New Delhi, 6 AUGUST, 2019: While growing up in the US, Svetha Rao was called ‘The Indian Princess’ by her friends and somewhere in her heart she knew the name would stick.
Now as songwriter-rapper Raja Kumari, she has made it to the bylanes of India with her collaboration with Divine on “City Streets” and rap in “Husn Parcham” from “Zero”.
A trained Indian classical dancer, she said, Bollywood was her window to learning about the Indian culture in America. Interestingly, she had a cameo in this years’ critically-acclaimed hit music drama “Gully Boy”.
“My mother tongue is Telugu and I learnt English in the US. I learnt Hindi later in college by watching Bollywood movies and being connected to the Indian culture. I went on India tours when I was 10 and performed in many Indian cities and that was as Svetha Rao.
“But when I wanted to start making rap music, I thought I should do something about the name as the uncles in the audience would expect me to sing something, I would do the rap, how would they take it?” Kumari told PTI in a telephonic interview.
At 15, she knew she wanted to go the hip-hop way and wanted to make people believe in themselves through her music.
“They would always called me ‘The Indian Princess’, and it means ‘Raj Kumari’. I liked the sentiment behind this name with which my friends would call me in America. When I was dancing, my name was Kumari Svetha Rao. Kumari has been attached to me my entire life.”
That’s why Shveta became Raja Kumari from ‘The Indian Princess’.
“I wasn’t necessarily there yet, but I made this character — how I would dance as a devi (goddess), and slay the demons. I’d become this warrior goddess character I created. When I’m on the stage I just become that. It’s my offering to god out of whatever I can give. That persona helps me translate it all,” she said.
In the initial six-seven years of her career, Kumari collaborated as a songwriter with international names such as Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony and FallOut Boy and she believes collaboration is the key for great art.
“If I encounter an incredible songwriter in Telugu who can help me express myself, I’d love to make music in my mother tongue. I believe in songwriters and co-writing as that’s how I got my start. I have a lot of respect for collaboration,” she added.
The recording artiste said it often happens that people only want to understand the “Indian-ness”, as they call it in America, in one way.
“For me, my culture is in my art. Growing up so far away from India… the sound and the art… That’s how I connect with who I am. I think it’s always a part of my artwork. It’s truly bizarre when some people call me a ‘culture vulture’… How can I be a ‘culture vulture’ in my own culture just because I’m born in America?
“I have studied Indian music, religion… I’m not just another South Asian. I still have put in my time to be Indian enough to talk about India without being an appropriator of culture. It works both ways. But for me, this is who I am. I don’t know how to be any other way for anyone.”
Kumari said it is her experience of being around different musicians that she wants to share as a mentor through rap reality show, “MTV Hustle” which starts airing from August 10.
“I was excited as it was for the first time that a platform like this was being offered in a country like India where hip-hop is young but the love, excitement and culture is so real. When I came to Mumbai, I could see that the future of hip-hop was really looking bright and I wanted to be a part of it.
“When I found out Raftaar and Nucleya were the other judges, I knew that I could count on them to be authentic. I could really represent what I really believe in through this show.”
With the success of “Gully Boy”, hip-hop appears to have gone mainstream and Kumari said the people are going to take the genre in their own way and make it their own.
“We will start hearing rap songs in commercial stores or grocery stores. Hip-hop is the most powerful genre worldwide. I think the evolution that’s happening now is that more people are encouraged to write their music and write it in their language and style. We are going to see this explosion of talent. I feel India has so much talent.
“Music and arts are not really seen as a viable career. For most of the people in the Indian community, the struggle is their family and friends thinking that what we do might actually not go somewhere. In ‘Hustle’, whether the winner goes on to have a huge hit or not, it’s going to increase the awareness.”
On female stars of the genre, the singer said there may have not been an emphasis on women but she has no doubt that “the girls are coming”.
“I’m glad about it. They can see what I’ve learnt and if I can be of any help… Imagine there was only one Spanish-speaking artiste in America and they said ‘that’s enough. Quota’s filled’. That’s not fair.
“There are so many male rappers and they keep making room for more of them but the second one girl is on and another girl wants to come on, they want us to fight. That’s ridiculous. I think there’s so much space for them, there should be space for us. We need plenty of room right now. We need more females in the industry because we need to shake it up anyway.