There’s a fine line between assimilation and erasure, and it’s one that Raja Kumari has been aware of her entire life.
The Indian-American rapper has spent her career pushing back against outside forces that want her to slot in neatly with pre-existing conditions in the U.S., hand she’s had to fight for every inch of the culture that she injects into her music, up to and including her own name.
“My name was too hard for people to say. So they wanted me to change the spelling of the name. I was like ‘I’m not going to butcher my name because you can’t say it,” she said.
That experience made her realize that if she was going to make it as a musician in America while holding on to her own heritage, she was going to need to force the issue.
“I had to go make a place for me,” she said.
And that’s exactly what Kumari did. The rapper — who grew up learning classical Indian dance and listening to its musical counterpart in her home — decided to blend the sounds and scales of her parent’s home with the sounds of her home country.
“Classical Indian music, the way I understand it, is very rhythmic. I understood early that these rhythms move the same way that hip hop does,” she said. “I took [those sounds] and said ‘What if I make it a traditional American song?”
As for what constitutes a traditional American song, that’s something that Raja had to figure out on her own.
“A lot of music you learn from your parents, like The Beatles. I had to learn that on my own. My parents listened to Classical Indian,” she said.
Her gateway to English music came courtesy of another group that were sampling from cultures around the world to make a huge hit in America.
“The first English language album I really dove into was The Fugees. I listened to it, didn’t understand it, but it moved me,” she said. “I learned hip hop through that album.”
Kumari fell hard and fast for American music, but that love came at a cost. Not every artist is as outside-world-oriented as The Fugees and Kumari began to try and hide her culture to be more like the pop stars that she loved.
“I loved Britney Spears, I loved Christina Aguilera. But it was damaging to look around and not see anyone like myself,” she said. “I tried to push my culture aside. I felt that ‘Indian’ didn’t belong with ‘American.’”
Eventually, she parlayed her love of American pop and songwriting talents into a publishing deal. But after several years of writing songs for other artists –including credits on Fall Out Boy’s hit single “Centuries” and Iggy Azeala’s The New Classic –– she saw something that forced her to start making her own music.
“Iggy Azalea did a video called “Bounce.” And she went to India and there was this scene wears she’s wearing a kireedam, which is like the crown that the goddess wears. I’ve worn it in a very religious sense, but to see someone who doesn’t know what that is gyrating on top of an elephant woke me up.”
Since that moment, Kumari has been working on her debut EP and is now working on her debut album at Epic Records with Timbaland. She hopes that the rap songs on offer serve as a bridge between East and West, allowing other Americans to ease into Indian culture.
“I want people to learn more about the culture, to learn about things in their daily life that come from Indian culture. If I can put myself forward in a friendly Eastern face and help the world relate to their Eastern family I would love to do that,” she said.
Most importantly, Kumari wants to be a face for Indian kids like herself who were searching for someone who looked like them in popular culture and finding only caricatures.
“I want to be the artist that I needed as a child.”