Raja Kumari interview hindian hip hop bangals and bindis

Indo-American rapper Raja Kumari is on a mission to bring Indian culture and traditions back to the youth. That’s what she says she hopes to do with her new single Bindis And Bangles, which has garnered over 2 million views on YouTube since its release last week. 

Most known for her international collaborations, having written songs for Fall Out Boy, Gwen Stefani and Fifth Harmony, among others, the hip-hop artist moved from LA to Mumbai in 2016 just as the Indian hip-hop scene was taking off. Following a brief cameo in Zoya Akthar’s Gully Boy as the judge of a rap contest, she went onto assume the role in real life last year as a judge on rap reality show MTV Hustle aimed at finding the next generation of rappers.

At the Sony Music Office, she spoke to me about her new single, America’s brown renaissance and the importance of encouraging more female artists. 

Edited Excerpts:

The Bindis And Bangles video is very distinctive. Were you ever worried that some people could see it as you exoticising Indian culture?

I find that very strange. I am an Indian and this is my culture. I am showing you what I find beautiful. I am a classically trained Indian dancer, I have studied comparative religion and I know what I am talking about. When I’m referencing Shakuntala, I’ve read the stories. Every mudra has been learned and accounted for. I think I am just doing who I am. 

I think it’s exotified when it’s taken out of context but it is very much in context. It’s a view into what people don’t know and someone has to tell you about it. It’s not like Mahabharata is still on TV. There are things I grew up with which aren’t there anymore so I have to find a way to inspire the youth to still care about them. I feel like if we don’t inspire them to learn classical dance and learn about mantras and Ayurveda, we will lose everything in the next 50 years because the people who know about all of these things are dying off. If I can inspire some kids to learn Bharatanatyam instead of jazz, I have done my job, literally. 

As an artist, what do you feel the purpose of a music video is? What are you trying to achieve?

It’s the most important medium for me because I am more than just audio. You have to have the full experience. I stand for a lot of things that have to be understood by the traditional jewellery or mudras or through traditional framing where it feels like a painting. I have always been interested in how I can keep layering those 3 minutes of a video. I have people’s attention for only 3 minutes, how much good can I do? And I feel like I’ve achieved that. Every time I am on stage or meet a fan or see my influence in the world, I feel that. 

One of the reasons they say Indian films don’t cross over to the West is because of the language and cultural barriers. Does music face similar issues?

Yeah, language. Language has got to be number 1. If I, as an English artist from America signed by Sony, am having issues translating over because of my Indian-ness, then imagine putting in a language that people don’t know. Punjabi MC broke through. That was an incredible moment for all of us when that song made it. 

But Indians are less than 1% of America. If we’re talking about a Hindi song at the American Music Awards, it’s gonna take some time. But still, Jai Ho happened. And if the brown renaissance happens as it is supposed to with Hasan Minhaj and Mindy Kaling and Lilly Singh and Priyanka Chopra and Utkarsh Ambudkar and everybody keeps pushing then we are gonna keep having this interest.

My dream is to hear Hindi on the radio in America. It is possible, it’ll just gonna take some time. For that, we need an Indian superstar to crossover. When that happens, it makes India relatable and understandable to people in the West. I feel like I am working in some ways because I speak to the people in the West and the East. If I can succeed, so can others and if we all together push, we can have an Indian superstar in American mindsets and that will change everything. 

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how this is the best time to be an independent artist because non-Bollywood music is the next big thing. Would you agree? 

Bollywood is just doing a bunch of remixes over and over again and people have already heard those songs. When I came here in 2016, I just felt the tide shifting. You can feel it in the air. I think creativity is always going to win. When Bollywood ran everything in music, it was because music was only in certain channels. Now the internet has made everything available and technology has meant that anyone can record songs so there’s more opportunity, more options and hip-hop is the voice of the youth so now it’s like the kids are speaking and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. It is the best time.

My dream is to hear Hindi on the radio in America. It is possible, it’ll just gonna take some time. For that, we need an Indian superstar to crossover. When that happens, it makes India relatable and understandable to people in the West. I feel like I am working in some ways because I speak to the people in the West and the East. If I can succeed, so can others and if we all together push, we can have an Indian superstar in American mindsets and that will change everything. 

 

There are more voices now than ever before in the hip-hop space. Is it now more difficult to rise above the noise and have your work get attention as an artist?

I think that question would matter if you are constantly comparing yourself with others. If you are only focused on your path, whatever anyone else is doing doesn’t matter. As long as you stay authentic, you will always cut through because there is only one voice like that.  

I think I’m always a million miles ahead of myself. I am on chapter 7 and we are playing out chapter 3 right now so I am not worried. I have plans, visually and on stage. I want to do more. I had 16 music videos in 4 and a half years and all of them showed you how I dress and my attitude and this is the first video to tell you how I feel and think and see the world. 

Singer Sona Mohapatra has talked a lot about how calling out the sexism in the industry has really impacted her career and the opportunities she’s gotten. Is that something you’re ever wary of?

Oh that is true, I say that all the time. I get up on the stage at the festival and say ‘I can’t believe I am the only female on this entire platform’. This must change. I say that on MTV Hustle all day. I tell the female contestants ‘no matter how good you are, you have to be better than the boys. You have to sing better, you have ton rap better, you have to do more, you have to be a fashion killer, while these guys don’t have to do shit. They may not even shower and just pull up but you have to keep it together’. I mean it is what it is. 

Raja Kumari: If I Can Inspire Some Kids To Learn Bharatanatyam Instead Of Jazz, I Have Done My Job

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