“Some legends are told, some turn to dust or to gold, but you will remember me, remember me for centuries.” These lyrics from the American alternative rock band Fall Out’s 2014 song, “Centuries,” perfectly sum up the personality of singer-songwriter Svetha Rao, aka Raja Kumari. The Indian American musician, known for blending Indian classical music with hip-hop influences, not only co-wrote this hit number, but is also known for penning hits for pop’s biggest players like Iggy Azalea, Gwen Stefani and Fifth Harmony. The artist, who is collaborating with music business bigwigs like Timbaland and Tricky Stewart, received this year’s BMI Pop Award May 10 for “Centuries.”
So far, her stardom has been celebrated behind the scenes, but with “Mute,” her debut single featuring Elvis Brown, which is already garnering rave reviews, Raja Kumari has embarked on a new chapter of her dynamic musical career. Her album “The Come Up” is coming soon.
“I am really lucky to have success in my songwriting career,” Raja Kumari told India-West. “Each release is taking me forward, pushing me into a territory where a lot of Indian people have never been. ‘Come Up’ for me means being on the precipice of everything you desire and just manifesting success through positive reinforcements and thoughts.”
Raja Kumari is no stranger to fame and performing to packed houses. A love for Indian art and culture was sown early in her. Her debut Bharatanatyam performance on stage was at the age of seven, at a concert where Pandit Ravi Shankar was the chief guest. As a trained Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi dancer, she toured India as a child performing classical dances, raising $80,000 for various charitable causes. After performing for several years, Raja Kumari realized that through these classical dances she wasn’t able to share her music and heritage with the world. She wanted to take it to a new platform where more people could experience it, and that tipping point came for her at the age of 14.
“I realized that Indian classical dance didn’t really have a huge platform in America,” she told India-West. “Around that age I was listening to a lot of American pop music. We would go and do these charities, but we couldn’t do the whole goal and, so, the idea came in my mind that these American pop stars, these people that I am obsessed with watching and thinking, and I thought if I was on that platform and if I could say one thing about India or the classical dance, then so many more people would see it.”
After she set her eyes on being a part of the pop world, Raja Kumari started working towards it rigorously. In 2012, she signed a publishing contract with Pulse Records – a boutique publishing company — and became a professional songwriter.
“I started to write every day,” she explained. “These songs would get pitched to different artists and they would buy the songs and go on to record and release them.”
The first song she penned was for Iggy Azealia called “Change your Life,” which was later nominated for a Grammy Award. With “Centuries,” which reached No. 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, she scored her first platinum record. It also became the theme song for ESPN college football commercials.
She wrote six songs on the new Gwen Stefani album, “This Is What the Truth Feels Like,” which debuted number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
“Gwen Stefani is such an icon that working with her gave me so much insight and inspiration for my own project,” she shared with India-West.
Last June, L.A. Reid, chairman and CEO of Epic Records, who helped launch/reignite careers of superstars such as Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey, signed her.
“He flew me to New York, where I sang two songs for him in a room full of 40 people, and he offered me a record deal before I even left the building,” she recalled. “Everybody is interested in Indian culture and you can see that, with the Coldplay video, Selena Gomez videos, Iggy Azalea... All these people going to India, dressing in Indian clothes, just putting on these ideas of what it is to be an Indian, but there is no Indian people necessarily expressing that.”
Raja Kumari, who believes that it is “weird to have appropriation without representation,” knows the opportunity is huge, something that she doesn’t take lightly.
“I am really excited to put this music out and demonstrating the power of the Indian community to the label,” she noted. “I want to be the bridge between Bollywood and Hollywood.”
Her penchant for embracing her identity begins with her name.
“I use the Indian things in my videos for education. It’s not just a sticker or a fashion statement. It is a cultural expression. And I think that culture should be shared. But when you wear it you should know what it is,” she stressed.
The young musician also wants to lower the barrier to entry for other Indian artists.
“I call my music Bollyhood. I believe that many more people will make this type of music and if LA Reid helps me and opens a very large door, I see many Indian people coming through it in the future,” she told India-West. “My goal is to contribute to the culture and be someone that can push it forward.”
Born into a Telugu Brahmin family of doctors, Raja Kumari said she was never held back from pursuing her dreams. In college, she studied Indian dance, comparative religion and ancient Indian mythology. After graduation the plan was to continue studies in religion.
“My dad told me you can be a professor when you are 40 years old but you don’t want to waste your youth, if you want to do music. You should do it now,” she said.
A die-hard fan of the music of Lauryn Hill and A.R. Rahman, Raja Kumari seeks to break the Indian music stereotypes by fusing two traditionally disparate music styles to create a new musical category.
“I have had the privilege of having A.R. Rahman as a mentor for the last year and a half,” she said. “Just to have someone like him as a mentor and be a part of my project, that’s like literally a dream.”
Not only did the Mozart of Madras share his keyboard piano with her, he also applauded her for fusing the two genres.
“He encouraged me to explore that, to be unafraid. I want people to get more than just ‘Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai,’” she said.
With a goal to “bring all the magical amazing things that happen in Indian culture and Indian movies and make them more mainstream here,” Raja Kumari has certainly set the ball rolling, and the only way is forward.
“We are doctors and scientists here… we run this country and it’s time we play a role in mainstream entertainment,” she said.
Watch the music video for Raja Kumari's debut single "Mute":