The ‘Indian Princess’ of Hip-Hop Wants to Introduce You to ‘BollyHood’

Rapper Raja Kumari is using music to challenge misconceptions about her culture.
(Photo: Mike Dravis/Courtesy Raja Kumari)
Nov 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Raja Kumari, a name that means “daughter of the king” in Sanskrit, seems ready-made for the swagger of hip-hop. So it’s no wonder that the Southern California–based singer, songwriter, and rapper isn’t shy about bringing her Indian heritage to her beats and rhymes—and she’s busting stereotypes about her background along the way.

“I come from a really rich culture, and I want to express that,” Raja Kumari told TakePart. “I think every person is multifaceted, and they have different parts of them. I want to show people all different sides and not just one stereotype.”

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Raja Kumari’s musical influences—traditional Indian music as well as Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, and the Wu-Tang Clan—are wide-ranging, which accounts for her distinct sound. On Nov. 17, she’ll release her debut EP, The Come Up. It features traditional Indian percussion instruments, such as the dhol, and the shehnai, a wind instrument.

The 30-year-old artist uses the term “BollyHood” to describe her work, and the word has become a hashtag on social media. “I guess I did something that resonated with everybody. For me, it’s really just a fusion of what I grew up on,” she said.

Raja Kumari was born Svetha Rao in Claremont, California, a college town about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Her immigrant parents had her study classical Indian dance as a child. “It was like India at home and America outside and me trying to figure out how to be both of those people,” Raja Kumari said.

She loved her Indian heritage but also wanted to figure out how to connect it to the outside world. “I realized that music was the perfect medium to express myself and to really make a difference,” she said.

Her songs tend to be about making people feel hopeful about themselves. The accompanying music videos often incorporate Indian cultural imagery in a California setting.

“I would love to see India and the Indian people and culture portrayed in a diverse way,” Raja Kumari said. Coldplay is “one of the greatest bands in the world,” she said, but with its depictions of poverty, the Indian setting of the video for the song “Hymn for the Weekend” was a disappointment for her.

“We all know that there are poor children on the street, we all know Holi exists, and we know that you think there are snake charmers and floating men,” she said. “I’ve seen all these images, and I’d like to see something else.”

Raja Kumari herself has been on the receiving end of criticism, particularly from people who compare her to the Sri Lankan–raised British rapper M.I.A. “You have to read the comments on my videos, like ‘M.I.A. already did this 10 years ago,’ ” she said. “It’s always super funny. I don’t think that every woman that’s blond has to be asked how she feels about another blond white person. You know, it’s like, we are two different artists.”

She said this points to the lack of diversity in music and entertainment at large. “One Spanish person can’t speak for all Spanish people. So I think that I’m just part of a greater movement of South Asian artists, actors, writers, and people that are coming to the forefront, and I just want to do my part,” she said.

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