There’s a fine line between assimilation and erasure, and it’s one that Raja Kumari has been aware of her entire life.
The Indian-American rapper has spent her career pushing back against outside forces that want her to slot in neatly with pre-existing conditions in the U.S., hand she’s had to fight for every inch of the culture that she injects into her music, up to and including her own name.
“My name was too hard for people to say. So they wanted me to change the spelling of the name. I was like ‘I’m not going to butcher my name because you can’t say it,” she said.
That experience made her realize that if she was going to make it as a musician in America while holding on to her own heritage, she was going to need to force the issue.
“I had to go make a place for me,” she said.
And that’s exactly what Kumari did. The rapper — who grew up learning classical Indian dance and listening to its musical counterpart in her home — decided to blend the sounds and scales of her parent’s home with the sounds of her home country.
“Classical Indian music, the way I understand it, is very rhythmic. I understood early that these rhythms move the same way that hip hop does,” she said. “I took [those sounds] and said ‘What if I make it a traditional American song?”
As for what constitutes a traditional American song, that’s something that Raja had to figure out on her own.
“A lot of music you learn from your parents, like The Beatles. I had to learn that on my own. My parents listened to Classical Indian,” she said.