By Basab Dasgupta
Most of the musicians in India tend to be one-dimensional in the sense that they specialize only in one talent such as singing or playing an instrument. In the western world, the singers typically write their own songs, compose the music, play guitar or drum and perform in a lively manner on stage or in video, often by dancing in addition to singing. From my younger days, I can only name Kishore Kumar who could perform these multiple tasks in the Indian music scene.
In recent years, hip hop and rap singers have extended their musical skills to a broader extent but it is a male-dominated world. I have often asked myself the question “Who is the all-time greatest and most influential female musician of Indian origin?”
I even did a Google search with this question and many names popped up. Once again, almost all of them are singers and a few classical dancers. If singing was the only criterion, Lataji would be virtually an automatic and unanimous choice. She sang in multiple languages and dominated the music scene for more than six decades. She is an inspiration to all girls aspiring to be singers and without a doubt, the best Indian female singer of all time. However, she did not write or compose the music for any of her songs and it is unimaginable to visualize her dancing.
However, recently I found one possible candidate as the answer to my question!
Her name is “Svetha Yallapragada Rao”. She goes by her adopted name “Raja Kumari” (RK) meaning daughter of the king and her mother tongue is Telegu.
I became aware of her music not too long ago. There are some obvious reasons for the lack of her name recognition. First of all, she is not really an Indian but an Indian American who was born and raised in California. Secondly, she is not associated with the Bollywood crowd, not yet anyway. Most importantly, she excels in hip hop music, a genre traditionally not very popular among Indians.
I watched her video for the first time on YouTube a few months ago and immediately got hooked. I want to make it clear that I am not a fan of hip hop or rap music, mainly because the rappers in the USA indulge in obscene lyrics and dress in characteristic “baggy” outfits which I dislike. I do not get any kind of joy watching them or listening to them. I do watch videos of male rappers of India like Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah, and Guru Randhawa. While the tunes and visuals are often catchy, they all dwell on the same old topics of drugs, alcohol, party, and girls and try to capture the viewers’ attention with half-naked women with very sexy figures. RK is different.
She has a commanding voice that can take over everything else in a video and she sings with a lot of energy. If Lata’s voice is sweet like Coca-cola, RK’s voice is definitely an energizing non-alcoholic drink. While she is good-looking with sharp features and a somewhat Rubenesque figure, she is not your hotpot like Katrina Kaif or Nora Fatehi and never displays a scantily-clad body.
Her music is often a clever mixture of rap and classical Indian music, something never heard before. She was reportedly trained in Classical Indian dances like Kathak and Bharatnatyam in her childhood and it shows in her moves. Most importantly, she always focuses on her Indian heritage and proudly describes its different aspects, even her brown identity. It would make any Indian stand-up and cheer for her. Even all of her outfits have both Indian and Western elements, including ornate tiaras, fancy eyeglasses, necklaces, fashionable ornaments on the forehead, and designs with golden threads on silk. She blends them in a stylish way. Finally, she writes or co-writes her songs, puts them to music, and dances to the tunes in videos.
She did not just appear out of the blue. She worked with famous American singers like Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, Fifth Harmony, and Fall Out Boy. She even received a BMI Pop Award in 2016 for songwriting. The fact that she grew up in Claremont within the greater Los Angeles area – one of the hotbeds of rap music, gave her a direct connection with the black musicians. Unlike the rappers in India, she has a genuine understanding of what hip-hop music really is. She is also not hesitant to team up with other rappers such as Divine and Shah Rule. This is an excellent strategy to market her music to a wider audience.
I strongly recommend watching the following RK videos on YouTube: “Meera”, “Firestarter”, “City Slums”, “Bindis and Bangles”, “I did it”, “Shook”, “HBIC” and “Believe in You”, all of which made deep impressions on me. There are, of course, many others. Even the visuals in these videos are unusual and very impressive from an artistic point of view, especially “Meera” and “Bindis and Bangles”. Her image wearing the American flag as a saree in her first video “Mute” says it all about who she is.
It is probably unfair to label her music as hip hop because she brings in all kinds of fascinating twists and turns into the tunes, so different from the usual “Punjabi Vibe” in the music of male rappers. Perhaps we can say that her music is a genre by itself.
She often displays her long black hair around her neck which makes her look like a Hindu Goddess. While one gets glimpses of classical Indian dances in her moves, she can go toe to toe with any female African American rapper, as she has shown in “Shook”.
It seems that she is trying to penetrate into Bollywood. One of her latest music videos, titled “Made in India,” perhaps inspired by but not a copy of a song by Alisha Chinai, with the same title, features the famous and beautiful Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit. I hope that she is embraced by the Bollywood music world and featured in many movies in the future.
She would be a true inspiration and a perfect role model for all young Indian girls because the hip hop beat is already a common global bond among everyone in the younger generations and she emphasizes the positives of being an Indian. She completely avoids nudity or seductive postures. Her line “eye on the crown, no cleavage” in the song “Kaun Hai Tu” makes the point. She exudes self-confidence and female empowerment. Her faith in God and spiritual side come across in many of her videos – something sadly missing in compositions of other rappers.
It is too early to declare her the greatest and most influential female musician of Indian origin, but my conviction is that she will get there in a decade or so. In particular, she should write and sing more songs in Hindi or Hinglish, especially since she sounds so sweet when she sings in Hindi. The throne waits for the daughter of the king to rule the Indian and perhaps even the global music world.
With this text, we now have a new convert to RK music – the editor of this newspaper, now it’s your turn to get hooked!
(Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times