To be a great leader, you must be fearless and courageous — two attributes Raja Kumari clearly embodies. The Indian-American recording artist is paving the way for all aspiring young women to chase their dreams by any means necessary through not just music, but in life.
With absolutely no problem announcing herself as the self-proclaimed queen of Hindustan, the singer, songwriter and rapper blends the two worlds she resides in: India and America. While there are many bicultural individuals in the world, she describes herself as a “strong badass” with an ability to represent her people in the most positive way.
Trending All Day caught up with Raja Kumari ahead of her opening set at The Troubadour for MNEK, as she tore down the stage with her hit single “Shook.”
How would you describe your sound?
It’s hip-hop with an Indian fusion. It’s definitely very 808 bass heavy, I’m obsessed with really heavy bass. Need it, can’t live my life without it. I just try to address some of the things I deal with as a first generation American. Coming from an immigrant family and making sense of the two cultures, both fit within my music.
I can relate, my parents are traditional Asian parents. How do they feel about your music career?
They’re about to walk in right now! They weren’t always the happiest with the idea of me not doing the family business, which is basically medicine. They hoped I would’ve went that way but my father really decided if we’re going to be born in America, we’re going to be raised like Americans — and Americans can really go for their dreams. It’s not about what they want, it’s more what makes me happy. I’m super lucky to have supportive parents. There’s definitely been moments where they asked me “are you done yet? Ready to go to medical school?” I’m like “no, I’m gonna get signed to a major label and tour the world.”
And look what happened! Did you go to school?
Yeah, I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Comparative Religious Studies. I wanted to study something interesting to me, I was always obsessed with Indian history and culture. Studying religion, I was like “okay now I can figure out people and what they believe in, then maybe I can write lyrics that are more universal.” It ended up playing a big role in influencing my lyrics. ‘Cause I wrote a song named “KARMA” and say all this insane shit, but it comes from spending 4 years thinking about philosophy.
I was a philosophy major.
So you know. Philosophy was fun. [laughs]
Talk about transitioning from songwriting to your own artistry.
First, it taught me the craft. It really helped me become confident as a songwriter to learn what sells records and what works. There are so many different things you can do to make the human mind remember. When I went to Sweden and Denmark for writing camps, I learned all these things and applied them. I figured out I’d always try to sneak my Indian culture into everything. I started writing these really crazy songs. They’d be like “wow this song’s amazing, but who’s gonna sing it?” Right before I put out “The Come Up,” I just got to this space where I didn’t want to be a surrogate mother anymore. I wanted to actually keep my babies.
That’s an excellent metaphor.
Obviously I was really happy and proud, but it was my time. “It comes to the point where people are just going to explode if they don’t do it.” I had so much in me, I was just ready. Maybe if there was an Indian American artist, I wouldn’t have felt like that. There was so much to say for my people and no one to represent us. I looked around at what was going on or who was getting shots as artists, they didn’t know as much as I did. They weren’t worthy to represent us like I was. There was this burning desire to not allow someone who didn’t spend their whole life studying Indian classical dance or Indian religion. Going to India, I wanted to make sure I was representing us, not someone who was dying their hair blond and changing their name. I was like “this isn’t going to work for me.”
You remind me of M.I.A a little bit.
That’s dope. She really opened the doors for a lot of people to understand me. She came through about 10 years before me, so I’m sure in 10 years I’ll open the door for someone who reminds you of Raja Kumari. [chuckles]
Can you talk about penning for Fall Out Boy?
That was fun because we didn’t expect that to happen. Other songwriting sessions, I’d walk in the room like “today, we’re gonna write Gwen Stefani a song.” I’m prepared for it. Justin Tranter who’s an incredible songwriter, myself, and JR Rotem were writing a lot together, that was my little squad. We had done a 3-day session, wrote all these songs. The last day, Justin came in the room with this idea that had the word “centuries.” I loved it and the melody just came out of my face. We wrote the chorus in 15 minutes. It was really this idea for Rihanna and Jay Z, like “ah so epic, Rihanna’s going to do this.”
My publisher played it for FOB’s management the next day, and they heard themselves in it. It’s so rewarding as a songwriter because you can’t limit where a song’s gonna go. You can’t predict it. Writing something with the idea of Rihanna singing it then having a band as powerful as Fall Out Boy, who really weren’t planning on making an album at that time. (They made it their song 100%, just the concept and melodies came from us). So crazy because they took that song all over the world in such a real huge way. It became such a sports anthem that I was so privileged to be a part of.
I got to hear it everywhere. During my pedicure, it’d start playing. I’d be like “I’ll take that paraffin, that extra callus remover. Go ahead and get me that.” It took me places before my music went there. Gwen’s album debuted #1, and Fall Out Boy’s also. They were my first Platinum record and Top 10 in the US. It taught me a lot about what to look forward to.
Talk about your journey with Epic.
It’s been really interesting, but really great. God gives you what you need to shape you into the right “soulja.” In this day and age, there’s no such thing as artist development, but in our own way, I got developed. I have the support from the label. I went out to India and made Sony India and Epic work together, so I was able to release music out there. It’s been so rewarding to put out this new EP Bloodline. I have a really strong team, a really good creative director, so much support from my A&Rs. I got to work with producers on this project who are legitimately on my wishlist — whom they don’t even know, and they put me in there with them. It’s been incredible.
