Songwriter/rapper Raja Kumari is headed to Houston this month with an exclusive blend of classic Indian tradition and western hip hop.
The answer? Economics.
“I had to leave America to get the music off the ground,” Kumari told me in a recent phone interview. “To prove there’s a demand for it. And now I’m back two years later, my own headlining tour. I’m so excited to be home in America and have that opportunity.”
The US is her homeland, and India the motherland. Her California origins are steeped in a background of classical Indian dance and traditions. She’s not the first person to blend culture, but her lyrics, beats and (definitely) fashion are breaking all kinds of new ground.
Burn through her music videos and you’ll be bombarded with proof. Her video for “Shook” is the most recent example.
She’s got an injection of Bollywood-level choreography dialed to 11, mixed with hip hop style that you can only get by being raised on a diet of MTV.
It’s a difficult combo to pull off, given the US music industry demands the impossible: Be uniquely mainstream. Stand out by fitting into norms. Include culture; avoid appropriation. Be ethnic, but not TOO ethnic.
“This question of how to be eastern and western hasn’t been answered in music,” Kumari said. “It hasn’t been in the mainstream.”
Kumari said she views her music as a gateway to both Indian culture and American Hip Hop, for anyone in the world. Considering her YouTube comments have fans posting love from South Carolina to Greece, she’s got something there.
And yet there are also haters and critics. Some say her music is too influenced by India to make it in America. Others post online about how she’s appropriating black culture.
“I understand the issue, but you have to allow people to represent themselves. My music is a fusion. It’s a blend,” Kumari said. “I’ve always felt comfortable in the realm of hip hop. For me, as a first generation American, I was obviously inspired by black culture. Growing up watching MTV and seeing Lauren Hill. Method Man. Wu Tang Clan. Nas. Tupac. Missy Elliott. It would be ridiculous to say I wasn’t influenced by black artistry.”
Kumari added that hip hop has spread and evolved over time globally, showing up in Asia not as a malicious form of appropriation, but as a vehicle for youth and the voiceless.
“When you send a message around the world, you can’t control where it goes,” she said. “It will plant itself, and grow.”
Kumari noted that India culture has had its own misguided gatekeepers.
“I don’t feel we’re allowed to show people how beautiful the culture is and then say it’s not for them,” she said. “It’s appropriation when it’s found in the Halloween isle… when it’s part of your Coachella costume.”
But there’s always more support for spreading culture than hate, she added.
“I need that right now,” Kumari said. “I need the energy to take on the tour.”