Indian-American rapper, singer, songwriter, and dancer Raja Kumari is a force of nature. She’s a fearless, charismatic personality and natural-born storyteller whose mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing. Her music is a sonic bridge between East and West that fuses the rhythms she absorbed as a trained classical Indian dancer with her love for hip-hop. Through singles “Mute,” “City Slums” (featuring Mumbai rapper Divine), “Believe In You,” and her latest “I Did It,” as well as her debut EP, The Come Up (the cover features an image of Kumari with her head draped in both a gold tikka and an American flag), Kumari announces that this is the new face of America. “I want my fans to feel one hundred percent seen and to have a safe space to be themselves,” she says. “Because those were the only desires I had as a child.”
Born Svetha Rao in Claremont, Calif., to Indian parents who emigrated to the U.S. in the ’70s, Kumari was 13 when she had a vision that she calls “a memory of the future.” “I was in my room and I had this image of me standing on a stage,” she recalls. “I couldn’t see myself. I was looking out from my own eyes at a sea of 100,000 people and I could feel their energy. Suddenly I snapped out of it and said out loud, ‘How do I get there?’ My entire career has been about trying to answer that question, ‘How do I become that woman and how do I touch people?’ That became my life’s purpose.” Her answer is music and dance. “I feel like I’m a seed from the motherland that was sent across the world,” she says. “Culture is part of my identity because we, as Indian-Americans who grew up away from India, have to be the vessels of culture. We have to hold on because it’ll be lost within one generation. That’s why it so heavily influences my music and look. It’s not a gimmick to me. It’s an expression of a lifetime of trying to preserve it.”
Kumari set upon her artistic journey at age five when she began learning classical Indian dance, spending seven hours a day practicing with a dance guru who lived with her family for 10 years. Kumari studied several styles and, at age seven, made her debut in front of an audience that included Indian music legend Ravi Shankar, who declared her a child prodigy. By the time she was ten, Kumari was touring the U.S. and India, performing for massive audiences and raising substantial sums of money for charity, including enough to build a meditation hall and a new wing for a hospital in India.
Kumari listened to nothing but classical Indian music until she was nine, but then her older brother gave her a copy of The Fugees’ The Score, and her love for hip-hop was born. “That was the genesis of me as an artist,” she says. “Indian music is based on the mathematics of rhythm, so very quickly, as a little Indian kid who was not using her brain to be scientist, I used it to decipher the mathematics of hip-hop and realized that the rhythms of rap felt similar to the jathis and taals of Carnatic music. Hip-hop felt like a bridge.” Kumari also noted the large platforms that her favorite pop acts, like Britney Spears and *NSYNC, had to reach fans. “I was like, ‘How do I get my dance on that type of stage?’ And I realized that the only people who have stages like that are pop stars.”
At 14, Kumari recorded her first song professionally, started a hip-hop duo with a friend, and adopted her stage name, which means “princess” in Sanskrit. “That’s when I personified this strong, female goddess character called ‘Raja Kumari,’ the daughter of the king, and the king was God. So in my mind, I was the daughter of God.” She began writing her own songs as an act of rebellion. “I felt that everybody was expecting me to continue dancing and, like every other good Indian girl, marry a doctor,” says Kumari, whose father is a radiation oncologist. “I felt this path being set up for me and music became my way of doing something that was just for me.”
Kumari developed her writing skills and spent every day in studio sessions and attending songwriting camps all over the world. As she tried to crack the music industry code, she realized that the artists she looked up to started out as songwriters. “They had to prove they could sell millions of records, so that became my focus, too,” she says. “I put my artist project aside for two years to concentrate on learning.” As she found herself in in rooms with such heavyweights as Timbaland, Polow Da Don, Tricky Stewart, J.R. Rotem, and, at one point, Dr. Dre, Kumari soaked up everything she could about writing and vocal production. Her first placement came in 2012 when a song she co-wrote called “Change Your Life” wound up on Iggy Azalea’s Grammy-nominated album The New Classic. “Suddenly, I had credibility,” Kumari says.
Kumari signed with Pulse Recordings and went on to co-write hit songs for Fall Out Boy (the 4x-Platinum “Centuries,” which earned her a 2015 BMI Pop Award), Fifth Harmony, Twin Shadow, Knife Party, Dirty South, Lindsey Stirling, and Gwen Stefani (Kumari co-wrote six tracks on Stefani’s most recent album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like). Ironically, it was seeing Iggy Azalea wearing a gold kiritam in her “Bounce” video that fueled Kumari’s determination to introduce authentic Indian culture to the masses. “To see my culture being put on as a costume — it woke me up,” she says. “I realized that if I didn’t do it, no one will.” Along the way, Kumari earned a degree in comparative religious studies at the University of California, Riverside.
In 2015, Kumari signed to Epic Records and released her debut single “Mute,” which addressed the challenges she faced when people in the industry advised her to tone down her ethnicity. (In the song’s opening line, she declares: “I had to put ‘em on mute / Thought that the curry was soup / I had to feed these fools / Had to go home and regroup.”) Kumari felt she had hit a roadblock in America and decided to decamp to Mumbai, where she was based for two years.
“I got there and everybody understood me,” says Kumari, who is also signed to Sony Music India. “I didn’t have to explain my bindi. I didn’t have to explain anything, really. People were so open to everything I was doing as an artist. I just wanted to prove that my music is worthy and that there are people who want to hear it. The validation from my people made me no longer crave validation from anyone else. When I walk into a room and someone tells me something can’t happen, I don’t even listen, because I already know what’s possible.”
Kumari wrote her latest single, “I Did It,” about that feeling. “It’s about me taking a leap,” she says. “It’s about how I didn’t do it the way everyone wanted, but I did it with integrity and that can’t be taken away from me. No one can tell me it won’t work, because it is working. I feel that the music is unstoppable now and that’s such a crazy feeling, because even today, my dad will say, ‘You know, you can just go back to medical school.’ They are still waiting for me to take the emergency exit. But I don’t feel like I’m allowed to quit because there are too many people, little girls like me, who don’t see themselves represented in culture, who need it. I didn’t have anybody like me. I feel like I’m becoming the person I needed when I was growing up.”