Divided by cultural tension for years, the East and West have steadily been coming together. One artist building a bridge between the two is the one and only Grammy-nominated rapper-songwriter Raja Kumari. She’s unapologetically fusing her two worlds together and going after the things she’s longed for her whole life. Shaped by traditional Indian dance and culture while simultaneously growing up in America, she is a symphony of hemispheres. Her new EP, Bloodline, recently dropped, and her single “Shook” is steadily climbing to the top. Amongst the chaos of new chapters of her life, she sat down to speak with me about life and cultural mindset.

Between bindis at Coachella or the most recent marriage between Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra, Eastern culture has made its way into the Western world. Unfortunately, many times Eastern cultures become glamorized or misconstrued when going through the hands of American production teams. I asked her how all of this made her feel, and she answers, “I think just the fact Indian culture was seen is beneficial, and now we have to join the conversation and speak for ourselves. That’s the challenge. I’m just happy when Eastern culture is getting some shine in the West because it is for the best.” Starting this conversation can be difficult for many because of the current political climate, but people are often more willing to share their culture than we think.

From my own personal experience of having a college roommate from India, I have learned that while it may be difficult to ask questions, it proves to be an enriching discussion. I have gained wonderful experiences such as trying new food, becoming interested in a wider range of fashion, and attending Diwali festivities on my college campus. Between the vibrant colors and pure energy running through the Eastern culture, Kumari is bringing it all in her music and visuals. She does make specific references to each culture in her music, but at the same time, her lyrics prove to be universal. She explained to me, “A lot of the images I want to put in my music videos are themes I want to share with people. I talk a lot about the third eye, meditation, and being a goddess because I just believe we have a little bit of a god in us. We can manifest that type of energy, so I don’t fear showing myself that type of way.”

It wasn’t always easy to showcase her culture. When she was younger, she would dye her hair lighter or change clothes once out of the house. As time went on and her journey with music continued, she made the decision to bring her culture to the forefront of her work. Now that she’s made that decision for herself, she uses her art and music to bring this confidence to people who also aim to be fearless in their own history. You can really see her confidence building in her previous EP, The Come Up. Now that she has gained what she’s always wanted, she’s turning back around and giving it to her people, but don’t think taking it away from her will be easy. As a battle cry for all that she’s done, Kumari wrote and produced Bloodline. “This one is really the result of the last year where I’ve been traveling the world, living away from my family, and trailblazing in India where no woman has really gone before. All the effort it took gave me this sort of warrior stance. What do you do when you get all these things you prayed to manifest? You protect them.”

Even as I chatted with Kumari over the phone, I could sense a strong feeling of pride, her eagerness to share her experiences of living in America and India. She has built her foundation between two worlds that have acted more as strangers than friends and plans to continue this journey. Her new music is not only a victory song but an invitation for all people across the world to take part in a cultural revolution. There’s no need to be scared of who you are and where you’re from. Raja Kumari would want you to hunker down and take on the world, blazing a trail as you move forward.

Q&A with Raja Kumari

You are the product of two worlds coming together. Even in some of my world art history classes, we talked about this tension between the Western and Eastern worlds. How do you use your music to show people that these worlds can co-exist well together?
I think it’s just by my life. Growing up in America and having parents that came from India, they really instilled a love for art and music in me when I was young. As I was growing up in America and not seeing anyone like me, it made me hold onto my culture really tightly. I spent a lot of time with family in India over the summers so I was able to understand two different worlds. I always looked for a way to make them coexist, and for me, that was music. More specifically, it was hip hop. I got The Fugees album at a really young age, too young, from my brother. I learned a lot about American culture through it. My parents played very classical music so hip hop was how I learned about the world. When I started making music, it was never about rebellion. It was my identity. I was using it to make sense of the two worlds. Living in India the past two years, I was able to understand the life of people who live in India to put into the music. It’s something that has to be constantly upkept. I feel like my music is a stage for both cultures to reside.     

My Indian roommate in college said due to her living in a modern world, little things she did would upset some of the traditionalists of the culture. Have you ever experienced this and how did you deal with it?
I’ve definitely faced it because I’m willing to be more modern about the ancient ideals and some people are going to be more fundamental about things. It’s been brought up, but in general, there’s been a lot of support because I’m willing to put the culture first. In the past as a lot of Indian people have moved up, they’ve tried to hide their Indian culture, but I try to put it upfront. A lot of people react to that, and it’s not just people in India. I get messages from Russia or Brazil, and people tell me they may not understand my culture, but they want to know more. That’s the triumph in it, making it more accessible and introducing people to new ideas.   

