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.