Raja Kumari

On crossing bridges through music


Talent: Raja Kumari @therajakumari

Photos: Tejas nerurkar @tejasnerurkarr

Fashion: Meera Godbole @tryagaintoobad

Assistant Stylist: Khushali Chauhan @khushaliichauhan

Makeup: Savleen Manchanda @savleenmanchanda

Hair: Silky Mehta @mehrasilky

Most people, when listening to new releases, rarely consider the artist's intentions behind the music. For them, music solely belongs to the ears. However, every lyric or tune, whether noticed or overlooked, often contains deeper meaning and reflects the artist’s upbringing and life challenges. By this, euphonious music is a façade to an artist’s unique emotion and spirituality. It is this hidden subtext that has the potential to simultaneously attract the soul and mind into a harmony of deep meaning and consideration. Metaphorically, music is a starry night, a vast canvas of meaning and wonder that’s often reduced to the backdrop. To Raja Kumari, Indian-American rapper and songwriter, music is not just words to a tune. It is her method of expressing the challenge of her unique cultural upbringing in an otherwise homogenous society, where she learned to navigate the intricate intersections of tradition and innovation, all while forging her path and identity as an artist and dancer.

Kumari’s newest album, The Bridge, explores the metaphysical bridge she crosses culturally, religiously, and characteristically. The album is unique among her works in that it is a “pandemic baby” and was recorded and produced within Kumari’s home studios in Los Angeles, Big Bear, and India. Having left Mass Appeal Records in May 2022 to form her own record label company, Godmother Records, The Bridge was her first solo project as she ventured into a new realm of artistic development while also giving other female artists the same opportunities. Outside of The Bridge, Kumari is known for songs such as “Juice” and “Made in India.”

Describing The Bridge as simply Kumari’s newest accomplishment would discredit the album’s vast framework describing Kumari’s identity, femininity, and progress as an Indian-American rapper and individual.

Recently, Kumari sat down with Timid to discuss her ongoing journey of growth and self-love through the art of music.

Timid Magazine: How does your upbringing influence your music, particularly your movement toward rap?

Raja Kumari: Being first-generation [and] American-born, my parents came with this time capsule of their idea of Indian culture, and that truly influenced me in a lot of ways because inside my home it was like India, and outside it was America. In the home, we were eating only Indian food [and were] watching Telugu films. I had a very unique upbringing [in] the fact that I studied Indian classical dance at a very high level, very young in my life. So [at] seven years old, I [made] my debut and I would go on between seven and 17—my first career, as I always call it. My mom had wanted to learn dance and couldn’t afford it when she was growing up in India. So obviously, when [my parents] made it, they ended up bringing the same teacher my mom couldn't afford to work with and [the teacher] ended up living in my house, teaching me.  Because of that unique kind of involvement with classical culture, my mind was really fascinated with it. In the same way that some kids were watching My Little Pony and Superman and Batman, I was very fascinated with the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are stories of ancient kings and wars, and a lot of philosophy was involved. My mind was very much in this ancient land, so when it came time to make music, there was this rejection of this idea that I didn't feel like I fit in America because I didn't really see anything [or] anyone like me. When I started to make music, I wanted to make a superhero character to defend my inner child.

TM: So your new album, The Bridge is an amazing accomplishment for you and Godmother Records. How would you describe the accumulation of your career experiences that have influenced this album?

RK: I was told that Indian girls don't rap. And I was like, “Yes, we do.” I'm here and I'm telling you, we do. Let me go to India and let me show you what's happening there. The second [album I made], which was [released] in 2018, comes at the end of my being in India for about a year and a half. So that second album which has “Karma” and “Shook” was about defending what is yours and being on this very hypermasculine side. I was fighting patriarchy at such an intense level in India, where it was like I was rewriting people's ideas of women. The only reason I stepped through was because I came from America with the Grammy nomination, otherwise they were gonna treat me like they're treating everyone around me. But I was changing it for the women around me. I was taking opportunities and making all-female rap ciphers and making videos because no one was giving the girls any chances. So that second album was really in this masculine state. Then we get to the pandemic. The pandemic came at a time when I needed to stop and slow down, observe, think, and realize that I'm not somebody who's just here to dance and sing. Basically, this huge journey happened [was] about balance.

TM: When you were preparing The Bridge, was there hesitation and doubt? How do you think those doubts might have played into the way that you produced this album?

RK: I just took this enormous leap and told [Mass Appeal Records Founder] Nas [that] I don't know if everybody on the team has the vision that I have for myself and I think that it's best that I go on my own. He was like, “I think you're a superstar, and I know you're gonna make it, and I wish you the best of luck,” and for me, that was a very empowering moment. It was [also] horribly frightening. I [was] so scared to leave the major label system. I have 10 years of experience in the industry, and I have done every job from janitor to executive to everything. So [I decided to] use that experience to try to create a safe space for other female artists in India where they really need the help. They don't have to be in their hypermasculine state to get a chance. I created Godmother [Records] and I'm Godmother’s first artist, so I'm an artist developing myself right now. It’s been a journey.

TM: The album’s first song was “Born to Win” and it ends with “Fearless.” Between those two, what are some of the central messages that you're trying to express?

RK: “Born to Win” was one of the first songs that I did on the project. It was me reminding myself that my destiny was still my destiny, even if we would never get a festival stage again. My strength was in how much crowd I could pull, and then all of a sudden crowds were illegal [during COVID]. It made me restart my vision of myself. The one thing that I knew was that God called me to do this and that when I'm making music, I am fully in the right vibration [and] in the right path. “Born to Win” was to remind me that I was born to win. I cannot lose. So even though the world looks like it's burning outside, you just keep going on your path. You keep making the music. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you keep inspiring whoever you're supposed to inspire. “Fearless” was written [while] I was visualizing being on stage and at that time, that would have been impossible. We weren't even allowed to gather more than five people. Right before I got to the place I wanted to go, it blew up [and] it disappeared. But, “Fearless” was just about [how] no one can take it away. Brick by brick. I built it. Sometimes [it’ll feel like] I write music from my highest self, in my current self, and it's a manifestation for the future.

TM: What do you hope your listeners take away from listening to this whole album?

RK: That the album is a journey in itself. It starts in a place of fear, like “Babylon” when all you see outside [are] the negatives and you have to remind yourself that you're “Born to Win.” “No Nazar” was written as a protection spell. Then “Juice” was the turning point for me because during the pandemic, I really found my sacred feminine side. It's about loving myself and I think that that was huge. I started therapy for the first time and therapy is a very taboo kind of thing in South Asian culture… Through that experience, I realized I wasn't enjoying anything. I was suffering from my art and not enjoying the other side of it. So “Juice” is the marking of me kind of getting into my feminine and being like, “You know what, I am beautiful and I love myself.” I face a lot of body shaming, not only from the role but within my culture. [Body shaming] was something that was so pervasive and so much part of my inner dialogue that “Juice” was going against that.

TM: What does going on tour with the album mean to you?

RK: Homecoming. When I made this dream it was because I wanted to see my culture in the mainstream in America so other 12-year-old girls can look up and see someone like them. I know that a lot of people say that, but there obviously was a need for it because all of us feel that way. Taking the tour from my ancestral homeland—basically, the city my parents are from, [the tour] goes through 15 cities. It goes through India, comes through North America, and ends in Los Angeles where I was born. It's just so representative of my journey. I'm so happy that this is what people are going to see as their first time seeing me live. I'm just looking forward to meeting more first-generation kids who were born here who can relate to this duality of identity.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.