What are some ways you think people can bridge the gap between them and other cultures in their daily life? And how can we increase genuine curiosity and education of other cultures?
I think just by exposure. Just the fact that I’m existing in a Western state makes people more interested in it. There’s a big thing that’s been happening lately that I call the Brown Renaissance. It’s not just music. It’s things like Hasan Minhaj having a platform and randomly mentioning Indian people, or it’s like Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra. People got to experience an Indian wedding and see the colors and beauty in it. Slumdog Millionaire came out ten years ago. All of these things have allowed Indian culture to come to the forefront and have visibility. Whenever I was young and told people I was Indian, they asked what tribe. There wasn’t even an understanding of Indian culture. Whatever Christopher Columbus was looking for, he was looking for us. Now in America, things like yoga are part of everyday life. Making this music available to people is just part of the process of exposing people to the culture. Things like yoga and meditation that originated from the East are things that are beneficial to all humans. I can make people more familiar with Eastern ideals to benefit as a giant family.

Women, especially in the entertainment industry, are often sexualized. I’ve spoken to my female friends of color and several of them have faced a sort of fetishization from males simply for being of a different skin color. Has this happened to you? If so, how do you combat it?
As women, we all encounter it. I just focus on my art. In my lyrics, there’s nothing about touching my body or anything like that. That’s why it doesn’t visualize in my songs, because I’ve made a conscious effort not to do that. I definitely know you can be exoticized or fetishized, but I have yet to experience that. In India, they are actually more fascinated with me being American. I know it will come, and I just have to counteract it by being authentic. I don’t wear my culture as a costume. I wear it because it’s pretty and what I love. I don’t wear the jewelry because I think it’ll make people understand, I honestly think it’s the prettiest jewelry. When I get dressed, it’s what makes me feel beautiful.  

How do you feel you are using your music to build other women up, no matter what world they are part of?
Even with women like Missy Elliot, she was never overly sexual so I knew there was this road and possibility. I feel like the more I grow and become fearless with talking about my life and living in the US and India, it’ll inspire more people to love where they come from. I’ve seen a lot of Indian girls who were never really introduced to art show their parents my videos, and now they’ve been allowed to take music classes. I also get messages from women who say they are Latina and they may not understand my culture but they’ve become proud of where they’re from. I think having Eastern ideals in the Western world without being apologetic will inspire others to do the same.

When you put work out, do you like to watch reactions or do you tend to sit back for a little bit and let it naturally grow?
I think both. You can’t help it in the beginning. There will be a point where you forget and think to yourself, “Wow, I haven’t looked at the numbers in three weeks.” I get busy moving forward and doing all the things I need to do. I try not to get wrapped up in people’s good or bad comments because I know I need to focus on what I need to do.   

What was your favorite song to work on for the new EP?
There’s a song on there called “Robin Hood.” I think it really has my spirit in it. There’s a lyric that goes something like, “We need some money, money, money on the dot. We already paid the cost. Don’t forget the youth in the slums, yeah. If you know the truth, why dem hungry?” It’s my vibe. In Indian culture, there are different stages of life. First you’re a student, and I feel that’s maybe where The Come Up was. You’re able to change your focus as you move through life, and this one is really about getting the bag. I have all this stuff I want to do for my family, people, and charities I want to support so you have to have a certain attitude. It’s truly about getting the bag, and that song shows why I want to get the bag. I have goals and things I want to change with my art.

Do you think if you hadn’t been a dancer you would have gotten into rapping/writing/producing?
I think dance is what shaped me completely. The classical Indian dance influences everything from the way I rap to the way I dress to the way I view the world. There are tons of Indian classic stories and characters in them, and I often think about how certain characters would react. It definitely shaped me.  

One of the best ways to display aspects of different cultures is through fashion and dress. Your fashion sense is a fusion of the two worlds. So, from either culture, what are some pieces you always have in your closet?
Jewelry from the Indian side is imperative. Even when traveling, I buy jewelry from different places because it carries the story so much better than a t-shirt or magnet. From the American side, I love sneakers. My mom knows I have hundreds of shoes and will ask why I need more. I’m definitely the person to know when a drop is coming.    

What’s your advice for a young person from a mixture of cultures if they are struggling with their identity?
I think it’s about doing what you love and finding things that make you happy. You don’t have to choose one side or the other. You can make something new out of who you are. Just be authentic.

 

STORY ELIZABETH STAFFORD
PHOTOS SASHA SAMSONOVA

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