic has evolved now. It has gone be­yond look­ing at just the Amer­i­can per­spec­tive. It now caters to the world. I think about people now while mak­ing mu­sic, not just Amer­i­cans.

Indo-western genre in mu­sic has be­come ram­pant now, with so many fu­sion artistes out there, in In­dia and abroad. How would you dif­fer­en­ti­ate your mu­sic from the rest? What’s your niche?

I don’t think any­one is do­ing fu­sion the way I do. I don’t think a lot of people are do­ing clas­si­cal fu­sion, where the clas­si­cal mu­sic is heav­ier. My fu­sion en­forces ev­ery­thing, from the rhythms that I rap to, my choice of in­stru­ments, my cos­tumes to my vi­su­als. The fu­sion doesn’t just end with the sam­ple, my mu­sic is just dif­fer­ent.

You per­formed in front of Pan­dit Ravi Shankar at the age of seven. Could you tell us about that ex­pe­ri­ence and your per­for­mance?

That was my first big per­for­mance, my gu­ruji in­vited him as they knew each other. I was seven years old so I don’t re­ally re­mem­ber the whole ex­pe­ri­ence but what was sig­nif­i­cant for me was that some­one so in­cred­i­ble was one of the first people to bless me on my jour­ney as an artist. My mom would for­ever quote on how he called me ‘a child prodigy’. So that was some­thing that en­cour­aged my par­ents to keep in­vest­ing in my art, and travel with me and keep mak­ing sure that I con­tin­ued learn­ing art forms and kept it up. His bless­ing has given me a lot of luck in life.

You are an ar­dent fan of A R Rah­man.

A R Rah­man is like a mu­si­cal fa­ther. I lis­tened to his mu­sic a lot as a child. There was a time when I only lis­tened to In­dian mu­sic. I didn’t even lis­ten to English mu­sic un­til my brother gave me an al­bum by Fugees. A R Rehman has been in­cred­i­ble though. It’s been such a bless­ing to work with him and to call him a men­tor. I vi­su­alised my­self work­ing with him and made it a re­al­ity. It’s great to have him in my life.

Who is your favourite in­ter­na­tional artiste? Whom do you en­joy col­lab­o­rat­ing with the most?

I want to see more of cross­over mu­sic. I think it would be amaz­ing to work with some­one like Kanye West or Ken­drick La­mar. I think that would bring a lot of cred­i­bil­ity to the mu­sic and to the fu­sion. It would be fun to try it and to in­tro­duce a whole new group of people to the sound. I am a fan of them and it would be amaz­ing to work with them. I have had a lot of great col­lab­o­ra­tions, some not re­leased yet and I am super ex­cited about all of them. I am work­ing with Steven Mar­ley and I have also done some­thing with Wiz Khal­ifa. I have worked with Meghan Trainor as well. Now, one just needs to wait till the world gets to lis­ten to these.

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