Hit Songwriter Raja Kumari Is Becoming an Artist on Her Own Terms: My Label 'Didn't Know What Box to Put' Me In

Kawai Matthews
Raja Kumari

Her new single "I Did It" is out now

For over a decade, Raja Kumari has been quietly making the rounds in the music industry. After penning records for the likes of Iggy Azalea, Fall Out Boy, Fifth Harmony, and Gwen Stefani -- not to mention working alongside heavyweight producers such as Timbaland, Polow Da Don, and J.R. Rotem -- the Indian-American singer (born Svetha Rao) is now returning to her roots, both musically and culturally. “I Did It,” her fiery new single out on Epic Records, draws inspiration from the California native's extensive Indian classical training and her love for hip-hop. “I see myself as the bridge between East and West,” she explains. Below, she tells Billboard about breaking into songwriting, finding her voice in India, and how she's staying true to herself as she navigates the major-label system.

As Indian-Americans, we’re often pressured by family and the community into specific trajectories -- namely, becoming doctors or engineers. How did you get into the arts?
Growing up, I was really lucky because my parents were connoisseurs of the arts. They gave me the opportunity to learn Indian classical dance from a guru in India -- from the source. I think that’s been such a theme in my life: how to be from the source and understand my roots and where I came from. Classical training was the majority of my day. I used to dance six hours a day in the third grade. We toured India when I was 10 years old. Life was about presenting the art. In my family, we felt that I was given a gift, and I had to share it. 

Growing up, how did you balance being both Indian and American?
I always say, "culture first," because culture is what kept me alive growing up in America. Being between two cultures and not knowing if I should abandon one for the other. Being so in love with the art, I was never able to let it go. That made me create a new space for myself where I could be both. I was never all the way Indian  We grew up here. I listened to Wu-Tang and Fugees and 2Pac, all the music that raised me here. I couldn’t forget that. Making hip-hop was the only way to express this diasporic experience.

You’ve mentioned that Indian classical training helped you understand hip-hop mathematically.
Everything in Indian classical music and dance is about rhythms and how they connect -- how you can change the mood based on changing the different taals [beats]. When I got introduced to hip-hop, I was really immersing myself in the Fugees’ The Score. That album taught me everything. I was trained to understand it because I had already learned all these rhythms. There was no difference between the rhythmic expressions of someone doing a taal that goes with Khattak [a style of dance] or with the tabla or someone translating that into English.

How did you get into songwriting?
I was writing with a friend of mine who recently got published. Her publisher liked the songs I was attached to and reached out to see who I was. That was Katie Vinten at Warner/Chappell. I credit her with discovering me without ever hearing my voice or seeing me. She put me in other sessions and took me over to Pulse Recordings. At the time, it was a small boutique company with 12 writers. I thought, “Wow. This is a place I can really grow.” Pulse put me in the studio every day for two years. And I did that, just planting the seed and taking every opportunity. I said I wanted to travel with the music. They sent me to Jamaica, Denmark, Sweden. Every song that has captivated me as a child, I have now met that person or been in the studio where it was recorded. 

Your first big placement was Iggy Azalea’s “Change Your Life.”
Yeah. That was her first big record too. She hadn’t signed to Def Jam until she got that record. I wrote it with Nasri, who is the lead singer of Magic!. [Iggy’s team] ended up leaving my demo [vocals] on the song. It was crazy. It was still me. It was still my voice. I [thought], "If my voice is good enough to play, maybe I should push myself and get it out there."

When you signed your deal with Epic Records in 2015, the label actually asked you to go to India to establish yourself there first. Did they want to position you as an “Indian artist”?
They didn’t know what box to put it in. Instinctively, I relate to hip-hop. I don’t like a song if it doesn’t have bass. If the 808 doesn’t knock, I don’t care. That’s the kind of music I like. Just because I wrote a certain type of song for Christina Aguilera or to get to Demi Lovato doesn’t mean I wanted to be that kind of artist. That was a struggle we went through. Luckily, I’ve always been clear with who I am, and I had to show them. That was the whole experience of me going to India and really showing what I had in my mind. What does it look like? What does it sound like? That’s what India gave me. 

How so?
It’s the place where I didn’t have to answer the questions, “Oh you’re Indian? What’s the dot on your head?” All these things. In India, it was just about putting the music out there. If I’m on stage and I have a song called “Meera,” I don’t have to explain the reference that she was a princess who gave up everything to write songs about Krishna. They could understand the nuances of what I was doing. That gave me so much support. 
 
How does it feel to break out on your own terms now?
It’s like manifestation finally unveiling itself. A lot of times, I wondered why I had to do certain things, why I had to go to India. But I did it very carefully. I built a foundation on authenticity. I built it on something strong. Now that it’s time to release a song like “I Did It,” it’s tailor-made to impact the world. As an artist, I’m always looking for how to be the bridge between the East and West. When I wrote the song, I felt that we had accomplished that. It was meant to be heard everywhere.