In her new single, “N.R.I,” Indian American rapper Raja Kumari explores an identity crisis many like her can relate to. “N.R.I.” offers a look into her upbringing, highlighting the duality of her exposure to two different cultures and the irony of being made to feel alien in both.
The first track of her highly anticipated EP, “The Bridge,” due this summer, is also the debut track from the recently-launched label, Mass Appeal India. “The Bridge” is about symbolizing bridging the east and the west, the ancient and the modern, and connecting us from the old world to the new. Launched in August 2019, Mass Appeal India is a partnership between rapper Nas’ urban culture-focused entertainment company and Universal Music India, a division of Universal Music Group.
Produced by producer and songwriter, Rob Knox, and co-written by Grammy Award winning recording artist, Sirah; “N.R.I.” was penned in Los Angeles, with the video shot in India right before the country declared a national lockdown, to fight the ongoing global pandemic.
Not short of a sarcastic pun, the track interlaces hard-hitting mentions like — “sorry that my sari ain’t Indian enough and America don’t love me cuz I’m Indian as f**k, bindi on your third eye but your third eye closed, too brown for the label too privileged for the co-sign.”
Kumari says the single “stems from the duality of being from two different cultures, while being told you don’t quite belong in either of them.” According to her, the term NRI stands for non-resident of India and “is used as a derogatory term for ‘not really Indian’ for people born outside of India, in the diaspora.
“In America, I was asked to leave behind my culture and assimilate, and in India, I was told I didn’t belong to my culture because I wasn’t born here. I decided to re-claim this term and make it my own,” she says. “I knew ‘N.R.I.’ would never be complete without both sides — my American and Indian story.”
A few weeks after releasing “N.R.I.,” Kumari collaborated with American EDM band Krewella and Australian DJ duo NERVO on a female empowerment anthem titled “Goddess.” She told The Times of India that she “wanted to create a song that reminded females of the warriors within themselves, and to embrace their inner goddess.” She continued: “The song was created as a song I needed for myself, that I’m grateful other women can relate to. It’s a battle anthem to remind people to embrace their goddess within.”
Kumari, whose real name is Svetha Rao, was born in California to Indian parents who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. Variety says Kumari is on a “mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing, with music that “fuses the rhythms she absorbed as a trained classical Indian dancer with her love for hip-hop.”
Kumari debuted in 2016 with “The Come Up” EP and has released several singles, along with last year’s “Bloodline” EP on Epic Records last year, on which she worked with veteran producers Sean Garrett and Danja. She has also collaborated or co-written songs with Iggy Azalea, Fall Out Boy, Fifth Harmony and Gwen Stefani.
Kumari, who holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies with an emphasis on South Asian religions, has also been an Indian classical dancer since age 7.
She also contributes to several philanthropic activities through her performances and has helped in the creation of a hospital in Bengaluru and a meditation hall in South India for the Vegesna Foundation, a school for physically disabled children.
Last year, Kumari faced backlash for her single “Roots,” for emphasizing Brahmin superiority and promoting casteism. A collaboration with Mumbai rapper Divine — aka Vivian Fernandes — did not sit well with listeners, several of whom protested online. The line they objected to: “Untouchable with the Brahmin flow.”
Kumari’s talents extend beyond the studio, having recently co-starred in Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy.” She also is the host and curator of her own Apple Music Beats 1 show, “The New India,” where she spotlights some of India’s brightest new talents. She is a series judge and mentor on “MTV Hustle”, India’s first rap-reality show, which debuted in August 2019, and will return once again reprise her role as a judge and mentor on the panel when the show airs later this year.