I was on the carousel on Apple Music and on Tidal, they put me on emerging pop. A lot of people wouldn’t think that’s a big deal, but MTV tweeted me yesterday and said “by the way, you should be listening to Raja Kumari.” It’s happening now. Now, the work is going to begin. It’s really incredible to work with a company like Epic that would believe in an Indian girl, who will rock her bindi with her bengals out. The fact that there’s a major label willing to bank on that is exciting for the culture. My people are very proud and very happy.
What is it that you want fans to get from Bloodline?
I want them to feel badass. These songs are my battle anthems, about the strength I found from going home and doing shit on my own. Really developing myself to be the artist that I needed when I was growing up. Listen from a different perspective and enjoy something fusion and different. I hope the music is the bridge from the West to the East and that we can understand each other through it. It’s definitely just the beginning, I have more music. It’s a taste to let you know how crazy I’m going to get.
How was hearing DJ Enuff play “Shook” on New At 2 on Hot 97?
I got to go in and heard myself on terrestrial radio. The funny thing is internet radio is internet radio, but real terrestrial radio sends radio waves, and radio waves go on into the distance for all eternity. My music has been broadcasted to the universe. It’s the first time, now aliens can listen to it. Maybe in a million years, they’ll hear one of my songs and think that’s all we have left.
“Shook” is over 3 million on Youtube. Did you foresee it blowing up like this?
Oh yeah, I see more. 3 million 3 months is good. One million a month, I like it. A lot of people out there need to find out about me. I come from a place with one billion people, so numbers are cute. I’ll feel it when people sing the words back. That’s the true test, when you perform a song and people relate enough they know all the words and sing it.
A lot of people think “you’re Indian, you only have an Indian fanbase.” I was at a show last night in Chicago, there was a white kid and a Spanish kid lip singing the Hindi sections. I was like “omg, this is a cultural revolution.” It was really exciting. I was on the mic: “You know, ‘Despacito’ was the #1 song in the world, I imagine a world where Hindi can be played on the radio in America.” They were all clapping. I was like “you guys are my friends.” It’s part of my goals in life.
What did you do with your first advance?
Bought a lot of Adidas. I went hard. I’d walk in the store and they’d be like “she’s here!”
How important is social media for your career?
It’s really important. I have the ability to present myself in my own way, where I have control over it. I engage with my fans a lot. I actually answer my DMs and check all the posts after a show. I do my best to respond to people and answer questions. Without the social media, people maybe wouldn’t have understood me. When people like a song, they get to dive in and get to know me. I’m very accessible. I love it because I like to communicate with those supporting me.
What’s a normal day in the life? Walk us through.
Oh man. Right now, we’re on tour so it’s not normal. Wake up, go to the airport, land, wish you could have lunch, but have to go straight to makeup. Because it takes 3 hours to get stage ready. [laughs] Chaos. A normal day if i’m in LA: gym, vocal training. Sometimes, I try to do nothing so I can absorb. I’m always people watching ‘cause it inspires my lyrics. Sometimes, I write songs from the perspective of the dude across the street. After this MNEK tour, I’m going to Vienna, then India for a month to tour. I’ll back in April.
What’s your fanbase there compared to here?
Crazy. It’s the future of what’s going to happen here. India is my favorite place because they definitely sing back. If I order dessert, they’ll bring me two. [laughs] “Kumari wants ice cream,” and it’s a whole fucking thing. Everybody will pull up. It’s cute.
3 things you need in the studio>?
Can I say ganja? Sativa, ‘cause that’s true. Indica makes me sleep. My sage. That’s 2 things I burn, that’s funny. I’ve been bringing all my crystals. I used to be in the studio for days on end, but now I just get one. I have to hype up my energy. I have to supercharge, put a crystal on my heart chakra and be like “speak! You only get a day to express yourself.”
Whos the most played artist on your phone?
Right now, I’m listening to Gully Boy soundtrack. I listen to a lot of Indian music right now. I like to listen to the New Music playlist on Apple, check out whatever’s coming out. I listen to a lot of British rap music.
Grime and some of that Afro beat. There’s a guy B Young I really like. The guy that has a goat on his cover, AJ Tracey. I like him, he’s dope. I wanna work with him. Indian culture is really prevalent in the UK, so he would get it. It’d be really fun.
What’s your favorite influencer to follow?
My guilty pleasure is Kim Kardashian. Kylie and Kim, but my favorite influencer is actually my friend Deepica. She’s always so crazy. She runs this thing called Live Tinted, a really beautiful platform for women of color and different cultures. I like all her content. I don’t know about a lot of people ‘cause I don’t have time to research, so I find out about so many incredible people then follow them through her page. I definitely check her page everyday.
She’s having a voice problem so she’ll take you to the doctor, down her ENT, and show you her throat. She’s a fun one to follow if you wanna know everything about her life, literally. One time she had a pimple and had someone inject something into her. She’s like “ah! Oh wait, that didn’t hurt.” I’m like “you are ridiculous.”
What’s an IG account you can’t live without?
Should I tell the truth? No, I can’t. [mutters] Stalking my ex-boyfriend.